“Friends” co-creator Marta Kauffman has apologized for the hit sitcom’s lack of diversity in a new interview and is working towards making amends with a $4 million donation to her alma mater’s African American studies department.
Kauffman, who co-created the show with David Crane, opened up about coming to terms with her internalization of systemic racism in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. She said she began to evaluate her actions after the death of George Floyd, noting that “admitting and accepting guilt is not easy.”
“I’m embarrassed that I didn’t know better 25 years ago,” said Kauffman, who previously dismissed critics who pointed out the show’s lack of diversity.
“It was after what happened to George Floyd that I began to wrestle with my having bought into systemic racism in ways I was never aware of. That was really the moment that I began to examine the ways I had participated. I knew then I needed to course-correct.”
“Friends” aired on NBC from September 1994 to May 2004. While the show has received praise for progressive takes that were “ahead of its time,” the show was led by six white actors throughout 10 seasons.
The most prominent actors of color to appear on the show were Chinese American star Lauren Tom, who played Julie, and African American star Aisha Tyler, who played Charlie Wheeler. Both played Ross Geller’s (David Schwimmer) girlfriend at some point in the series.
Kauffman said she has “learned a lot in the last 20 years.” Her reckoning after Floyd’s death has led her to pledge $4 million to her alma mater, Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, for the establishment of an endowed professorship in its African American studies department.
Officially titled the Marta F. Kauffman ’78 Professorship in African and African American Studies, the professorship will support a distinguished scholar focused on the study of peoples and cultures of Africa and the African diaspora. Additionally, it will assist the department in recruiting more experts, drawing long-term research priorities and providing fresh opportunities for interdisciplinary scholarship.
Kauffman said she has “gotten nothing but love” since the announcement.
“It surprised me to some extent, because I didn’t expect the news to go this wide. I’ve gotten a flood of emails and texts and posts that have been nothing but supportive. I’ve gotten a lot of ‘It’s about time.’ Not in a mean way. It’s just people acknowledging it was long overdue,” Kauffman told the Los Angeles Times.
Kauffman follows “Friends” stars who previously criticized the series themselves. Speaking to The Guardian in 2020, Schwimmer acknowledged the show’s progressive storylines — such as the same-sex relationship of Ross’ ex-wife, Carol Willick (Anita Barone and Jane Sibbett) and Susan Bunch (Jessica Hecht) — but also recognized its lack of diversity.
Lisa Kudrow, who played Phoebe Buffay, said the show would surely not have an all-white cast if it was made in 2020. “To me, [‘Friends’] should be looked at as a time capsule, not for what they did wrong,” she told The Sunday Times.
In an interview with Esquire at the end of Asian American and Pacific Island Heritage Month, Korean American actor and activist Daniel Dae Kim said his kids questioned why the New Yorkers depicted on the classic show, which he called “challenged” in terms of diversity, were all white.
With her donation, Kauffman told the Los Angeles Times that she’s “finally, literally putting my money where my mouth is.” She also vowed to be conscious in hiring people of color for every production she’s involved in.
“I want to know I will act differently from now on. And then I will feel unburdened,” Kauffman said.