Friends co-creater apologises for legendary sitcom's lack of diversity

30 June 2022, 12:30 | Updated: 30 June 2022, 12:43

Friends co-creater Marta Kauffman (right) has apologised for the lack of black leads in the legendary sitcom (right, the cast)
Friends co-creater Marta Kauffman (right) has apologised for the lack of black leads in the legendary sitcom (right, the cast). Picture: Alamy

By Lauren Lewis

Friends co-creater Marta Kauffman has apologised for the lack of black leads in the legendary sitcom.

Marta Kauffman, who created the show with David Crane, said she had "learned a lot in the last 20 years" and felt "embarrassed that I didn't know better 25 years ago."

She told the LA Times: "Admitting and accepting guilt is not easy. It's painful looking at yourself in the mirror."

Kauffman, 65, has donated $4million to her alma mater, Brandeis University in Boston, to fund an endowed professorship in the university's African and African American studies department.

Friends has repeatedly been criticised for its lack of diversity as the cast did not welcome its first black actress until 2002, eight years after the first episode aired in 1994.

Aisha Tyler appeared on the show as Dr. Charlie Wheeler, a paleontology professor who ended up dating Ross, but did not appear until season 9 of the 10 season series.

"It took me a long time to begin to understand how I internalised systemic racism," Kauffman said.

"I’ve been working really hard to become an ally, an anti-racist. And this seemed to me to be a way that I could participate in the conversation from a white woman’s perspective."

Aisha Tyler appeared on the show as Dr. Charlie Wheeler, a paleontology professor who ended up dating Ross, but did not appear until season 9 of the 10 season series.
Aisha Tyler appeared on the show as Dr. Charlie Wheeler, a paleontology professor who ended up dating Ross, but did not appear until season 9 of the 10 season series. . Picture: Alamy

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The Marta F. Kauffman ’78 Professorship in African and African American Studies will support a distinguished scholar with a concentration in the study of the peoples and cultures of Africa and the African diaspora, the university said.

The gift will also help the department to recruit more expert scholars and teachers, map long-term academic and research priorities and provide new opportunities for students to engage in interdisciplinary scholarship. 

"This professorship is so meaningful to both our African and African American Studies Department and to the university,” said President Ron Liebowitz.

"It is the first endowed professorship in the program, which means it will ensure the study of African and African American culture, history, and politics for generations of Brandeis students—something more critical than ever.  We are so grateful to Marta for her generosity and vision."

The journey to the apology, however, has been emotional with Kauffman in 2020 admitting that she did not do enough to promote diversity on the show.

Asked during the 2020 ATX TV Festival to reflect on what she "wished she knew" when starting out in television, Kauffman said: 'I wish I knew then what I know today. 

"What makes this truly emotional for me is that I want this connection I didn't have."

The Marta F. Kauffman ’78 Professorship in African and African American Studies will support a distinguished scholar with a concentration in the study of the peoples and cultures of Africa and the African diaspora, Brandeis university said.
The Marta F. Kauffman ’78 Professorship in African and African American Studies will support a distinguished scholar with a concentration in the study of the peoples and cultures of Africa and the African diaspora, Brandeis university said. Picture: Alamy

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Kauffman added: "I deeply, deeply want this connection with the Black community that I didn't have. Because of 'Friends,' I never attained that.

"Sorry, I just wish I knew then what I know now. I would've made very different decisions.

"I mean we've always encouraged people of diversity in our company, but I didn't do enough and now all I can think about is what can I do?"

"What can I do differently? How can I run my show in a new way? And that's something I not only wish I knew when I started showrunning, but I wish I knew all the way up through last year."

It came after David Schwimmer, who played Ross, told the Guardian in 2019 that he had pushed for better diversity on the show with his character dating African American and an Asian American women during the course of the show.

Friends has repeatedly been criticised for its lack of diversity as the cast (pictured) did not welcome its first black actress until 2002, eight years after the first episode aired in 1994.
Friends has repeatedly been criticised for its lack of diversity as the cast (pictured) did not welcome its first black actress until 2002, eight years after the first episode aired in 1994. . Picture: Alamy

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Kauffman, who after Friends worked on US sitcom Grace and Frankie, said she would aim for better diversity in future projects.

She told the LA Times: "I feel I was finally able to make some difference in the conversation,

"I have to say, after agreeing to this and when I stopped sweating, it didn't unburden me, but it lifted me up. But until in my next production I can do it right, it isn't over. 

"I want to make sure from now on in every production I do that I am conscious in hiring people of color and actively pursue young writers of color. I want to know I will act differently from now on. And then I will feel unburdened."

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