While “Friends” premiered to overnight success in 1994, the sitcom was also rightfully criticized for its glaring lack of diversity. Co-creator Marta Kauffman initially rejected what she deemed “difficult and frustrating” backlash, but has since felt so “embarrassed” that she pledged $4 million to Brandeis University, she told The Los Angeles Times in an interview Wednesday.
Kauffman’s donation will fund an endowed chair in her alma mater’s African and African American studies department, which is one of the oldest in the United States.
“I’ve learned a lot in the last 20 years,” said Kauffman, now 65. “Admitting and accepting guilt is not easy. It’s painful looking at yourself in the mirror. I’m embarrassed that I didn’t know better 25 years ago.”
Kauffman had just turned 38 when “Friends” premiered on NBC on Sept. 22, 1994. Despite setting it in New York City, she and co-creator David Crane had curated an all-white cast of six lead characters who rarely interacted with Black, brown, or Asian people.
Nonetheless, “Friends” drew an audience of 16.9 million viewers by the end of season one, according to Screen Rant.
Kauffman felt her newfound phenomenon was being singled out amidst a deluge of other all-white sitcoms at the time. However, the 2020 murder of George Floyd and the ensuing protests made Kauffman reevaluate her place in America’s framework of systemic racism.
“It took me a long time to begin to understand how I internalized systemic racism,” she 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.”
Despite the show’s 10-year run coming to a close in 2004, “Friends” remained a cornerstone of American sitcom culture. Thanks to syndication and streaming, it also curated a global audience which the cast and crew celebrated during last year’s Netflix special, “Friends: The Reunion.”
As for the “Marta F. Kauffman ’78 Professorship in African and African American Studies” fund, the university said in a statement that it “will support a distinguished scholar with a concentration in the study of the peoples and cultures of Africa and the African diaspora.”
While Kauffman’s co-creator Kevin Bright has remained firm in his casting choices and said he “would have been insane not to hire those six actors” in question, Kauffman prides herself in reassessing — and has received overwhelmingly positive feedback.
“I’ve gotten nothing but love,” Kauffman told the outlet. “It’s been amazing. 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.”