Friends Creator To Donate $4 Million To Alma Mater Due To 'Guilt' Over Lack Of Diversity In The Series

Marta Kauffman, who co-created the sitcom "Friends" with David Crane, has spoken out about the lack of diversity on the show, and she hopes to make things right by pledging $4 million to the African and African American studies department at her alma mater, Brandeis University, near Boston.

Last year's "Friends: The Reunion" special brought the show back into the cultural conversation, but reruns and streaming ensured it never completely left. "Friends" originally aired on NBC for 10 seasons from 1994 to 2004, serving as a launchpad for the careers of Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry, and David Schwimmer. Although the show has long since ended, it's remained popular in syndication and on services such as Netflix and HBO Max, the latter of which now holds the exclusive rights to it.

Viewed through the lens of the 2020s, however, "Friends" is a show that has left some commentators arguing it ignores diversity, to the point where every episode might feel like "The One with the White People," splashing around in a fountain to the tune of The Rembrandts' "I'll Be There for You." Despite its setting in a multicultural place like Manhattan, the most substantial role "Friends" held for a Black actor was the character of Charlie, played by Aisha Tyler, the paleontology professor who dated Joey (LeBlanc) and Ross (Schwimmer). But she did not appear until season 9, and she was only featured in nine of the show's 236 episodes.

Speaking to the Los Angeles Times, Kauffman began by saying: 

"I've learned a lot in the last 20 years. 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."

'I knew then I needed to course-correct'

The murder of George Floyd in police custody and summer of nationwide protests that followed in 2020 had an effect on how Marta Kauffman viewed "Friends" and its dearth of diversity in retrospect. The protests also renewed calls for reparations for slavery, an idea that had found its way into shows like HBO's "Watchmen" the year before. This was the climate in which Kauffman started reconsidering the legacy of "Friends" and eventually arrived at her decision to make a donation for an endowed professorship in the African and African American studies department at the Waltham, Massachusetts private university.

"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," she continued. "That was really the moment that I began to examine the ways I had participated. I knew then I needed to course-correct."

Kauffman also touched on why "Friends: The Reunion" did not openly address the diversity issue, feeling it wasn't the right place. She said:

"I don't know how the two were related. And I also don't know how we could have addressed it in that context of that reunion, going into all the things we did wrong. And there were others. ... In this case, I'm finally, literally putting my money where my mouth is."

According to the L.A. Times, the Marta F. Kauffman '78 Professorship in African and African American Studies will, among other things, "support a distinguished scholar with a concentration in the study of the peoples and cultures of Africa and the African diaspora."

All 10 seasons of "Friends" are currently streaming on HBO Max.