“We’re not spring chickens,” Jane Fonda said on a recent spring morning.
Fonda and Lily Tomlin were in Tomlin’s Sherman Oaks office, a cluttered little place strewn with Emmys, Tonys and other awards. Tomlin, 75, was imagining a conversation between hypothetical executives considering casting Fonda, 77, or herself, in a role.
“Oh, Jane Fonda, she was great, but how old is she now?” Tomlin said, in her impersonation. “She’s pushing 80, isn’t she? Well, what does she look like? And what about Tomlin?”
She let out a deep sigh.
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“Oh, Tomlin,” she said, making a sour face. “She’s ornery.”
None of those points dissuaded Netflix from casting the pair, who last appeared together in the seminal 1980 comedy “9 to 5,” in a new half-hour comedy. “Grace and Frankie” has its debut May 8 on the streaming service.
Fonda and Tomlin play the title characters, whose husbands, Robert (Martin Sheen) and Sol (Sam Waterston), deliver a double whammy when they come out as gay and also declare that they’re planning to marry each other. Grace and Frankie have had a long and terrible relationship but are forced to lean on each other.
“Grace and Frankie” is the streaming service’s latest splashy original series. As Netflix’s subscriber base rises and its valuation skyrockets (after the company’s earnings report April 15, it’s now valued at $34 billion), it has unleashed a robust lineup, including “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” “Bloodline” and “Marvel’s Daredevil,” in the past two months alone.
But many of those shows seem at home with a familiar demographic: young people, or at the least, people well under age 70. The youngest of the four leads in “Grace and Frankie” are 74. Fonda, for her part, said she has desperately been trying to do a show exactly like this one for at least two years.
“When women pass 50, in some ways, their lives get better,” Fonda said. “It’s like: Who cares? What do we have to lose to not be brave? We’re not in the marketplace anymore for guys. Our children are grown. So go for it. I wanted to do a series about that.”
(Tomlin chuckled quietly and replied, “I think ‘AbFab’ did that already.”)
Appealing to boomers
The idea appealed to the show’s creators, Marta Kauffman, a creator of “Friends,” and Howard J. Morris. “We felt an urgency about the subject matter,” Morris said. “We felt nobody’s doing this, and yet this population is aging rapidly, all the baby boomers. This is the time to hit this show.”
He said ABC and HBO both wanted “Grace and Frankie,” too, but Netflix promised what they’ve been known throughout the industry for offering: to get the show up and running immediately, without a pilot.
“Let’s be honest, we’re dealing with a show that has actors who are over 70,” Kauffman said. “We can’t have it in development for two years.”
Kauffman and Morris created the show just for them. Fonda’s Grace is an uptight 70-year-old former beauty product executive who has rocky relationships with nearly everyone in her life. Tomlin’s character is a free-spirited hippie who offers painting lessons to ex-cons and dabbles in peyote and pot.
“Grace is very judgmental, and everything about Frankie rubs me the wrong,” Fonda said. “She smells.”
“I don’t smell!” Tomlin replied. “That’s one thing I wanted to discuss with you.”
Storylines on the show include bad hearing, a broken hip and other ailments. Grace and Frankie can be bawdy, and both women, taking a page out of the Betty White playbook, discuss vaginal dryness, clitoral stimulation and making lubricant out of yams.
A ‘warm, happy’ show
In an era when comedies like “Broad City” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” unreel jokes at a machine gun clip, there’s a slower pacing at work here. Kauffman and Morris both come from network television, though Kauffman said she doesn’t think of the show as “’Friends’ with gray hair and sagging breasts.”
“I wanted the show to be warm, and that’s something that ‘Friends’ had,” she said. “As good as ‘Girls’ and ‘Transparent’ and all those shows are, there’s a chill to them. They are not centered in a warm, happy, loving place.”
The show’s creators think that will be appealing to boomers who grew up watching a certain type of television.
“Whether it’s on a screen or a computer, it’s coming into my home, and I’m watching it in my pajamas or naked or when I’m folding towels,” Kauffman said. “TV is really intimate. In comedies, I don’t like to bring in characters that I don’t want in my home, and I don’t like to have characters who” annoy her, she said.
Tomlin’s and Fonda’s previous project together, “9 to 5,” was warm to its core. In the movie, Tomlin, Fonda and Dolly Parton play three secretaries who kidnap their sexist boss and take over a suddenly happier and more productive office in his absence. The movie is a classic, and decades later still has relevance with young women coming of age in the workplace. (It was revived on Broadway six years ago.)
And though there are plenty of themes that overlap - women who band together because men are making a mess of things; the still-troubled politics for women at the office – everyone involved would rather not look to the past.
Fonda said, “One of the challenges we have, because it’s me and Lily together, is to create an identity separate from ‘9 to 5.’”
“We don’t want this show to make you think about ‘9 to 5,’” Kauffman said. (When asked whether Parton might make an appearance on the show, Fonda said, “It would complicate things.”)
A study in contrasts
But the film’s spirit hasn’t been left behind entirely. When asked about their paydays for “Grace and Frankie,” Tomlin said: “I wasn’t so impressed with our paycheck when I found out Sam and Martin made the same amount. I thought they were like an adjunct. Then I found out they’re in almost every script.”
Tomlin and Fonda said they’ve hung out sporadically over the years. Not unlike Grace and Frankie, the two are a study in contrasts. Fonda likes to organize lunch dates in advance, and Tomlin prefers a pop-by; Fonda obsessed over the daily uncut footage from “Grace and Frankie,” and Tomlin never watched it; Tomlin hasn’t watched the first season in a while, and Fonda said she’s watched all 13 episodes “about three times.”
When Fonda was told she had a chance to work with Tomlin, she said she’d do it in a second. And what did Tomlin think?
“I said, ‘Jane probably is just OK with me being in it,’” Tomlin said. “‘If she had a choice, I’d wonder what’d she choose.’”
Fonda seemed startled. “Did you really?” she asked.
“Kind of,” Tomlin replied.
Kauffman said that she had heard this before and that it was Tomlin’s “perception and her feeling insecure.”
“I don’t know that she sees herself as the same kind of actress that Jane is,” Kauffman said. “This is all coming from being humble, and she imagines that Jane would have wanted in what Lily’s mind is a ‘serious actor.’ Jane works from the inside out. With Lily, wigs and costumes really help her. Jane admires Lily’s facility with character and comedy the same way Lily admires Jane’s facility with the drama and the deeper emotions.”
They certainly weren’t lacking in admiration for each other sitting in Tomlin’s office.
“I did have a fantasy that we would live out this show in our lives,” Tomlin said. “I don’t know which one of us will go first, but that would all be a part of the series. If we get really serious about getting old.”
“It’s fun, doing a show about getting old, and we’re going to be getting old,” Fonda replied. “There are going to be things in a couple of years we can’t do that we could do last year.”
“Pretty soon we’ll be doing it like where we’re sitting on the front porch in rockers,” Tomlin continued.
“And never moving!” Fonda said.