Brandeis Alumni, Family and Friends
Marta Kauffman ’78, H’20, Tells Graduates: 'Hold On to Your Community'
May 24, 2022
First of all, a belated congratulations and re-congratulations to all of you who graduated in ’20 and ’21. I'm really glad you came back to campus to celebrate with your classmates and thank you for inviting me to speak today, but there's something you should know. I hate writing speeches. They're definitely not in my comfort zone, so be gentle, laugh when something sounds like it's supposed to be funny, and let me know if I melt.
I'm not going to tell you how to go off into the world because you're already in it. But since you're fairly fresh to life beyond Brandeis, there are some things you may not have realized you need to take from this place. I'd like to share with you some of the things I took with me from Brandeis that I've held onto for all these 44 years since I graduated and one thing I learned after I graduated. Some of the more minor lessons I learned, I've learned what 4:20 is all about. I've learned how to play cow poop bingo and to dance in the middle of the quad to Bruce Springsteen blaring out the window.
But we're going to focus on three bigger things. First, friends. Not the show. The friends I met here are not only the friends on whom “Friends” is based, but I met the two people with whom I've had the longest, most meaningful relationships of my life here at Brandeis. This is where I met David Crane, my writing partner for 28 years. I spent more time with him than I did with my ex-husband, which may explain why he is my ex-husband. But I'm going to talk more about David in a little bit. Just know my life wouldn't have been the same if it had not been for him.
I also met my best friend of 48 years. The day I moved into my dorm freshman year. Starting early in the first semester, we began a tradition. Every Friday night, we would go out for pizza and Hawaiian Punch, and every Friday night one of us would end up crying about something. It was the best. We felt so many feelings and although we lived in different cities for 32 years, she remains my closest friend. She's godmother to my daughters. I am godmother to hers.
So what I'd say to you, hold on to your community from your time together. We develop these profoundly deep relationships during this unique period of life. Everyone is feeling their independence for the first time, you all live together, study together, ate together, did other stuff together. You all went through a pandemic together. You've shared a unique college experience. You're connected by a time and a place and a shared history. The people you surrounded yourself with while you were here are the people who will be there for you for your most joyous occasions and get you through your hardest times. So be there for each other, lift each other up, champion one another, and then go out for pizza and Hawaiian Punch once in a while and have a good cry.
Second, in my senior year I took a course called Women in Literature, which was really a class in radical feminism. When I got to Brandeis, I thought feminism was going around without a bra and not shaving my armpits. My professor, Andree Collard, taught me about what systemic misogyny is and it was eye-opening. Her class changed me. This was in 1977, a mere four years after Roe v. Wade had passed. More on that in a bit. After I graduated, I saw misogyny everywhere, especially in my business.
I'm going to tell you a quick story. The head of NBC. Let's call him Don because that's his name. We didn't see eye to eye on women's issues. In the first episode of “Friends,” Monica sleeps with a guy on the first date and she finds out he's been lying to her. Don balked. He thought she deserved what she got for sleeping with him on a first date. I don't know if you've ever seen fire come out of a woman's nose. It's not pretty. He was so sure that he was right. He handed out a questionnaire during a dress rehearsal day with an audience there, which asked, "For sleeping with someone on a first date was Monica, A) a slut B) a whore C) easy D) none of the above." Thank goodness our audience was more enlightened than he was. By the way, that Monica story is loosely based on something that happened to me here at Brandeis. We can talk about that later. Because of that Women in Literature class, because I came to school, a school with a history of activism, and because I participated in my first sit-in here at Brandeis, I stayed motivated, involved, and active.
I've been arrested several times for civil disobedience. I'm super proud of that. I'm really proud of myself for putting myself on the line for what I believe in. I'm just sad that I have to. Right before the pandemic happened, 52 of us were arrested in DC protesting for the Green New Deal and there was an 82-year-old woman I sat next to. We were there for about six hours or so and at some point during that endless time, it goes without saying that one will probably have to use the bathroom. But because we are in those zip tie things in order to go, you have to be accompanied by an officer and aided. I was not happy. The 82-year-old woman turned to me and said, "I've learned that when you get to a certain age and you're going to get arrested, wear depends." Wise woman, fierce woman. She'd been getting herself arrested since the 1960s. She put herself on the line for the things she believes in and I hope to continue doing it when I'm her age, even if I'm in adult diapers. You need to do the same.
It looks like in a few short weeks, Roe v. Wade could be overturned. Justice William Douglas wrote about Louis D. Brandeis. Brandeis was a militant crusader for social justice whoever his opponent might be. He was dangerous not only because of his brilliance, his courage. He was dangerous because he was incorruptible. Justice Brandeis must be rolling in his grave. Today, we live among corruptible, militant crusaders who are fighting to take away our rights. I'm angry, aren't you? I want my voice to be heard. I want your voices to be heard, don't you? There is a war on women happening and the women are losing. Some states are poised to arrest women for murder if they have an abortion. Some states are saying that a woman won't be able to cross state lines for one so yeah, I'm mad.
But I have to tell you I'm also worried not only about that. I talk to a lot of young people and I worry that your generation feels disenfranchised and due to your feelings of frustration and hopelessness, you could become inert. I worry that some of you are so disheartened by our political system that you won't get involved. Most of all, I worry that some of you won't vote because you feel your votes won't make a difference. But if you're angry and if you don't like what you see, you must make your voices heard and how do you do that? As Gloria Allred, the civil rights attorney and activist said, "Resist, persist, insist, elect."
That's right. Change doesn't come when you sit on the sidelines. Oh, you might say, but isn't sitting out a way to air grievances with the way things are? No. Sitting-out lets other people's voices be heard. If you care about the war against women. If you care about equity. If you care about climate change. LGBTQ and trans rights or student debt or whatever it is that gets you mad, resist, persist, insist, elect.
I'm going to jump to the third thing and I'll get off my soapbox for a moment. My time here at Brandeis taught me how to be open. I dreaded taking a science course, and I had no idea how to decide which one I forced myself through, and I had the catalog of courses, which back then was an actual catalog. I was going through it underlining which other classes I wanted to take. When I got to the science section, my mind went numb. I started playing with my pen and after waggling it and deciding nothing, the pen flew out of my hand and landed on the page. It underlined a bio class taught by Professor Irv Epstein. My uncle's name was Irv. My pen landed on it. I decided, let's take it as a sign and take the class. That professor was one of my favorite professors. He knew how to engage and encouraged his students, he welcomed questions, he not only embraced the mistakes we made, he loved them. He brought out the best in us and what I learned from him, I applied in my writer's room, which consists of a group of neurotic people with stomach issues, sitting around trying to come up with great ideas.
A writer's room can be a lot like a classroom. Sometimes an elementary school classroom, but still, people need to be encouraged to speak and to share their ideas, even the bad ones, because very often bad ideas lead to good ones. Not unlike how mistakes lead to deeper learning. I'm very grateful I stayed open and took that class and I would implore you to stay open, seriously open, for signs, for surprising turns, for whatever the universe presents to you.
I'm not a woo-woo person, I am a little. But staying open changed my life. In 1985 when I was living in New York, David and I were doing some writing with a third person, who also went to Brandeis. David and I were presented with the opportunity to scribe a movie, and we met with our agent who only represented the two of us. She told us we had 24 hours to decide if we were going to do this movie with the third-person Seth, or just the two of us. We felt guilty, and we needed to give her a fast answer. We left her office. It was rush hour on a Friday night, New York City. I knew I'd never get a cab, which I couldn't afford anyway. I waited for a bus for 20 minutes. No bus, no umbrella. Suddenly a cab pulls up right in front of me. A man gets out, and no one rushes to jump in. I looked around and thought it was meant for me. I get in the cab, I sit back and I thought, a sign? I sat up and I looked at the driver's name displayed on his license and his name was David Yu. I had my answer, and I believe that was the true beginning of my career and I've never regretted it for a moment. Keep your eyes open.
One thing I didn't learn in Brandeis is that I'm a writer. You're one and two years out of college, how many of you know exactly what you want to be doing? How many of you are doing what you want to be doing? Nice, but there's quite a few who aren't yet. Here's the thing. Life is not a straight line. I started out sure, I was going to be an actor. As a matter of fact, I met David Crane acting in a production of Tennessee Williams, Camino Real. He played a street urchin, I played a hooker. That was the beginning of our 28-year collaboration. Even though we began writing together, my senior year, I went to acting school after I graduated. Not a straight line.
However, it was fortuitous that I did. Every single thing I learned in acting school has helped me as a writer. I learned how to talk to actors in their language. Also, the writers, when I acted out every scene we wrote, we weren't good at it, but we learned an enormous amount. What felt fake, which transitions were two heads spinning, which jokes weren't funny. Writing for TV cannot be successful if it is an act to both. Stay open. The direction you're taking right now, may not be where you end up, but it just might teach you something that will inform what you end up doing.
I have one more question for you. How many of you parents and educators included, have ever felt like you faked your way through something, a paper, a degree, a job, how many? By the way, it doesn't mean you are one because even Bruce Springsteen admitted to feeling like a fake, and you're not alone. Confession. When I tell people I'm a writer, I feel like a fraud, a fake. Some say I might suffer from the impostor phenomenon, which was originally defined as the internal experience of a group of high-achieving women, who had a secret sense they were not as capable as others thought. Researchers have since discovered that this applies to all adults. You are not fakes. You've actually done the things that you set out to do. Congratulations on that. You know what? Fake it till you make it. It works. It works.
I went through a bunch of my memories about all the times that I didn't feel like a writer. My favorite of which is when my 12th grade AP English teacher wrote on a paper of mine that I was the least perceptive student she'd ever had, and I would never be a writer. That's why I love writing speeches. The good news is, after 30-plus years in television and a very twisty road, I finally understand something. It doesn't matter whether I claim the word writer or not, I simply am one. I make stuff up, that's what I do. Then other people say that stuff and still more people film it, and at the end of the day I get to say, I wrote that.
Same thing with the feeling fake. You do the work, you've done it, obviously, you weren't faking. When you try things, when you remain open, when you face your insecurities and fears, when you learn from your failures.As a friend of mine would say, wear your scars like stardust, when you step out of your comfort zone, you may find yourself like, I did, not doing what you expected, but what you love. Dear ones, hold onto your friends, lift each other up, have good cries and great laughs. Stay open. Resist, persist, insist, elect, and most importantly, don't forget to dance to Bruce Springsteen, or do whatever it is that brings you joy. Thank you and congratulations.
Visit Commencement 2022 for full coverage of Brandeis' commencement day for the classes of 2022, 2021 and 2020.