They’ve been friends in real life since they were 9 years old, so Emmy-nominated Sex and the City writing partners Julie Rottenberg and Elisa Zuritsky have plenty of personal experiences to pull from when they write female friendships that play out on TV.
The duo — who also served as showrunners on the first two seasons of Bravo’s smart comedy Odd Mom Out — is now developing a series about a spy mom and another that will be more directly inspired by their long-running personal and professional relationship.
“We feel like this is a good moment to try to really draw from our own lives, because people are always asking, ‘Why don’t you write your own story?’” Zuritsky says. “We’ve always really resisted that, and just now, we’re starting to think like, ‘OK, what would it be if we tell our own story?‘”
Adds Rottenberg, “I think there’s the fear like, ‘Oh, we’re not that interesting. There’s nothing to see here. Could we really base a show on us?’ Even though we bring our friendship and our relationship to everything we write. It is, in a weird way, that obvious thing that’s been right in front of our noses all this time.”
Rottenberg and Zuritsky talked to Yahoo TV about their experiences writing Carrie and Miranda and Charlotte and Samantha, as well as Odd Mom Out’s Jill and Vanessa; the highs (friends who are like family) and lows (friends feuding about money) of SATC’s friendships; their rules of realistic friendship portrayals (and their pet peeves); the TV friendships that have inspired them; and why the idea of best friends who work together is one that TV land hasn’t explored more frequently.
You are best friends, writing frequently about best friends. Do you have a number one rule, or set of rules, that guide you when you’re writing about female friendships?
Elisa Zuritsky: If anything, it’s an unspoken rule, but I think it’s to keep it as real as it can be, and to write as much as we can from our own experience as friends. We’re not the girls to hire if you want to have your two friends constantly insulting each other, or having massive fights and stabbing each other in the back over a guy. That doesn’t resemble our friendship, and it’s not the kind of friendship model that we want to put out there. I feel like from Sex and the City to Odd Mom Out, we have always tried to celebrate supportive friendships and fun, complicated friendships, but not antagonistic ones.
Julie Rottenberg: Also, on Odd Mom Out, we were [shooting a scene], I think at a diner, and some topic came up. I remember a couple of times one of us would say, “Well, we would’ve already talked about that.” [Jill and Vanessa] are really good friends. Elisa and I talk like 100 times a day. We work together, so that’s slightly different, but even when we’re not working, best friends generally are up to speed with each other’s lives, or at least the big ticket items. There were a couple of moments where we thought, “OK, let’s just address the fact that they have already spoken about this, and now they are continuing the conversation.” Even those details felt very important to us to be true to. Just the way real women’s friendships work is, generally you’re in touch a lot. You know what’s going on in each other’s lives.
Zuritsky: I might just add one more element to that, which is that we make each other laugh. I feel like both Sex and the City and Odd Mom Out really showed that, and we love being part of shows that really highlight how funny women are with each other. That’s our way of getting through the harder times, the more complicated times. Thinking things through with a friend, part of that, at least in our friendship, is making each other laugh, showing each other what’s funny about the situation that we’re going through, or just making each day a little funnier with each other.
What are some of your pet peeves about the ways female friendships are depicted on TV?
Rottenberg: Elisa mentioned one, which is alleged best friends or close friends who insult each other, are kind of backstabbing, and don’t trust each other. That’s just not our experience. Maybe it exists, but that’s not my experience with any of my closest girlfriends. One of my big pet peeves, and it just happened and now I cannot remember what it was, although, I probably shouldn’t name it even if I can remember… It was either a TV show or a movie where there was a woman who sort of resembles me in some way, that I relate to, and she has no good friends. It drives me crazy. I’m like, “That woman would have friends. She would have friends!” Or one. Even one good friend. It drives me bonkers. To me, it’s like a tell that something is not real or honest, or maybe not written by a woman.
Zuritsky: We covered antagonistic, backstabbing stuff, we covered lonely without any support group. Maybe, the obvious one I guess, is just the life revolving around either the boyfriend or the lack of boyfriend, as if that’s the one area that women throw all their energy into.
Playing off what you just said, how much of the focus in the Sex and the City writers’ room was on the characters’ friendships versus their romantic lives?
Zuritsky: Huge. We should say that the writers’ room was comprised mainly of six women and Michael Patrick King. This is our writers’ room. We joined the show the second half of the run, so from Season 4 to the end, we were on. Our writers’ room experience was primarily that group. We really formed our own little family. That room, in some ways, functioned more as a friendship support group/work pod than probably any room we’ll ever be part of. The way we functioned in that room was then mirrored, I think, in the characters of the show, if that makes sense. We’ve remained really close with that group. Some of them live in New York, and we see them regularly. It was a really intense web we had with each other. We functioned the way the characters did: We brought our issues to the table and kind of bounced them off of each other and thought them through together, then eventually figured out which attitude would go with which character. That was Michael Patrick King’s genius, recognizing that that’s the way the story should be told. It was really cool to be part of.
Rottenberg: Michael really encouraged us to debate things very strenuously. His argument was always, “Well, even if we don’t agree on this topic, or how we should handle this topic, that can be one of the characters’ perspectives. Charlotte can say exactly what you’re saying, what you’re so upset about.” I remember one of the biggest, hardest things that we all knew we wanted to do, but it was very hard, was that big fight that Carrie and Miranda have toward the end of the series [about Carrie moving to Paris].
Rottenberg: That was something Elisa and I were hoping to do when we joined the show. We felt like we are best friends, but we have fights. Sometimes the people you love the most, that you feel the closest to, can make you the most upset. We were eager to at least try to do that.
Zuritsky: I remember everyone in the room agreed, but it was also really painful. It was almost like we all had to go there with Carrie and Miranda to have this really upsetting fight that didn’t end at the end of that episode. That felt really radical, because generally every episode was wrapped up and self-contained, even within a serialized season. That felt very third-rail scary. It’s something I know the fans were upset about, but also, I think, ready for.
Rottenberg: This is not the same, but we had a similar situation on Odd Mom Out at the end of Season 1, when Jill and Vanessa had a big fight. People did not like that. It was this weird thing where it was as if these were real people. The friends and fans I heard from were like, “Please don’t do that again. That’s really upsetting.” It might have been, in retrospect, maybe too soon in the series to be ready for that kind of to-the-brink conflict.
Carrie and Samantha also had a falling out that was painful to watch. In Season 5’s “Cover Girl,” Carrie walks into Samantha’s office when she’s getting frisky with a Worldwide Express delivery guy, and Samantha is crushed when she feels like Carrie judges her and her sex life. That’s such a huge part of friendship — acceptance, not being judged — and that was such an organic example with those characters.
Zuritsky: What I remember about breaking that episode was talking about it as such a classic, frothy way into a really deep female friendship issue, which is one of the things I loved about working on that show. That was kind of about the assumptions we all have about our girlfriends being just like us. Or, that there is a comfort in assuming that we are, if not one, very similar, we share a worldview, we get each other, we’re alike. Just how painful it can be when that illusion is shaken.
Samantha is someone whose life is judged by many people. She definitely took comfort in the fact that she didn’t think her friends were doing that, and that was really the most hurtful thing. As she had said, she doesn’t judge them. She had assumed they weren’t judging her, and to find out that they were, and very harshly, was just incredibly, incredibly painful.
Rottenberg: I’ll just add, and this is coming off of an experience I just had, which is when moms judge each other. There’s a whole other layer of things to judge. Not just what kind of friend you are, or what kind of person you are, but how are you parenting your child? Looking differently at friends who I never dreamed in a million years would be the kind of moms that they are. That’s something, obviously, we couldn’t do on Sex and the City. I think the closest we came to that was how uncomfortable Carrie felt with Miranda when she was trying to nurse her baby, and the realization that everything had changed and now Miranda has this other priority in her life. I think in terms of female friendships, parenting is one more area for women to feel bad about themselves, that they’re f–king up, they’re being bad moms. You throw in other women’s judgments — that’s another topic we would like to see [depicted] on TV.
Zuritsky: Another extremely explosive episode about tension between friends on Sex and the City was the Charlotte/Carrie money issue (Season 4’s “Ring a Ding Ding”), when Carrie needed money to buy her apartment. That was, in the writers’ room, a revelation to us, because we, I think until then, until we were actually sitting around a table with these women who we had discussed everything with — sex, and friendship, and dating stories, and humiliation, and death — we had touched on so many taboos with each other, and suddenly we were trying to talk about money between friends. Boy, those were some of the hardest days in the writers’ room, because it was a powder keg for not only the characters in the show, but the writers in the room. We just all came to it from such different perspectives and were so uncomfortable discovering everybody else’s point of view and trying to put forth our points of view. It was really some of the most icky and heated debates that we had.
It wasn’t about spending or saving. What I remember it coming down to was, what do friends owe each other in terms of financial help? Asking for it, what does it mean to ask for help from friends, and what does it mean to give or not give help? The issue in the show was that Carrie was bringing this problem to her friends: “What am I going to do? I have no savings. My savings account is my shoe closet.” They all were trying to problem solve with her. Charlotte was sitting there, presumably the wealthiest one of them, and she didn’t say anything. She had nothing to really offer Carrie in terms of sympathy or help. She was just sitting there, in judgment, Carrie suspected. And she was right. Charlotte had her engagement ring, too, which is what she wound up gifting to Carrie. But yes, again, it really felt like we were touching the third rail between friends.
One of the things I love most about Jill and Vanessa’s friendship is that they’re close, they spend lots of time together, but their lives are in very different places. One is a married, working mom of several children, the other is a single doctor with no kids. That’s a very realistic scenario now: Lots of women don’t have kids, and/or aren’t married or in a relationship in their 30s or 40s, yet that’s a unique friendship on TV, with characters living those very different lives.
Rottenberg: We have friends who don’t have kids and aren’t married. I think it’s easy when you are married and do have kids to become a little preoccupied with your own petty problems. We think it’s important to show that other side of the population, which is, as you mentioned, a big one. It sort of forces the show to be as balanced as you hope to be as a parent, hanging out with your friends who don’t have kids or aren’t married.
Zuritsky: It kind of provided a fun challenge for us as writers, because you can be very insulated as a parent, with your parent friends that often have kids right around your kids’ ages. You’re all going through what feels like life-and-death dramas everyday. It was kind of a welcome challenge to show what the [other] dynamic is, and how at times it can be fraught.
Rottenberg: Also, I think having spent so many years on Sex and the City, where our main mantra was, “Oh my God, I’m so sick of these people complaining about their kids” — none of the writers were married with kids — I still identify as that person, even though I am married and have kids. I feel like I never want to be that person, whether it’s as a writer or as a character on TV, who’s too preoccupied with the plight of the married parent.
Do you think female friendships in general are even more fertile story ground than romantic relationships?
Rottenberg: They’re definitely, you could argue, as fiery and passionate. Ask any girlfriend about a breakup or a hard time they had with another female friend. I feel like those are some of the most deeply, intensely painful and hard-to-let-go-of relationships that I’ve ever heard about. I’m always surprised, and I shouldn’t be, to hear of another friend’s really painful sort of breakup. We don’t call it a breakup, I guess, among women. Those are some of the most deeply painful relationships, and it’s because everything we’re saying in the positive. When there’s a conflict, I think it’s that much more painful, because of that deep, deep connection and sort of reliance on each other. I guess this is the long way of answering your question; yes, they’re more fertile.
It’s called Sex and the City, but do you think it’s ultimately more a story of the friendships between these women?
Rottenberg: That’s easy, yes. The sex was what they shared with each other, those stories, the search for love, and finding a mate, or a partner, or just a good bedmate. Yeah, totally, 100 percent. That’s why we watched the show before we were hired, when we were just fans.
Zuritsky: That was the real fantasy of it: All of that time together is kind of the luxury that we all wish we could have. Not all of our friends are shared, but Julie and I have some shared, very, very dear friends. For us to get together, it takes a lot of planning, and it’s usually [once] a month, not every week. Julie and I only see each other every day because we’ve chosen to work together. Otherwise, it would be hard.
Rottenberg: It’s very hard to see your girlfriends, let’s face it. That was a fair criticism when people would say the biggest fantasy of Sex and the City was that these women got together so frequently. I readily admit that.
For those women, though, they weren’t just friends. They were each other’s family. In the first episode you wrote, “My Motherboard, Myself,” when Miranda’s mom dies, it’s her friends, not her siblings, who comfort her.
Rottenberg: Yeah, that was another radical idea Michael felt very strongly about in the writers’ room at Sex and the City. This idea that we’re all raised … maybe not all, but for most of us, I think, there is this message we get that really, when the chips are down, it’s your family. Your family is first and foremost. Your biological family or your family of origin. In some way, a family of friends is somehow secondary, not as reliable, or not as…
Rottenberg: Forever. Michael really wanted to challenge that. We all believed in that. Partly because we are living it. That was definitely a radical thing. I remember the idea — that at Miranda’s mother’s funeral, we would feature not her family, but her friends as her family — felt almost fantastical. That is a fantasy. We were trying to put forth that maybe it’s not. Your friends, your longtime friends, can be as important to you as your family.
Zuritsky: If not more.
Who are some of your favorite female TV friendships, ones that have most influenced you, maybe in writing or even in your own friendship?
Rottenberg: Broad City. Kate and Allie.
Zuritsky: Rhoda and Mary. The Facts of Life. Alice. Oh, well, Laverne & Shirley, that was big for me, for a while. That was total fantasy, the idea that these two women could live together. I was a kid, I would get to stay up and watch that.
Were there any that specifically influenced you working together, that made it seem like a great idea or made it look fun?
Rottenberg: I’m going to maybe even say it was the opposite. I think because we had so few models of women working together — Elisa, stop me if I’m wrong — but, I remember, it felt like such a fantasy. It was this thing we knew guys did. I mostly pictured guys working together, being partners. That’s why it felt so insane and impossible. For so many years, we sort of just fantasized about it. Even when we were trying to write together on the side, it still seemed like this crazy…
Zuritsky: Pie in the sky…
Rottenberg: …thing you can’t actually do, yeah. I don’t think there were many models for that. When people hear, first of all, that we’re writing partners and we’re best friends, and then they hear we’ve known each other since we were 9, there is such a gasp of shock. It does sometimes make me feel like we are like circus freaks, because it is unusual. I understand that, I’m very aware of it. It also does make me wonder, is it that crazy?
Zuritsky: There are a lot of examples of guys who do it. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. The guys who just did Stranger Things, the Duffer brothers. The mumblecore guys, the Duplass brothers.
Rottenberg: Maybe this is going too far but, I will say, along the way … mostly we have very positive responses to our little crazy story. I think there is something possibly a little freakish to people about girlfriends working together, maybe. It’s a little like there’s almost like a witch-like feeling…
Do you think people are simply envious, too? Like, “I wish I had that.”
Rottenberg: That is true. I will often hear people say, “Oh, I wish I had an Elisa.” I totally get it. Maybe those things are connected. There’s an envy and then also like, “That’s almost too good to be true. What’s really going on?”
Also, unfortunately, and I’m sure everyone who has ever worked on, starred in, written for anything that is female-centric knows, people always want to think there must be infighting.
Rottenberg: Find the catfight. Yeah, it’s so true. This idea, this all connects to what I’m saying about there’s this weird almost suspicion or something around very close female friendships. I remember, we would often get asked about Sex and the City, “Did the women fight? Did the actresses fight? Why don’t they hang out together outside of set?” I remember Sarah Jessica [Parker] once saying, “Why isn’t anyone asking if James Gandolfini and Michael Imperioli are falling into each other’s arms on the weekends at bars and things? They’re busy. We’re all busy. We’re doing our jobs. We’re together for 14 hours a day. That’s enough.'”
Zuritsky: We do often get asked, “Do you ever fight?” It’s like, “Yeah, of course.”
Rottenberg: There’s a suspicion that women can’t get along that well. That there must be some ugliness there. Which is sad.
What do you still want to see in a TV series about a female friendship?
Rottenberg: I’d want to see a friendship that is both incredibly supportive and based on a lot of trust and love and respect, that also shows how incredibly painful and complicated those close relationships can be.
Odd Mom Out Seasons 1 and 2 are streaming on Amazon Video. Sex and the City Seasons 1-6 are streaming on Amazon Prime Video.