Friends: A 20th Anniversary Oral History
In celebration of the 20th anniversary of perennial NBC comedy Friends this year, its creators sit down to reminisce about how it all started.
Twenty years ago in a Manhattan coffee house, a jilted husband named Ross whined to his friends that he desperately wished to marry again.
Then on cue, in walked a runaway bride named Rachel — setting the stage for a ten-year courtship that would captivate audiences the world over.
During that laugh-filled decade, Ross‘ sister Monica would fall in love with her pal Chandler. (Could he be any luckier?)
Bohemian Phoebe would serenade us with a song about a Smelly Cat. (Yay!)
And thanks to a dimwit actor named Joey Tribbiani, “How you doin?’” would become as popular a catch phrase as Homer Simpson’s “D’oh!” and Barney Stinson’s — wait for it... — “Legendary.”
With the 2002 Outstanding Comedy Series winner celebrating its twentieth anniversary on September 22, the sitcom’s creators, Marta Kauffman and David Crane, along with former NBC President Warren Littlefield, reflect on the phenomenon many have tried to duplicate without success.
The show’s creators, Marta Kauffman and David Crane, had made a name for themselves on NBC’s The Powers That Be and HBO’s Dream On.
David Crane (series creator): It was just another pilot for us. We had a very short-lived series called Family Album that was cancelled after six episodes. So we were scrambling in a panic wondering if they would ever let us back on the air again.
Marta Kauffman (series creator): We really wanted to do an ensemble comedy. This one was close to our hearts because we had lived it.
Warren Littlefield (president, NBC, 1990-98): Marta Kauffman and David Crane had a deal at Warner Bros. and came in and pitched the show in my office. They were so in sync. They were writing what they knew and what they lived in New York. It was a wonderful pitch and we just said, "That’s it!"
Crane: This was one of two pilots we were developing that season, the other being one for Fox that was not successful. This one just seemed to flow every step of the way and was easy to write, while the Fox thing was terrible. And we had this fear that NBC wouldn’t pick up their show and Fox would pick up the wrong one.
Kauffman: And we’d be miserable.
Crane: The one-line pitch was, it’s that special time in your life when your friends are your family.
This past September 17, a Central Perk pop-up location opened in New York City at 199 Lafayette Street for just four weeks to commemorate Friends’ 20th. And soon a Central Perk-theme coffee blend will be available in stores.
Littlefield: They were completely ahead of the curve in what a coffee shop meant in a young adult person’s life. It was honestly a bit of a head-scratcher, but they knew that was this generation’s new living room.
Crane: We knew that we didn’t want it to be a coffee shop because of Seinfeld, and we didn’t want it to be a bar because of Cheers, so it starts to narrow things down. There was no sense that it would be a zeitgeisty kind of thing.
Kauffman: Literally, we were walking down the street and saw the Insomnia Cafe and thought, "Oh, that would be a cool place to put these people."
It’s hard to imagine any other actors as TV’s favorite sextet. But there very well could have been.
Littlefield: The moment the script was out into the marketplace when we were looking for casting, there was buzz and talent was very excited about it
Marta and David early on were big fans of (David) Schwimmer and really wrote the character of Ross with Schwimmer in mind. At the time, David was thinking, “You know what. I’m just going to go back and do theater.” But his agent doggedly pursued him to read the script and come back from Chicago to read for the role. God bless her for that pursuit..
For Monica, (Facts of Life alum) Nancy McKeon read. Nancy was terrific in the role, and so was Courteney (Cox). I remember saying to the producers, “Honestly, we can go either way here. It really is who you think can go the distance.”
Marta and Kevin (Bright, fellow EP) and David took a stroll around the Warner lot and ultimately thought there was something fresh in Courteney for the role. And they had our complete support for that.
Kauffman: I have a lot of Monica in me, in terms of everything having to be a certain way. Putting the top on the pen until it clicks. But I also have some of Phoebe’s... spirituality... let’s not call it kookiness.
Crane: I’m none of the women. Probably there’s a bit of Chandler in me, in terms of his insecurities and defending himself with his humor. And a little of Ross’ neuroses. But there’s not a bit of Joey in me.
Littlefield: When Matt LeBlanc came in to audition he just was Joey. He owned it. It was undeniable in the room. He was delightful. There was no nail-biting on that one..
We thought Chandler was going to be a quick, easy role to cast, and that wasn’t the case. Craig Bierko was very much a contender for Chandler. A lot of people loved him for that role; I was not one of them who loved that idea.
Kauffman: Matthew Perry actually coached Craig Bierko for his audition. It wasn’t what Bierko wanted to do at the time. He went to Broadway after that.
Crane: We played around with (Chandler’s sexuality) a little, but not in a real way. We talked about it when we were casting. But once we cast Matthew, I don’t think we ever considered making Chandler gay. But there is a Liza Minnelli joke in the pilot where Chandler’s talking about a dream.
Littlefield: Paul Reiser was exceptional about letting Lisa (Kudrow) move to Friends. He loved what she was doing on Mad About You, but it wasn’t a series regular character. And then they brilliantly came up with the notion that Phoebe and Ursula were sisters and she could pop up again on Mad About You.
David Crane said, “If (Ursula) had been my creation on my show, I don’t know if I would have been as generous as (Mad About You creator) Danny Jacobson was with us.”…
Kauffman: Phoebe’s twin sister, Ursula, ended up dating Joey for a little while.
Crane: I have no recollection of that.
Kauffman: Don’t you remember when Phoebe pretended to be Ursula?
Crane: Kind of...I feel really old.
Littlefield: We’d done a couple things with Jennifer (Aniston). We loved her and wanted her. The problem was she was tied to another series, so we took her in second position.
When it was time to go into production and start shooting episodes, she was still under an option at CBS and no one had been successful about getting her released. I was told that we had to replace her. There was too much risk. But I said, “No. We are not doing that.”
They said, “Well, do you want to personally guarantee that if she doesn’t get released that you’ll finance the reshooting of these episodes?’”And I was like, “Well, nooo...., but we will somehow figure this out.”
We were incredibly vulnerable and business affairs thought we were nuts. Every time we shot another episode with Jennifer, we put millions of dollars at risk, but it all worked out.
We also took Matthew Perry in second position to a futuristic hour (series) set at LAX, but we didn’t think that was much of a threat.
Crane: Had either of those projects gone forward we would have been in serious trouble
Six of One
Before it was titled Friends, several alternatives were considered....
Kauffman: Six of One, Across the Hall, Friends Like Us...
Crane: Insomnia Cafe...
Kauffman: My favorite one was the morning we were being told it was going on Thursday nights. (Executive Producer) Kevin Bright said they wanted us to change the title to Friends, and Kevin said, “If you put us on Thursday nights, you can call us Kevorkian for all I care.
Friends premiered on September 22, 1994, sandwiched between Mad About You at 8 pm and Seinfeld at 9 pm.
Littlefield: The pilot had a “high weak” in testing, but that’s okay. Things don’t always test great, but we were hopeful...It was not an instant hit. Not an automatic. There was this slow, wonderful build. The more people who saw it, the more they fell in love with it.
Crane: I don’t think it was until midway through the first season that we realized this was something that was going to be bigger than we ever imagined, and 20 years later we’d be talking about it.
Littlefield: At the end of the first season, the theme song just exploded that summer on the charts. People also caught up with reruns and that’s when we moved it to 8 for season two, and it never left that time period. From that point on, they were the anchor for that night
Every magazine, talk show and product wanted to get in bed with the Friends, which presented a real danger of overexposure and backlash.
Littlefield: The press was wonderful. They were popping up on all these magazine covers. It was just bubbling. But we were a little concerned that we were so white-hot in terms of the cover of Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone and all of these other magazines
Everywhere the talent went, there was such buzz. We said, “You know what? This could backfire.” So we started to back off of some of the press opportunities, and that is very unlike a network. You usually embrace all that
Our sense was, we’re not a flash in the pan and we didn’t want to burn out. We wanted to go the distance.
Kauffman: My biggest regret is the Diet Coke ad we did.
Crane: Yes. It was such a stupid move. They came to us and said, “Would you put the whole cast together in a Diet Coke commercial?” It seemed like it was going to be such a good idea -- one of those iconic Coke commercials
And then as we were getting closer to doing it, it was looking shittier. And it turned out to be not just a commercial, but a contest. It was just not good and we were in too deep. And there was a big backlash -- “Here are the Friends selling out."
I am sorry we urged the cast to do it. That was an absolute low point. Everyone came away from it going, “That was pretty dumb and we didn’t need to do that.”
Kauffman: Playboy came to us and wanted to make Friends the cover. Kevin was really excited about the idea. And I’m a feminist and really was not excited.
So we made a deal. I was going to go to the three women, and if they wanted to do it, then they could do it without me because I was not going to be a part of it. And we ended up not doing it.
Location and Casting Stunts
The list of superstars who flocked to Friends over the years puts The Love Boat to shame. Among those who stopped by for a cup of coffee: Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Robin Williams, Charlton Heston, Sean Penn and Bruce Willis.
Littlefield: It was the place everyone wanted to be.
Kauffman: We got a call that Justin Timberlake wanted to do the show.
Crane: We had a meeting with him and he was lovely, but we didn’t have a good part for him.
Kauffman: My kids were furious. They wanted to kill me.
Littlefield: Going to England was absolute insanity. The show had a meteoric rise in the UK and they were treated like the Royals. And they could get anyone they wanted on the show. Richard Branson... Fergie...
Crane: I feel like Kevin championed the idea of going to London because the show was very popular there. In that case, we had Ross with Emily, so that (wedding) storyline felt very organic. If we could go back in time, I don’t think the show really needed the stunt casting of Fergie and Richard Branson. You get caught up in things.
Kauffman: We did not want to do Friends Go to Russia.
Crane: Or Friends Go to Hawaii.
All for One and One for All
In their original contract, the actors were paid $22,500 per episode, and different salaries in season two. Prior to negotiating for season three, the cast decided to negotiate collectively, despite Warner Bros. preference for individual deals.
Salaries were upped to $75,000 per episode in the third season, then $85,000 for season four. By season five, they were raking in $100,000 per show, then $125,000.
To return for seasons seven and eight, the six actors were awarded $750,000 per show and finally a whopping $1 million per episode for the final two years.
Littlefield: From day one, Marta and David put forth that this was truly an ensemble show. And very quickly the actors said we want to be treated all as equals. I think David Schwimmer knew exactly what would hold that cast together for many, many years to come.
Everyone involved with Friends made a tremendous amount of money, but it was really the wisdom of Schwimmer who said, “I don’t want to come in to a work environment where someone is making more. This is all our show and we should be treated the same.”
I’m sure there were cries of dismay when business affairs were told this was how it was going to be handled and wished that wasn’t the case. But it was justified.
Crane: Much of the negotiations were between them and Warner Bros.
Kauffman: We felt that that was absolutely the right thing to do. We didn’t think it was right that they weren’t the same (before season three).
Crane: There was one day during the negotiations when they all decided they had to walk off. That was the tactic. I think some of them were embarrassed seeing us. And I remember at the time we thought, “This is getting annoying.” We just wanted to keep doing the show.
Littlefield: Ultimately, it was a brilliant, tactical move on how to get the most out of the studio and the network. I think that sense of equality was one of the ties that bound them together and kept it in place for ten years.
While Friends set up Ross and Rachel’s romance in its pilot, other couplings were considered.
Crane: When we pitched the show, one of our thoughts before it was cast was that one of the key romantic relationships would be Monica and Joey. When we cast it, Matt (LeBlanc) really brought his great big brother vibe. And suddenly we threw out that idea.
Littlefield: Marta and David knew how the whole series hung on Ross and Rachel, and finding all the wonderful roadblocks for them to be with each other.
Crane: It’s impossible not to love the Rachel/Ross arc.
Though Ross and Rachel quickly become a supercouple, a creative decision was made to pair Rachel with Joey.
Littlefield: David Crane explained it was for the greater good. It was inappropriate and that’s why they had to do it. I was concerned and Matt LeBlanc was scared to death about it.
David passionately said to Matt, “We need to walk into this ring of fire. It’s not what we want to have happen, but it’s so important that we explore it.” So Matt tiptoed into it, and it ultimately was everything that David Crane hoped it would be.
Crane: Later, the decision to put Monica and Chandler together started out as, “What if we were to have them hook up for a night?” It was not planned that this was going to be their relationship for the rest of the series.
But it was feeling really good and we ran with it. Once we got Monica and Chandler together, the idea of Phoebe and Joey being together seemed too obvious and at that point we’d be done.
While sitcoms like HBO’s Girls and Fox’s New Girl seem to be able to get away with nearly anything, Friends hit a couple roadblocks with standards and practices with subject matter that is considered fairly tame today.
Littlefield: No one had ever done adult comedy at 8 o’clock. And yet audiences of all ages came to the show. We were breaking new ground. Standards and practices were rattled because they tried to reflect the world of young adults, and so when we would talk about condoms, they told us we couldn’t at 8 o’clock.
But if you looked at these young adults at that age, of course they were going to be sexually active. So why wouldn’t we say that they were sexually responsible? We should be obligated to do that, so that was a negotiation. We knew we could impact a lot of young people dealing with these issues.
Kauffman: There were groups that decided that things should not be represented on television.
The two I remember specifically were (1996‘s) “The One with the Lesbian Wedding” and the one with the condoms (1996’s “The One Where Dr. Ramoray Dies”), where there was one condom left and Monica and Rachel were fighting over which one got it. We weren’t even allowed to show the condom; it had to be in the box.
Crane: Although the thing I remember getting the most mail about was when Rachel’s father said something disparaging about chiropractors. We got a mountain of letters. I guess they’re a very defensive group.
Kauffman: And we had a line about making coffee Irish that caused an uproar with Irish viewers.
As Friends’ popularity soared, the cast became busier with outside projects. Producers also had to deal with real-life issues affecting the actors.
Crane: We learned just how much a TV show is just a TV show. When you do a show with people for ten years, we experienced people getting pregnant, people having all kinds of life issues, and that comes first.
Littlefield: Our cast was in demand. As we watched their popularity soar, we knew they had choices. And the one thing the producers were great about was that there be enough time during hiatus where they could do films. There was also flexibility in when we would start back up.
Crane: We worked around six movie schedules. At one point, we had Matt LeBlanc flying off to England to shoot Lost in Space.
Littlefield: One year at the Up Fronts, Matthew (Perry) was my emcee introducing me and he was delightful as he always is. But he was almost frail at that time and I knew that there was a problem. I spoke to his manager (and) the producers. Everyone acknowledged there was a problem (with drugs).
He said, “Yes, I have a problem. I need to go deal with this.” And he was off to rehab. And we really respected him for that. And everyone had to be flexible with the schedule to accommodate him.
Kauffman: The challenge was trying to keep him healthy. That’s what everybody wanted. It certainly created some difficulties, but I think we were incredibly supportive.
Crane: As I recall, we and our partner Kevin made it clear that everybody be healthy. There was a period where Matthew was away for a period and we accommodated that.
Littlefield: There was almost nothing you could throw at David and Marta. When Lisa Kudrow became pregnant, they wrote to it. It was a real celebration.
Lisa was the first to be married. And then the first to be a parent. And everyone celebrated in that. And it ended up being a wonderful storyline as well.
Crane: When we heard Lisa was pregnant, we thought, “Well, that will be fun” and opened up a great storyline. Phoebe is a strong comic character, so it became important for us to create storylines with substance and huge emotional stakes. The minute the surrogate idea was floated, we all got excited about it.
Friends ended its run on May 6, 2004. In “The Last One,” Ross confesses his love for Rachel, Monica and Chandler move to the suburbs with their adopted twins, and the gang heads to Central Perk for one last cup o’ joe.
Crane: I’m really proud that we were able to sustain the Ross and Rachel relationship over ten years. In the pilot he asks her, “Can I ask you out sometime?,” and she says, “Okay,” and then it takes them a year and a half before they finally go out. One of the most challenging things was to keep you invested in this relationship so that in the finale we could pay it off once and for all.
Kauffman: We always knew that we basically had to end with them leaving Monica and Chandler’s apartment.
Littlefield: My fantasy was that the two Matts would be the spin-off. But by then I was gone from the network, and of course, storywise that couldn’t happen.
As roommates with their black leather LazyBoys and the duck, theirs was one of the greatest buddy comedies in the history of television. And that certainly could have been its own show.
Ultimately, NBC did the (Joey) spin-off with Matt LeBlanc because that was the only choice they had.
Friends has earned nearly a billion in syndication and continues to find new fans -- even in the White House. Its 236 episodes continue to make us laugh when it hasn’t been our day, our week, our month or even our year.
Littlefield: One of the greatest tributes you can say about the show is that it never jumped the shark. For ten years they never lowered their bar. It holds up really well today and there’s a reason it’s the most successful half hour comedy in the world.
Kauffman: I was fortunate enough to have President Obama at the house for a DNC event in November and I think one of the greatest moments in my life was when he told me his girls are only allowed to watch four hours of television a week, and the TV they choose to watch is Friends. And they watch it as a family. That just killed me.
Littlefield: There can only be one Friends and audiences rejected all the wannabes. Are there elements of (HBO’s) Girls such as the honesty that was discovered in Friends? I think so. There will be other shows that capture the voice of their generation, but never ones with forty shares.
Staying in Touch
In 2011, Crane and LeBlanc reteamed on Showtime’s Episodes. Kauffman worked on a pair of projects with Aniston. And in 2012, Littlefield published an essay of interviews titled “Top of the Rock: Inside the Rise and Fall of Must See TV,” which included recollections from LeBlanc, Kudrow and Schwimmer.
Littlefield: I did all the interviews myself. I met LeBlanc at the Mulholland Grill and he insisted he pay for lunch. He looked at me and said, “Do you have any idea how much you changed my life? There’s no way you’re picking up this check.” And I finally let him pay for it.
And I met Schwimmer at a hotel in Beverly Hills and he just talked. Two hours went by in a blink of an eye.
Lisa and I had breakfast at the Polo Lounge. She was so open and giving and wonderful. We had a healthy breakfast and pots of tea. She reminisced how I would come to the stage and serve them coffee and omelets as a way to say “thank you.”
Crane: I see Matt (LeBlanc) every day now that we’re doing Episodes.
Kauffman: I did a couple projects with Jennifer. We did a project called Five, which was five stories about breast cancer. And then we did another version of it about mental illness, and got to work together again.
Littlefield: I saw Matthew (Perry) a couple years ago when we were both at a press tour together. He looked sensational and was very focused. He had that shitting grin smile and said, “Here we are, just a couple guys trying to get some press for our shows.”
I have not seen Courteney in a long time, but I saw Jen backstage at a Jimmy Burrows tribute at the Television Academy last year, and it was giggles and hugs and excitement. No pun intended, it was like running into an old friend.
A Friends Reunion?
While Cox has said she’s tried unsuccessfully to bring all six Friends together for a reunion dinner party at her home, Jimmy Kimmel on his August 27 show managed to stage a mini-Friends reunion with Aniston, Kudrow and Cox reprising their characters in a short sketch. That may be the closest we’ll ever get to a Friends reunion.
Kauffman: One of the reasons there will never be a reunion is because the show was about that time in your life when your friends are your family, and once you have your own family, it changes.
Once Rachel had her baby, and Monica and Chandler had their babies, life changes and the show is no longer the show.
Littlefield: Any chance I’d have to work again with David and Marta, no question; I’m there.
But from what I’ve heard, the cast seems to be nervous about (a reunion) because it was so satisfying. And if they can’t do it as well as they did it, then why do it? There was something magical about the way it ended.
Kauffman: Not too long ago I was in a bar and a group of twentysomethings came in and said, “Oh my God. It’s definite. They’re going to do another Friends episode.”
I just looked at my friend and said, “Do I tell them that it’s not true?” It happens all the time. We were just asked the other day by NBC about getting the six of them together. The only thing I could ever imagine would be seeing them all together on a talk show.
But there will never be a scripted episode or movie with them together. And there shouldn’t be. It would ruin it. And I don’t spend much time wondering what the characters are doing.
Crane: We did a storyline on Episodes where the head of the network called up Matt and asked, “Can you get one of the other Friends to do a stunt cast on (the fictional show) Pucks?”
And rather than go after any of the actual Friends, we saw him calling all of the Friends and we learned that none of them liked him. Nobody wanted to do his show.
And then at the very end of the episode, we reveal that he got (Central Perk coffee shop worker) Gunther. Now we’re going into our fourth season, and I won’t say if we’re finally going to have one of the other Friends on. I’ll just say... it’s a guarded “yes.”
Writer William Keck is a producer on Hallmark’s Home & Family show and is also published in USA Today and TV Guide.