friends series finale

The cast of Friends after shooting the series finale

Warner Bros./Max
friends series finale

Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) and Ross (David Schwimmer)

Warner Bros./Max
friends series finale

Chandler (Matthew Perry) and Joey (Matt LeBlanc) in a key scene from the series finale

Warner Bros./Max
Fill 1
Fill 1
May 06, 2024
Online Originals

Friends Showrunners on the Series Finale's 20th Anniversary (Exclusive)

Marta Kauffman and David Crane reveal why it was "hard to say goodbye" to their hit NBC sitcom.

Twenty years after it signed off, Friends is still there for you.

The landmark NBC sitcom's audience and popularity continues to thrive, thanks to Max streaming it and the show's seemingly endless TBS reruns. Friends is arguably just as popular now as it was during its heyday, when it averaged 25 million viewers each week and was TV's top-rated comedy for six consecutive years. To say the show was a "big deal" is an understatement, as was the somewhat daunting task of landing the series finale, which aired 20 years ago today on May 6, 2004. It was watched by 52.5 million people, making it the fifth most-watched series finale in U.S. history.

Taped on January 16 and 24, 2004, "The Last One" was a bittersweet, two-part episode with a mix of laughs and tears as Chandler (the late Matthew Perry), Monica (Courteney Cox), Ross (David Schwimmer), Rachel (Jennifer Aniston), Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) and Joey (Matt LeBlanc) say goodbye to each other as a job opportunity forces Chandler and wife Monica to leave their Central Perk days behind them. Meanwhile, Ross and Rachel's near-constant "will they/won't they" romance reaches a heartstring-tugging conclusion — as does the core characters' farewell scene, arguably the most memorable moment from the episode, in which the six characters share a teary-eyed goodbye in Monica's empty apartment. While it was just a three-walled set that housed fictional characters, it was also a passionate fanbase's decade-long "home away from home" that fans weren't ready to leave.

But for cocreators Marta Kauffman and David Crane, they felt that 20 years ago was, to paraphrase one of the show's most iconic lines, the ideal time to take more than just a break.

In honor of the Friends series finale turning 20 this year, Kauffman and Crane take us behind the scenes in this exclusive interview about the decisions that lead to ending the show, the challenges they faced in that endeavor and their feelings on Friends' enduring appeal.

How did the decision come about to end the series?

Marta Kauffman: You want to go out while you're still on top, not wait until people are tired of you. We were at a place, story-wise, that if the show was about that time in your life when your friends are your family — and you begin having your own families — the dynamic shifts and the show is done.

David Crane: Although, that said, if [the network] had come to us and said, "[Let's do] one more year," I think we would have said, "Great!" and then we would have figured out a way to incorporate babies and whatever into that world. But we were ready to stop when everybody else told us. Actually, there was a point at the end of season eight when it looked like it was going to end. It was an expensive show, but then NBC invested in doing some more, so we did season nine.

At the end of season nine, again, it really looked like this was going to be the end. Warner Bros. came to us and said, "This is the last season." The next day, they called back and said, "Well, it's not the last season." Someone found money somewhere. It was just an important tentpole. All the boats were being lifted.

How difficult was it to bring the show to a close?

Kauffman: There are two parts to that. One of them is, writing a last episode is as hard as writing a pilot. In our case, you're pulling together 10 seasons and all these characters — you want it to be satisfying. So that's extremely, extremely difficult. Emotionally, it was also extremely, extremely difficult. It was very hard to say goodbye. The end of Friends was incredibly significant for us. It changed how I felt about myself professionally, so it wasn't the decision that was hard. It was the doing of it.

Crane: I would agree. I think the fact that it was ending felt fine. We'd accomplished it. We told the story. It didn't feel like it was ending too soon or that it wasn't on our terms. It was insanely emotional. During the shooting of those two weeks, I got shingles — which is, apparently, stress-related. It's funny: When we started this series, we were really terrified. There was so much fear.

Kauffman: Every night after we taped the show, David and I would say to each other, "Another one that didn't suck." And there were times throughout the 10 seasons, where, you know, there were episodes that did suck.

Crane: And we meant it. You have to realize that this was the second show we'd ever run. We did [HBO's] Dream On, which was very under the radar. We suddenly are doing Must See TV Thursday night. We're with Seinfeld, Frasier and Mad About You. It was an amazing opportunity, but it was also an opportunity to fail. I think our impostor syndrome was going through the roof. As time went on, it became a really good job, and we knew how to do it. But then, when we approached the finale, so much of that anxiety came back of not wanting to mess it up. It was definitely a full-circle moment.

Were there any plot lines or story ideas you didn't get to do that you wish you did?

Kauffman: Not really. We had this huge whiteboard, and on it were ideas we had in the past that we never got to do. There were things like "Ross Sauce." And "Rachel wears a lot of hats."

Wait. Let's back up — "Ross Sauce"?

Crane: See, that's why we couldn't make it work.

Kauffman: Yeah, I don't think there was anything left on that board. There's a reason it didn't make it into the show. By the end of a season, if you've got an idea on that board that could be a story, it would become a story.

What stands out for you about this show's impact on pop culture and society in general?

Kauffman: I mean, society more than pop culture. The thing that really gets me is the people who learned English watching Friends. That, to me, is just beyond what you could ever imagine.

Crane: When we set out to do the show, we never imagined we'd be here 30 years later. That it would speak to people beyond the life of the show is surreal. Even when the show ended, I think if you had told us it would be watched and watched, I don't think we would have believed you.

Kauffman: My youngest daughter was born while we were doing Friends. When she was 16 years old, Netflix had just started streaming it, and somebody at school said to her, "Have you heard about that new show called Friends?" They thought it was a period piece! (Laughs)

There's something universal about Friends that you can't say about most other shows. At some point, everyone is in their 20s and figuring things out. It's enormously relatable.

Crane: It was one of the arguments that we made early on. The network asked us to include an older character. We actually did some drafts that had an older cop character who came into the coffee house, and it was terrible. But our argument, besides the fact that it's terrible, was that the stories are universal. Just because the characters are in their 20s doesn't mean it's only going to appeal to people in their 20s. Everyone lived some version of that, or wish they'd lived some version of that if you're older. And if you're a kid, it's what you would hope for.

Kauffman: We also wanted to make sure that our audience was able to identify with the characters. It's not just about having a favorite. It's like the argument: Were they or were they not "on a break"? The audience identified with one or the other.

In the 20 years since "The Last One" aired, what is your relationship with the show's legacy and its impact?

Kauffman: When we set out [to do Friends], we just wanted them to make our pilot.

Crane: I totally agree. Setting out to do a show that will last never occurred to us. In this case, we just had a show canceled in October [1993] after six episodes. If you wanted to get into the next pilot season, you had to have a show sold by November. So, we were scrambling. We came up with two ideas. We sold one to Fox and one to NBC. It was just as Marta said: "Oh, hopefully they'll let us shoot it." Not even picked up to series, just shoot it.

Kauffman: The only thing I can say is that the legacy that's important to me is the things I've been able to do because of Friends. It's about being able to financially help my family [and do] philanthropic stuff. That, to me, is where the legacy is.

Crane: The fact that people are even watching it now, let alone on the scale that they are, it doesn't stop being surreal.

All 10 seasons of Friends are streaming on Max.

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