WHY THESE FOLKS ARE STILL OUR ‘FRIENDS’

In 1994, it pro­vided a per­fect es­cape; and, even now, it’s pop­u­lar for the same rea­son

New York Daily News - - NEWS - BY JAC­QUE­LINE CUT­LER

It's a hit that wouldn't hap­pen to­day.

A net­work sit­com about six straight, white, priv­i­leged twenty-some­things? Who spend their time hang­ing out at a cof­fee shop? A com­edy that could not be less edgy?

But “Friends” turned out to be just what 1994 needed.

And we may need it even more right now.

That's the idea be­hind “I'll Be There for You: The One about Friends” as Kelsey Miller ex­am­ines the show's en­dur­ing pop­u­lar­ity.

Miller mostly draws on old re­port­ing and doesn't seem to have in­ter­viewed the stars. But she ex­plains why the sit­com's cozy hu­mor worked. And why it still works to­day, pro­vid­ing 30-minute es­capes from our com­pli­cated times.

Yet its suc­cess seemed like a long shot back then.

Marta Kauff­man and David Crane met in col­lege and be­came writ­ing part­ners soon af­ter. With the help of pro­ducer Kevin Bright, they had a cult hit in 1990 with HBO's “Dream On.” Then they had a cou­ple of flops. In 1994, they pitched “In­som­nia Café,” a com­edy about six sin­gles who hung out drink­ing cof­fee. NBC agreed to shoot a pi­lot. Still, the net­work had notes. First of all – a cafe? Couldn't it be a diner, like “Se­in­feld”? They weren't crazy about the ti­tle, ei­ther. And when Kauff­man and Crane sub­mit­ted the first script — which had Mon­ica sleep­ing with some­one on a first date — one net­work ex­ec­u­tive was ap­palled. “Doesn't that say she's a whore?” he asked.

The team com­pro­mised. They nixed the diner, ac­cepted a ti­tle change to “Friends,” and agreed to hold a fo­cus group on Mon­ica's morals. Turned out her sex life was the ex­ec­u­tive's prob­lem, not the char­ac­ter's. Kauff­man, Crane, and Bright were good to go once they found a cast.

It took some work. David Sch­wim­mer, a self-de­scribed stage snob, looked down on TV — even though the part of Ross had been writ­ten for him. He signed on, though, even­tu­ally. Matthew Perry was cast as Chan­dler once Craig Bierko, a friend he had coached to a win­ning au­di­tion, de­cided to pass.

The part of Joey wasn't writ­ten for Matt LeBlanc, but could have been. He only started act­ing be­cause he fol­lowed a pretty stranger to an au­di­tion. The night be­fore he was sup­posed to read for “Friends” he got drunk, fell, and smashed his nose on the toi­let. NBC loved him, though, so he was hired, even with a swollen honker. Choos­ing the right ac­tresses posed other prob­lems. Kauff­man and Crane wanted Lisa Kudrow for Phoebe, but she was al­ready work­ing on an­other NBC show, “Mad About You.” Mak­ing her char­ac­ters twins solved that prob­lem once the other sit­com signed off on the ar­range­ment. That still left Mon­ica and Rachel to cast. Jen­nifer Anis­ton was called in to read for Mon­ica but pushed for Rachel in­stead. So who would play Mon­ica? Nancy McK­eon, a fa­vorite from “The Facts of Life,” seemed like a good choice, but there was worry that an al­ready estab­lished TV star would tilt the bal­ance of the en­sem­ble. The pro­duc­ers went with the lesser-known Courteney Cox.

“We were like six pieces of a puz­zle,” Sch­wim­mer said, adding that af­ter the first re­hearsal, “It just felt like, okay, this works.”

Once the show started shoot­ing, the ac­tors added their own in­put. LeBlanc pushed to make Joey more of a sweet­heart, less of a lech. And Cox con­vinced her cast­mates to adopt an all-for-one phi­los­o­phy, whether it was in salary ne­go­ti­a­tions or Emmy cam­paigns.

Crit­ics weren't im­pressed at first. “A 30-minute com­mer­cial

for Dock­ers,” the Washington Post critic said. But rat­ings were good and kept get­ting bet­ter. By the end of the sea­son, it was the third-most pop­u­lar show on tele­vi­sion.

Rolling Stone put them on the cover. Oprah Win­frey had them on, too.

“I'd like for y'all to get a black friend,” she told them. “Maybe I could stop by.”

The au­di­ence laughed, but Win­frey had found the show's soft spot. Why didn't the char­ac­ters have any black friends? It was a great ques­tion. An­other was: Why don't any of these New York­ers lock their doors? And, if Mon­ica is a chef, why is she al­ways home for din­ner?

As the show went on, it di­ver­si­fied a lit­tle. But it stayed cau­tious. That Ross' wife re­al­ized she was gay and left him for a woman was treated as a joke, as was Chan­dler's cross­dress­ing fa­ther. At the wed­ding of Ross' ex, the episode didn't show the brides kiss­ing, and made ev­ery­thing look as straight as pos­si­ble.

“They needed at least 30 or 40 more fat dykes in tuxe­does,” grum­bled gay comic Lea DeLaria, who played one of the guests. “All those thin, per­fectly coiffed girls in Laura Ash­ley prints – what kind of les­bian wed­ding is that? And no one played soft­ball af­ter­ward?”

This, though, was in 1996, a year be­fore Ellen De­Generes came out on her show. Gay char­ac­ters were rare; shows were largely seg­re­gated. All the main char­ac­ters on “Se­in­feld” were also white, just as all the main char­ac­ters on “Liv­ing Sin­gle” were black. That lack of di­ver­sity was some­how ex­pected. In fact, “Friends” even down­played its main char­ac­ters' back­grounds, so thor­oughly it was easy to forget that Mon­ica and Ross were sup­posed to be Jewish.

The show's cau­tion def­i­nitely dates it to­day. Yet some as­pects keep it time­less. The friends never talked about cur­rent events. By the end of its run in 2004, the char­ac­ters had lived through 9/11 and may have been the only peo­ple in the city to have never men­tioned it.

It's one rea­son, the author says, that “Friends” re­runs have be­come such a per­fect haven. Even back then, the show was about es­cap­ing the present.

An­other rea­son, of course, is that the show was sim­ply good. The “Friends” not only played to­gether in real life, they also played off each other on set. And the show's cre­ators were al­ways will­ing to put in the ex­tra work. Al­though filmed in front of an au­di­ence, when a joke didn't work, they rewrote it.

The se­ries only be­came more pop­u­lar, and the cast ne­go­ti­ated record-break­ing salaries of $1 mil­lion each, per episode, plus a slice of the syn­di­ca­tion rights.

But as the se­ries went on it be­came harder to keep fresh. The char­ac­ters were all in their 30s by now, a lit­tle old for goofy shenani­gans. And the ac­tors who played them were ea­ger to start play­ing other roles be­fore it was too late. Af­ter the 10th sea­son, “Friends” said good­bye.

Yet it still lives for­ever in what­ever for­mat is cur­rently the fa­vorite — ba­sic-ca­ble syn­di­ca­tion, boxed DVD sets, stream­ing.

Could it ever re­ally come back, though? As a movie, the way “Sex and the City” did? As a one-time TV event, the way “Mary and Rhoda” re­vis­ited “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”?

The cast and crew aren't en­thu­si­as­tic about the idea.

“All the peo­ple who say, ‘Oh, we want to see them again!' you re­ally don't,” Crane says. “Let's be hon­est, re­unions gen­er­ally suck,” Kauff­man says. “You can never go back,” LeBlanc in­sists. “You can only move for­ward.”

Still, at least one cast mem­ber is will­ing to leave the apart­ment door open, just a crack.

“Any­thing is a pos­si­bil­ity,” Anis­ton said this year. “I mean, Ge­orge Clooney got mar­ried.”

/©NBC/COUR­TESY EVERETT COL­LEC­TION

Matthew Perry, Courteney Cox, Jen­nifer Anis­ton, David Sch­wim­mer and Lisa Kudrow made up the core of “Friends” cast, which never had a mi­nor­ity main char­ac­ter, danced del­i­cately around ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity and spent a lot of time just goof­ing around at a cafe.

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