WHY THESE FOLKS ARE STILL OUR ‘FRIENDS’
In 1994, it provided a perfect escape; and, even now, it’s popular for the same reason
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.”
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.