'Friends' at 25: The show creators tell all, from 'horrible' test screenings to the main character that never was

Ethan Alter
Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
The cast of Friends, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. (Photo: Warner Bros. / Courtesy: Everett Collection)

No one told them life was going to be this way. When Friends creators Marta Kauffman and David Crane saw the initial audience test scores for the show’s pilot episode in early 1994, nothing in the numbers suggested that they’d still be talking about the series a quarter-century later. “The pilot tested OK,” Crane tells Yahoo Entertainment about those early reports, in which a significant portion of viewers expressed ambivalence about spending a half-hour every week in the company of the show’s sextet of New York City twentysomethings. “There was a certain resistance from test audiences, who weren’t necessarily onboard with these kids. We told the network, ‘You can’t listen to test audiences.’ I mean, virtually every show that’s done well has tested horribly and we were among them.”

Instead of the test audiences, the duo listened to their hearts, which overflowed with affection for the characters they had created on the page, and the cast that brought them to life in front of the cameras. Even though Kauffman admits that their memories about the show’s early days can be spotty — so much so that they’d easily lose a Friends trivia contest — she’ll never forget the feeling of watching Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry and David Schwimmer assemble for their first rehearsal. “I got chills up and down my spine. At that moment, David and I both knew. We didn’t know that the show would be successful, but we knew there was something very special there.”

Success came quickly when the show premiered on Sept. 22, 1994. More than 21 million viewers tuned in for the first episode, and by the end of the season that number swelled to 31 million, putting Friends in the same company as NBC ratings powerhouses like Seinfeld and ER. The series remained towards the top of the Nielsen charts for the next 10 years, as those carefree “kids” Rachel, Monica, Phoebe, Joey, Chandler and Ross experienced various triumphs, setbacks, loves and losses on their way towards adulthood. Twenty-five years on, a whole new audience has taken that journey with them as Friends has turned into one of Netflix’s most popular binges thanks to ongoing storylines that were written during the syndication era, but play even better during the streaming era when audience expect serialized storytelling. (The series will move to HBO Max, WarnerMedia’s new streaming service, next year.)

“At the time, the network was nervous about arcs, but we felt strongly about them,” Kauffman says. “And they help with the streaming services now. You can get involved in a story, and not suddenly be in a whole new episode where they dropped that thing that was happening with Monica.” Adds Crane: “We were just telling stories that we liked. But when we did pursue arcs, it really helped the show because Marta and I really cared. We cared because it had to be funny, but also because we were both very invested in how much you cared about these characters, and you needed ongoing stories to really be able to do that.”

If you care about Friends — and we know you do — Yahoo Entertainment is there for you with these five behind-the-scenes stories just in time for the show’s Silver Anniversary.

1. No adults allowed

Jennifer Aniston, Lisa Kudrow and Courteney Cox in a 1996 episode of Friends. (Photo: Warner Bros. Television / Courtesy: Everett Collection)

After those mildly disappointing pilot testing scores came back, NBC executives hunkered down with Kauffman and Crane to discuss how to address some of the plot points that weren’t making the show an across-the-board smash. Monica’s one night stand with Paul the Wine Guy was one such sticking point, and another was the lack of an older, wiser figure who could share some life wisdom with the six Friends — the Mr. Belding of the gang, if you will — and thus put older viewers at ease. “Between the pilot and the series coming to air, they begged us to add an older character in the coffee house,” Kauffman remembers. One character idea that was pitched and then rejected was a police officer tentatively named “Pat the Cop,” who would regularly pop by Central Perk for coffee and conversation. (By the way, eagle-eyed viewers will notice that Central Perk doesn’t appear to be named Central Perk in the pilot. Kauffman says that they had the name in mind already — it just wasn’t emblazoned on the window until the second episode.)

With Pat’s badge revoked, the creators then toyed with the idea of making Central Perk’s owner, Terry (played by veteran character actor Max Wright) — who appeared briefly in the first and second seasons — a more prominent personality on the show. “[NBC] wanted to have an older demographic represented somehow,” Crane says. “We felt that it was fine for an episode, but you wouldn’t want to see the character more than once or twice. For us, it just kept coming back to these six friends.” As Kauffman points out, a wisdom-dispensing mentor would actually have stunted the personal growth of the core characters. “Our feeling was that the show existed on these identifiable characters and conflicts. It’s about being in your 20s and starting your life. The show is not about the advice they get from an older coffee shop owner.” NBC ultimately backed off from their demands for a full-time older friend, though Crane says that he and Kauffman did make a promise in exchange. “Our answer to them was, ‘You’ll see more of their parents, and we’ll make an effort to get some guest stars who aren’t in their 20s.’”

2. Brooke, Julia and Jean-Claude… oh my!

Matthew Perry and Julia Roberts on the star-studded post-Super Bowl episode of Friends. (Photo: Warner Bros. / Courtesy: Everett Collection)

The duo made good on that promise in the show’s second episode, which introduced ’70s superstar Elliot Gould as Monica and Ross’s father. Other high-profile guest stars throughout that first season included George Clooney, Jon Lovitz and Morgan Fairchild as Chandler’s mom. But it was Season 2 where the show shot to another stratosphere in terms of star power. That’s when Friends landed the coveted post-Super Bowl slot, and the resulting two-part episode boasted cameos by Brooke Shields, Julia Roberts... and Jean-Claude Van Damme? “Those names are rarely said together,” Crane says, with a chuckle. “There are moments on our show that are absolutely time capsules, where it turns out that star isn’t timeless. But at the time, who knows?”

While he may be the odd name out today, Van Damme’s Friends appearance was momentous in 1996 because that era’s movie stars made a point of never appearing on the small screen outside of talks shows or Saturday Night Live. (It’s a sign of the changing times that both he and Roberts have headlined Amazon Prime series within the past few years, Jean-Claude van Johnson and Homecoming, respectively.) But the ratings power of Friends compelled them to put aside those prejudices. “We were aware that getting some of the names we got was special and unique at the time,” Kauffman says. “TV was looked down upon, so it felt like a real coup.” And, as Crane notes, other network shows started to follow their example. “You’d see shows like Will & Grace and you’d go, ‘Oh my God, there’s Cher!’ It was just this cavalcade of stars. But when we were first starting out it was pretty shocking.”

As a wise man once said, with great power comes great responsibility. Crane stresses that he and Kauffman never actively pursued A-list cameos even as later seasons featured the likes of Brad Pitt, Winona Ryder and Sean Penn. “We would just write parts, and then casting people would come back and say, ‘So-and-so really wants to do the show,’ and we’d be amazed. It was never like, ‘We have to get so-and-so for this!’ If anything, we felt like, ‘We have this incredibly famous person guest starring on the show. Are we giving them enough to do?’ Our heart was always with the six principles, and that’s who always got the best of the writing.”

3. The one with the diversity question

As time went on, Friends’s guest star ranks grew to include actors of color like Sherri Shepherd, Craig Robinson, Gabrielle Union and Aisha Tyler. Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment recently, Shepherd noted how her appearance in a 1998 episode was a breakthrough both personally and professionally. “There weren’t many black people on Friends,” the actress said. “Gabrielle Union told me, ‘I remember when you were on Friends and it inspired me!’”

Friends certainly wasn’t alone among network sitcoms of that era in its limited diversity. Asked whether it’s something they would change if they were making the show today, Crane acknowledges how the series fits into the larger conversation about evolving standards for diversity in television. “It’s a challenging question, because there’s obviously so much more perspective on that,” he notes. “I think you have to look at it through the lens of when we started. If you look at Seinfeld, Mad About You and Frasier, no one was prioritizing that. Should they have? Probably. It’s something that, in a contemporary way, you’re aware of. I think if you were approaching the show today, you would certainly approach it differently. But on the other hand, these were absolutely the six people who felt perfect for these parts, so it’s hard to get into a time machine and imagine it differently.”

Similarly, the creators are aware that certain storylines — like Monica’s weight issues and Chandler’s reaction to his transgender father (played by Kathleen Turner) — have a different impact when watched today. “Because I have this 2019 lens, it does land differently now,” Kauffman says. “Yeah, absolutely,” Crane agrees, adding, “None of it was intended to be mean-spirited.”

4. That time that Joey and Rachel were a thing

Jennifer Aniston and Matt LeBlanc had one of the least romantic relationships on Friends. (Photo: Warner Bros. / Courtesy: Everett Collection)

Speaking of storylines that raised eyebrows, Joey and Rachel’s ultra-brief romance in the show’s final season is often cited by even the most hardcore Friends fans as a near shark-jumping moment. But the creators are ready to leap to the defense of the doomed pair. “We liked it,” Kauffman says. “It felt real. That’s what happens in groups of friends and it was vulnerable for both of them.” Besides, the fact that it felt so wrong to so many viewers is what made it feel right to the writers. “It was wrong in a really cool way,” Crane enthuses. “You get to see them come to that realization, and it let Joey show some emotional colors that he hadn’t up to that point. We liked it because it was dangerous. We knew people would go, ‘You can’t do that!’ and that was one of the selling points for us.” Funnily enough, among the people who went, “You can’t do that!” were Aniston and LeBlanc. “They were a little nervous about it,” Crane admits. “And we had to say, ‘Everything you’re nervous about is exactly why we should do it.’”

That said, they didn’t try to push the actors out of their comfort zones as a rule. “We tried to really listen to them,” Crane says. “If there was something they weren’t comfortable with, we would usually defer to their instinct unless we could really defend it. We were really ruthless with ourselves [in the writer’s room] and threw out a tremendous amount of material, either stuff within stories or whole stories. I’m sure we lost things that were probably better than we thought they were at the time, but that was the journey we were on.”

5. Apartment 5 is still empty

The final shot of Friends. shows Monica's empty apartment. (Photo: Warner Bros./Netflix)

Sorry, folks: Crane and Kauffman are firmly standing by their no-reunion, no-reboot policy. “The characters are done,” Crane says. “We feel like we put them to bed.” That means that Apartment 5 will forever be frozen in time, awaiting new occupants to pick up those six keys on the kitchen counter. Asked whether they’d consider turning those proverbial keys over to a new creative team — one that would move a new group of friends into those spacious, rent-controlled digs — both respond with emphatic “No’s.”

And Warner Bros., which owns the show, is standing behind them on that decision. “They’ve been incredibly respectful of us throughout this entire process,” Kauffman says. “We’d said early on that we didn’t want to do a reunion or a reboot, and they’ve never asked. We won’t be able to beat what we’ve done, and what was magical about the show was those six actors. So I can’t see how we could improve on what we did.”

They also can’t imagine a better ending for the six Friends than heading off to Central Perk for another round of coffee. That’s why they resist from imagining where the characters are 15 years later, even as fans obsess over whether Ross and Rachel are on another of their famous breaks or if Monica and Chandler bailed on Westchester for a Brooklyn brownstone. (As for whether Joey ever made it big in Hollywood, the creators note that they weren’t creatively involved with that short-lived spinoff.) “We love those people, and we hope they’re happy,” Crane says simply. Even when the rain starts to pour.

Friends is currently streaming on Netflix.

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