Still 'Friends' after 20 years

Hit sitcom 'Friends' is celebrating the 10th anniversary of its final episode, and the 20th anniversary of the first episode. (Mike Blake, Reuters)

Hit sitcom 'Friends' is celebrating the 10th anniversary of its final episode, and the 20th anniversary of the first episode. (Mike Blake, Reuters)

Here’s the thing about Friends, the thing that’s often forgotten in all the fuss over Jennifer Aniston’s hair; the embarrassment about the fuss over Jennifer Aniston’s hair; the catch-phrases (“We were on a break!”, “Could you be any more annoying?”); the soap-opera plot lines (Ross and Rachel! Monica and Chandler! Er, Rachel and Joey); the great star cameos (Brad Pitt) and long-running roles (Tom Selleck, Kathleen Turner); the always awful British cameos (Tom Conti, Jennifer Saunders); and the ridiculous hoo-hah over the show’s final episode. The thing about Friends is that it’s funny.

But Friends is a victim of its own success and, more specifically, its ubiquity. To mark the 10th anniversary of its final episode, and the 20th anniversary of the first episode, some of the actors appeared on The Jimmy Kimmel Show in the US last week in a mock-up of the original set, and the skit seemed, well, tired.
Tacky. Because repeats of the show are on TV all the time, it feels like a faintly embarrassing 90s behemoth that will never die, a supergroup that keeps touring long after it has stopped making records.

To be honest, I had pretty much forgotten how funny Friends is just because I had watched every single episode so many damn times. It is only when you take a break from it – which I appreciate is hard if you have any sort of paid-for TV package since it seems to be on some channel every single hour of every single day – that you can appreciate how funny and smart the show really was. Only the best TV shows make viewers truly care about the characters and Friends did just that.

Even David Crane and Marta Kauffman understand why people get sick of the show, and, along with Kevin S Bright, they created and wrote it. 

“This one woman I’m working with now, she’ll send me photos of her TV at odd hours of the night because whatever time she gets home, Friends is on,” Kauffman laughs down the phone from her home in LA. “I never think: ‘Oh cool, my show’s on!’ I think: ‘Oh God, I can’t believe we let that joke stay.’”

“Jeffrey and I will come across a channel and it’s on, like, every half hour,” adds Crane on a recent trip to London, referring to his partner, fellow comedy writer and producer Jeffrey Klarik. “We’ll look at each other and be like, this is crazy, it’s 10 years later.” 

Both laugh when asked if they ever imagined they would create such a generation-defining show (“Oh my God, can you imagine anyone saying: ‘Yes’? Who does that?” asks Crane). Rather, Friends was born out of a feeling of professional panic: “We’d just had a show (HBO’s Dream On) cancelled, so for us it was just, OK, we need to get back on the air, here are some ideas, let’s go,” says Crane. “And the idea for Friends felt good and right from the start, but lots of things can feel good and right and they get pulled in less than a year.”

The only actor they had in mind when they wrote the characters was David Schwimmer as Ross, as he had auditioned for them in the past. The hardest part to cast, to their surprise, was Chandler, “which we didn’t expect at all because Chandler has all the jokey jokes. But it turned out that nobody could do it,” says Crane. “So we were starting to think we’d need to rewrite the character, but then Matthew [Perry] came in and it was like: ‘Oh there’s Chandler. Boom.’”

Immediate hit 
Friends premiered in the US on September 22 1994, a Thursday night. “That was when we had the most anxiety – not when the show became successful and people had expectations, but before it was successful, because we were on the same night as Seinfeld, Frasier and Mad About You [which Klarik created]. So we knew we were on with shows with an impressive pedigree and we didn’t want to be the loser,” says Crane.

The show was an immediate hit with audiences, but Kauffman and Crane barely realised because making it “was like laying down tracks in front of a moving train”: Monday saw the table read and rewrites; Tuesday was the rehearsal and rewrites; Wednesday was the rehearsal in front of the network and studio and rewrites; Thursday was camera-blocking day and more rewrites; Friday was the show in front of the audience. And during all this, they would also be writing next week’s show. Kauffman, who had her third child during the show’s run, says she is “still catching up on sleep”.

“I remember the first time I realised the show was a hit was a few months after we started and Jeffrey and I went out for dinner with my parents. We heard the people talking at the table next to us: ‘Oh, the one with the laundromat!’ And we thought: ‘They’re talking about our show!’”

“And Jeffrey said: ‘Remember this moment, because the rest is going to go by in a blur.’ And it did,” says Crane.

Kauffman and Crane still talk about each other as fondly as any of the characters from Friends ever did about one another (“He’s a delight, isn’t he?” says Kauffman when I mention Crane) and all decisions are described as decisions “we” took, referring to the two of them and sometimes Klarik, too (it was Klarik who came up with the show’s working title of Friends Like Us, as well as no one’s favourite cast member, Marcel the monkey). 

“If David and I weren’t friends ourselves, I can’t imagine how we could have done Friends,” says Kauffman. 

Hugs and learning
Friends differed so much from the other big US sitcom of the 90s, Seinfeld, that it seemed at times like they defined themselves in opposition to one another. Whereas Friends wanted to make you care about the characters, Seinfeld couldn’t have cared less if you even liked them.

And whereas Jerry Seinfeld famously said that his eponymous show had only one rule, “No hugging, no learning”, Friends was all hugs and all learning.

“Yeah, we weren’t afraid of hugs in Friends!” says Kauffman. 

So what does she think of Seinfeld’s rule about them? “I don’t even remember that quote,” she says briskly. “So there you go.”

And perhaps because Friends was so unafraid of lessons and sentimentality – Seinfeld‘s bete noir – it had the more satisfying final episode, whereas Seinfeld and Larry David made an infamous hash of theirs. 

Aside from the sheer success of the show, the biggest surprise to Kauffman and Crane is how they were able to stay true to their original vision. Sure, some ideas went out the window once they cast the characters (their once-mooted plan to have a romance between Monica and Joey was ditched once they saw Courteney Cox and Matt LeBlanc with each other), but otherwise the show remained pretty much how they envisaged it. 

“We just really knew what show we wanted to do. We knew what was in each other’s heads,” says Kauffman. 

“The bottom line is, when it comes to characters on a TV show, I want to care. The comedy’s important, the jokes are important but, fundamentally, you’ve absolutely got to care about these people or you’re not going to watch past a few episodes,” says Crane. 

Elements of weirdness
And this is true, but what always makes Friends stand out for me are the surprising elements of weirdness in the show: the way Ross pronounces “fajitas” when he’s having a nervous breakdown about Rachel and Joey; the way the Geller parents love Ross but hate Monica; Kathleen Turner playing Chandler’s dad (“She was wonderful, my God!” says Crane); and Joey’s terrible plays. The show could also be knowing about its cosiness, as in the episode when someone knocks on the door to the apartment and the characters look around, bemused, since they are all there already. Simply the way the actors speak their lines – especially Schwimmer and Perry – can make me laugh. How much of this came from the writers and how much from the actors?

“Matt [Perry] absolutely brought that to it. It actually became a thing for the writers because, when you’re writing, very often you’ll underline words and we stopped doing that with him because when we underlined a word he would emphasise any other word in the sentence. So we stopped doing it in the hope that we would get lucky and he would emphasise the word we meant,” Crane says, laughing. 

Of course, the problem with audiences caring about characters is that they will get very cross when the characters don’t behave in expected ways. 

For Friends fans, this shark-jumping moment happened when Joey got together with Rachel: “Jennifer [Aniston] and Matt [LeBlanc] were very uncomfortable with that; they thought it was incestuous,” says Kauffman. 

“We said: ‘Because it’s so wrong, that makes it right,’ and it worked because it allowed us to show Joey in a new, heartbroken light,” says Crane, which is true, sort of. At least they dropped that storyline fairly swiftly and soon after gave the show the Ross ‘n Rachel finale the fans wanted. 

These days, Crane and Klarik are busy making Episodes, which they created together, and Kauffman is making films and shows in Los Angeles.

Despite the long-running tabloid rumours of an upcoming reunion show, Crane and Kauffman say this will “never” happen. “We always knew the show had to finish when the characters have their own families, because that’s when it’s no longer a time that your friends are your family,” says Kauffman. “Everything changes again.” – Guardian News & Media 2014

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