21 Facts That Explain the ‘Friends’ Phenomenon
It’s hard — OK, impossible — to remember a world without “Friends.” The NBC show first aired on September 22, 1994, and changed television history forever. It also made household names — and, eventually, some of the highest-paid actors on TV — out of its stars: Jennifer Aniston (Rachel Green), Courteney Cox (Monica Geller), Lisa Kudrow (Phoebe Buffay), Matt LeBlanc (Joey Tribbiani), Matthew Perry (Chandler Bing), and David Schwimmer (Ross Geller).
More than 52 million Americans watched the “Friends” finale on May 6, 2004, making it the most-watched episode of television in the first decade of the 21st century. We could probably give you 52 million reasons why “Friends” is the world’s favorite sitcom. Here are just a few, for starters — plus some trivia tidbits.
It Didn’t Want to Be Like ‘Every Other Sitcom’
Originally, NBC wanted one main storyline per episode, plus two minor ones, but Crane and Kauffman dug their heels in, insisting there were three storylines, all with equal weight. "We didn't want to make it like every other sitcom," said Kauffman.
‘Friends’ Wasn’t Always ‘Friends’
It’s hard to believe, but “Friends” could have been called “Insomnia Cafe,” “Across the Hall” or “Six of One,” among many, many others. Apparently, around 100 titles were in the running. One of the shortlisted suggestions, “Friends Like Us,” was eventually shortened to simply “Friends.”
“It’s an iconic title now, but at the time we were cocking our heads going, ‘Huh? Is that a good title?’ We really weren’t sure,” said David Janollari, former head of comedy development at Warner Bros. TV.
Casting Directors Took Their Time to Find the Ensemble Cast
Several other actors were considered for the parts of Monica, Rachel, Phoebe, Chandler and Joey. In fact, the casting directors saw at least 500 people before deciding on the dream team.
Nancy McKeon, Janeane Garofalo and Leah Rimini were all in the running for Monica, while Jane Krakowski auditioned to play Rachel, and Jane Lynch and Kathy Griffin were both interested in the role of Phoebe.
Vince Vaughn could have been Joey, and Jon Favreau was offered Chandler, but turned it down. David Schwimmer was the only dead cert cast member from the get-go, having impressed Crane and Kauffman when he auditioned a year earlier for another pilot they were making.
There Was a ‘Spirit of Collaboration’ From the Beginning
Kauffman described the atmosphere when the first time the six actors were on stage (at the coffee house) as “electric.” “A chill ran down my spine,” she said. “I knew we had something special.”
Schwimmer said what he was most struck by was “the spirit of collaboration,” and Kudrow agreed. “There’s a code with actors,” she told Vanity Fair. “Actors don’t give each other notes under any circumstances. [But Cox gave us permission] to give her notes, and we all agreed that that would be great. Why not? [...] I thought that was a real turning point.”
There Were Some Clever Crossovers
Before she signed up to “Friends,” Kudrow had a recurring role as Ursula Buffay on the series "Mad About You." To avoid confusion (and create an interesting backstory for the character), the writers brought Ursula into “Friends” as Phoebe’s twin sister.
In one Season One episode (The One With Two Parts: Part 1), Helen Hunt, who played Jamie Buchanan on “Mad About You,” confuses Phoebe for Ursula at Central Perk and tries to order coffee from her. As for the other “Friends” crossover — strictly speaking, it’s not actually a crossover. But it’s still super clever — in the Season One episode “The One With Two Parts: Part 2,” George Clooney and Noah Wyle (aka “E.R”’s Dr. Doug Ross and Dr. John Kyle) appear as E.R. doctors who flirt with Monica and Rachel.
The Guest Stars Were Top Class
As well as Hunt, the long list of big names who guest-starred in “Friends” over the show’s 10-year stint includes Julia Roberts, Bruce Willis, Susan Sarandon, Brooke Shields, Jeff Goldblum and Sean Penn.
Rachel’s sisters were played by Reese Witherspoon (Jill) and Christina Applegate (Amy), while a then-unknown Ellen Pompeo starred in season 10’s “The One Where the Stripper Cries” as a former college classmate of Ross and Chandler’s, only months before she made her debut as Meredith Grey in “Grey’s Anatomy.”
It’s Still One of the Most Streamed Shows on Netflix
Fans went crazy in late 2018, when the news broke that “Friends” was to leave Netflix in 2019. In late 2018, a Change.org petition to bring the show back was launched, #Justice4Friends started trending, and the streaming service subsequently paid a reported $100 million to hold onto the hit.
Today, it’s one of the platform’s most-watched shows, along with “The Office” and “Grey’s Anatomy.” In 2018, global subscribers spent 54.3 million hours watching it. However, Netflix viewers should prepare to say goodbye; the show will be moving to WarnerMedia’s upcoming streaming service, HBO Max, in 2020.
It Was Filmed Before a Live Audience (Most of the Time)
Although each episode of “Friends” took around five hours to shoot, involving multiple takes per scene and 20-minute breaks between scenes to change sets, it was still filmed before a live, 300-strong audience. The cast liked it that way, according to LeBlanc. “It’s kind of like a test to see if the material works if the jokes work, if the story tracks,” he said.
However, cliffhanger scenes weren’t filmed in front of a live audience, such as the season four finale, “The One With Ross’s Wedding,” when Ross is about to marry Emily, but accidentally says Rachel’s name at the altar. “We couldn’t have an audience for that,” Aniston said in commentary featured on the “Friends” DVD. “We always remove the audience for the cliffhangers because, obvious reasons, you don’t want to spoil it.”
The Cast Were a United Team In Every Sense
The “Friends” cast famously joined forces to negotiate an equal salary after they realized they were being paid different amounts. In 1997, they refused to work until they were all earning $100,000 per episode, which made headlines all over the world. “Stars of hit shows often threaten to boycott their series in pursuit of higher salaries," The New York Times reported. "What is unusual is this cast’s effort to use solidarity as leverage."
Their approach worked. By the final season, each cast member was earning $1 million per episode. According to John Agoglia, former head of business affairs at NBC, David Schwimmer’s mom, a prominent divorce attorney, was instrumental in their approach. “Her license plate is EX BARRACUDA,” he said.
Many actors have their own special rituals they carry out before filming, and for the cast of “Friends,” it was a group one. It was also the moment Schwimmer dreaded before the finale because he knew how emotional it would be.
“I started to lose it in this ritual that we had before the show," he told Vanity Fair, "which is just a group hug, kind of get in a little circle, right before we come out. And that was the moment I was dreading for a long time because I knew that moment of just looking at everyone in their eyes, and saying ‘Have a good show,’ and knowing that was the last time we were going to be able to be in our little circle.”
It Ended on a High
“Friends” ended far too soon for its millions of fans around the world, but at least it ended at the height of its popularity. One cast member in particular took some time to agree to come back for the tenth and final season. “I had a couple issues that I was dealing with,” said Aniston in a 2004 interview. “I wanted it to end when people still loved us and we were on a high. And then I was also feeling like, ‘How much more of Rachel do I have in me?’”
Joey Was Always Destined to End Up Single
Joey is the show’s ultimate bachelor and the only cast member to end the show single, but that wasn’t the creators’ original intention. From the start, they planned a romance between Monica and Joey, which was ultimately killed when LeBlanc suggested Joey didn’t hit on Monica, Rachel or Phoebe and instead assumed more of a “big brother” role. And when Joey and Rachel got together, even the cast voiced their concerns.
"It felt wildly inappropriate,” LeBlanc said. “That’s how close we all were to the character. I was like, 'That’s Rachel. She was supposed to be with Ross. Wait a minute.' Everybody got super-defensive about the whole thing."
The Audience Played a Huge Part
The show’s loyal fans did more than keep the show on air and boost the bank balances of everybody involved in its creation. At times, the audience’s reaction to the story affected how it evolved. Take Monica and Chandler’s hook-up in London, for instance. They were never supposed to be a long-term thing. But Kauffman said the studio audience’s overwhelmingly positive reaction to the scene when Monica and Chandler first got intimate gave her pause. “We were stunned. So that’s when we sort of went, ‘Huh, guess this is going in a different direction,’” she told Vanity Fair.
Not everyone’s favorite “Friends” character is one of the main six. The show just wouldn’t be the same without Janice, Chandler’s one-time love, played to perfection by Maggie Wheeler. The show’s producers knew exactly how audiences would react to seeing Janice on stage, so to capture their delight, they kept her well hidden.
“I could barely come down to get a doughnut,” Wheeler told Digital Spy. “I had to stay in my dressing room until the last moment and then they’d secretly move me from behind the set to the right spot and they’d keep a black screen so the audience couldn’t see me until I made my first entrance.”
It Set (and Broke) Records
A special one-hour episode of “Friends” featuring guest appearances by Brooke Shields (left) and Jean-Claude Van Damme aired after the 1996 Super Bowl. “Despite the fact that most of the country had already been eating, drinking, and watching television for hours, the ‘Friends’ special delivered a 29.6 rating and a 46 share,” Warren Littlefield, former president of NBC Entertainment, told Vanity Vair. “No network had ever accomplished that. For the night, NBC averaged a 42.0 rating and a 62 share. It was the most-watched night in television history with approximately 140 million Americans tuning in.”
It Appeals to All Ages
“Friends” remains a favorite with nostalgic 30- and 40-somethings, but it also has a much younger fan base. A new generation of Netflix bingers can still identify with the characters, and a 2019 survey of British children aged nine to 16 found that “Friends” was their favorite series, even though most of them were born long after the final episode aired.
Everyone’s Favorite Friend Is…
Well, it depends who you ask. According to 117,000 votes on Ranker, Chandler comes out on top, with Joey and Phoebe taking second and third place, respectively. And a poll of U.K. viewers in 2018 reached the same conclusion. However, an earlier poll via Comedy Central’s Twitter feed to mark the end of the epic, six-week U.K. Friendsfest in 2016, had a different result. Ross scooped a whopping 25.6 percent of the vote, although Chandler came in a close second, with 25.4 percent. (Sorry, Monica and Rachel — we do love you, too.)
The Best-Reviewed Episodes Had Flashbacks
Viewers loved seeing what Monica, Ross, Rachel, Phoebe, Chandler and Joey got up to in their 20s and 30s, but they also wanted to know about their past. In fact, the best-reviewed episodes on IMDb tend to be those that went back in time, be it through flashbacks, recovered videotapes or scenes with extended family. Basically, everybody wanted to know everything about the six people they considered to be their friends, too.
At the time of publication, the episodes in joint first place on the IMDb list are “The One Where Everybody Finds Out” (Season 5, Episode 14) and “The Last One: Part Two” (Season 10, Episode 17).
They’re More Like Family Than Friends
If you’ve ever felt closer to the “Friends” characters to your own real-life family — first of all, you’re not crazy. And secondly, one of the cast members totally gets where you’re coming from.
“More important than anything else is the look on people’s faces when you cross paths with them in the street, or in the store, or in the grocery line. You can always tell that you were — maybe still are, maybe always will be — a part of their family,” LeBlanc told Vanity Fair. “Movies have this thing where it’s an event. You get dressed up, you go to dinner, and you go to the movies. You’re outside of your element. But with television, people are watching you in bed, at their kitchen table eating. You’re in their house.”
It Spawned a Haircut Trend
Ah, “The Rachel” — the hair obsession with many a teenage girl in 1995. But one person (possibly the only one) who wasn't a fan of the show's iconic haircut was Jennifer Aniston herself.
"How do I say this? I think it was the ugliest haircut I've ever seen. What I really want to know is, how did that thing have legs? Let's just say I'm not a fan of short, layered cuts on me personally, so I don't love revisiting that particular era," Aniston told Allure.
Phoebe’s Songs Became Famous
Well, one of them at least. But who needs more than “Smelly Cat”? Every true “Friends” fan knows all the words.
In her Reddit AMA, Kudrow revealed that the “Friends” writers wrote the lyrics to “Smelly Cat,” and she wrote the tune with a little help from Chrissie Hynde. “She was amazing,” she said. “Phoebe's song lyrics were not ad libbed,” she added. “The writers wrote them. And I got to come up with the tunes.”
“Smelly Cat”’s place as a cultural touchstone was well and truly cemented when Kudrow performed it on stage with Taylor Swift. But when asked to name her favorite song from Phoebe’s extensive back catalog, Kudrow chose something different.
“They all actually make me laugh really hard, somebody put them all together on YouTube, because I'd forgotten all the songs, and every time a new one came on, I laughed out loud, but I really liked the one for the kids, that starts "Oh the cow in the meadow goes moo..." she revealed. (It’s in Season 2, Episode 12 — The One After The Superbowl, Part 1 — in case you want to remind yourself of its brilliance.)