The Vanity Fair, May 2012 issue, featured alum Warren Littlefield’s oral history of “Friends.” The show aired on NBC, of which Littlefield then served as president of entertainment for 10 successful seasons. Along the way, “Friends” pioneered a genre described in his article as an “emotional soap opera,” and looked at 20-somethings in a whole new way.
Littlefield was credited with being the architect of NBC’s winning Thursday lineup penned “Must-See TV. “Under his watch as president, NBC won an amazing 168 Emmy awards and numerous other industry honors. Littlefield joined NBC as manager of comedy development in 1979. At that time, NBC had no comedies ranked among Nielsen’s top 25 shows. Less than two years later, he was promoted to vice president of current comedy programs. As the captain of the network’s comedy department, he helped develop award-winning series such as “Cheers,””Family Ties,””The Cosby Show,””The Golden Girls,” and casting Will Smith in “Fresh Prince of Bel Air.” During those years, NBC enjoyed a history-making, six-year ride as the top-rated network.
He attended the School of Government and Public Administration at American University in Washington, D.C., before earning a degree in psychology from Hobart College in 1974. Littlefield has remained a dedicated alumnus since graduating from Hobart, returning to offer a Druid Society lecture, and providing current students with insight into the media industry through his participation in the Salisbury Center for Career Service and Professional Development L.A. Experience over the past several years.
The Littlefield Company represents the newest chapter in Littlefield’s television career. In 2001, he signed a multi-year deal to develop and executive produce television shows for the Network Television Division of Paramount.
The full article by Littlefield as it appeared in Vanity Fair follows.
With Friends Like These
Warren Littlefield • May 2012
Friends began with a casting miracle-the uncanny chemistry of six up-and-coming actors (two of whom weren’t even really available)-combined with a legendary director, and a pair of writers who nailed the young, single, urban life as never before on TV. In an adaptation from his new book on the rise and fall of NBC’s “Must See” TV, Warren Littlefield, the network’s former president, presents an oral history of its 10-season ratings juggernaut, learning how the stars’ characters were shaped, their lives altered, and their hearts a little bit broken.
By Warren Littlefield
Approaching the fall season of 1994, NBC was in a tight spot. Under the leadership of Brandon Tartikoff, the network had dominated its competition through much of the 1980s, on the strength of series such as Cheers, Hill Street Blues, The Cosby Show, St. Elsewhere, The Golden Girls, and L.A. Law. Warren Littlefield had taken over the presidency of NBC Entertainment in the summer of 1990 and helped develop new hits such as Seinfeld, Mad About You, and Frasier. But with its stalwart 80s shows having ended their runs, the network slipped to second place behind ABC. NBC needed more successes, and, against all odds, it was about to land two of the biggest hits in TV history.
WARREN LITTLEFIELD (former president of NBC Entertainment): NBC’s pilot season of 1994 is legendary in the business. In a world where failure is commonplace, we midwifed the birth of both Friends and ER. While ER came essentially out of the blue, we’d been casting around for a Friends-like show for some time at the network.
One morning while I had been studying the overnight ratings from the major markets, I found myself thinking about the people in those cities, particularly the twentysomethings just beginning to make their way. I imagined young adults starting out in New York, L.A., Dallas, Philly, San Francisco, St. Louis, or Portland all faced the same difficulties. It was very expensive to live in those places as well as a tough emotional journey. It would be a lot easier if you did it with a friend.
Addressing that general idea became a development target for us. We wanted to reach that young, urban audience, those kids starting out on their own, but none of the contenders had ever lived up to our hopes. Then Marta Kauffman and David Crane showed up with their pitch for a show called Six of One.
Karey Burke: (Former Prime-Time Executive, NBC) I remember reading a Kauffman-and-Crane play when I was a secretary at NBC. We tracked them, me, and Jamie Tarses. Jamie always wanted Kauffman and Crane to develop a show.
Jamie Tarses (Former President of Comedy Development, NBC) That was a great pitch. Marta and David finished each other’s sentences. We’d been hearing so many of those pitches. The six friends was a concept that was around. But that was a great pitch.
Karey Burke: The pitch was like two old friends telling you a story. The jokes were already there. They performed the pitch. The pitch was total entertainment. It was theater.
Jamie Tarses: I remember there being no question about the show.
One of the series Kauffman and Crane had been working on was the early HBO sitcom Dream On
Marta Kauffman (Writer and Producer of Friends): We got to Friends in a roundabout way. We’d just come off of Dream On with one actor who was in every scene, and it was brutal. SO we told ourselves, “We want to do an ensemble comedy.”
David Crane (Writer and Producer of Friends): Not that long before, we’d been living in New York, not doing TV. It was only three years later that we were pitching Friends, so we’d just been living it-that point in your life when your friends are your family.
Marta Kauffman: And we wanted to write something we would watch.
David Crane: If you read the Friends pitch now, the show was incredibly true to the pitch.
Warren Littlefield: David and Marta’s script was just as wonderful as the pitch. Smart and funny.
Marta Kauffman: When we finally started doing the show, the writers were so much younger than us that we felt like anthropologists.
David Crane: We were like 33 or 34 by then.
NBC committed to shooting a pilot for the show, and brought in the legendary writer director-producer James Burrows to direct.
Marta Kauffman: It was a fascinating casting experience. We saw a countless number of actors, but things happened as they were supposed to happen. One of the first actors on our list was Matthew Perry to play Chandler but he was doing a show called LAX 2194 [a fox pilot about baggage handlers in the year 2194], so he wasn’t available. We brought other people in.
David Crane: We brought everybody in. We were so sure that Chandler would be the easiest part to cast. It’s got the most joke jokes. It’s sarcastic and kind of quippy, but no one could do it. No one.
Marta Kauffman: The person who came closest was Craig Bierko, and we found out later that Matthew had coached him.
Lori Openden (Former head of casting, NBC): The producers wanted to go with Craig Bierko instead of Matthew Perry for Chandler. Bierko read the Friends script and passed.
Warren Littlefield: Thank God! There was something Snidely Whiplash about Craig Bierko. He seemed to have a lot of anger underneath, more of a guy you love to hate. The attractive leading man who you love and can do comedy is very rare.
Marta Kauffman: We took Matthew in second position [meaning he could be cast in Friends only if his commitment to LAX 2194 fell through].
We originally offered Rachel to Courteney Cox, but she said she wanted to do Monica, not Rachel.
David Crane: Courteney had just come off a terrible Bronson Pinchot show, where she played the wife.
Marta Kauffman: There was something about Courteney that was adorable.
Lori Openden: Nancy McKeon, from The Facts of Life, also read for Courteney’s part. She gave a terrific performance. Warren let Marta and David make the call. They went off for a walk and came back and said Courteney.
Marta Kauffman: Because we were casting an ensemble, there was something appealing about Not Nancy McKeon.
David Crane: When we originally wrote the role, we had Janeane Garofalo’s voice in our head. Darker and edgier and snarkier, and Courteney brought a whole bunch of other colors to it. We decided that, week after week, that would be a lovelier place to go to.
Marta Kauffman: And more maternal.
David Crane: We brought in two actors for Joey, and everyone preferred Matt LeBlanc. We were told he was an actor who’d get better every week.
Matt LeBlanc: I got the script, and it was Jimmy Burrow’s new project and the producer of Dream On. That was all I really needed to know: the guys are funny. I’d done two series for Fox. Friends was my fourth series.
I was practicing lines with an actor friend of mine, and he said, “This show is all about a group of friends, so we should go out tonight and get drunk, as though we were friends. We should just keep that in mind.” So we went out, and I fell down and skinned my nose really badly. I went to the audition with this huge scab on my face, and Marta said, “What happened to your face?”
I said, “Aw, it’s a long story.” She thought it was funny and laughed, and that kind of set the tone for the room. Who knew? I would never suggest: “You know what you do before an audition? You go out and face-plant on the sidewalk, and then go in all bloody.”
David Crane: Joey was never stupid when we pitched the show. He wasn’t stupid until we were shooting the pilot, and somebody said, “Matt plays dumb really well.”
Marta Kauffman: And he had so much heart. Down deep, you just wanted to take care of him. You knew that, at some point, he’d fall in love.
Matt LeBlanc: I had some sitcom experience. I knew my way around a joke a little bit. The time on Married with Children [where he had had a recurring role] and with Joe Bologna [who had co-starred with LeBlanc on one of his earlier sitcoms]-I learned a lot. I watched how they did things. I learned the process: where the joke is, how to set up a joke. I learned lot. So it went well. I got laughs.
Then I got a callback and had a studio test. It was between me and this guy-his last name was Yeager, I think. He was dressed in a denim jacket, jeans, cowboy boots. I think he had a cowboy hat with him, but he didn’t have it on. I looked at him and thought, One of us is way off the mark. God, I hope it’s you.
David Crane: An exec at NBC called to say she’d offered the part of Rachel to Jami Gertz. We didn’t have a Rachel, and Jami Gertz is a really talented actress, but not Rachel. So we held our breath for 24 hours until she passed.
Warren Littlefield: Jennifer Aniston had been in our weak attempt a few years earlier to do Ferris Bueller as a series. (We did not have the services of John Hughes.) She played Ferris’s sister, Jeannie, and we liked what we saw. We cast her in a few more pilots, but none were very good. One night while gassing up my car on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, I ran into Jennifer, and she asked me, “Will it ever happen for me?” God I wanted it to. I didn’t care what it would take-this was the role for her.
Marta Kauffman: Rachel was the part that was the hardest to cast. Jennifer Aniston came in, and she was in a show that was on the air-Muddling Through [on CBS].
David Crane: We had a meeting with the guy who creating Muddling Through and asked him if he’d let her go. What chutzpah.
Lori Openden: Jennifer Aniston and Matthew Perry were technically not available. We had second position [on both]-we were taking a gamble that the show in first position wasn’t going forward.
We auditioned other actors for Jennifer’s part, but nobody else was good enough. It was a pretty big risk. Her show was a comedy for CBS. They’d shot 10 episodes and had them on the shelf for six months. They still had the rights to air it.
Jamie Tarses: Then we had Jennifer Aniston crying to Les Moonves [then president of Warner Bros. Television, which produced Friends] to let her out of the CBS show she was on.
Warren Littlefield: I remember watching Muddling Through, Jennifer’s show. It was bad. I thought, They won’t pick up this horrible show just to fuck us, will they?
Preston Beckman (former executive vice president of program planning, NBC): I put Danielle Steele movies on opposite the Jennifer Aniston show on CBS. I killed it.
Lori Openden: When Lisa [Kudrow] auditioned for Friends as Phoebe, she owned it. There was no debate on her.
David Crane: We knew her from Mad About You.
At the time, Lisa Kudrow had a recurring role on the NBS sitcom.
Lisa Kudrow (actor): I thought Mad About You was the best-written show I’d even seen, and I always liked talking to writers. Jeffrey Klarik was one of the writers who was always really friendly and complimentary, and I didn’t know his boyfriend was David Crane. David saw me, because he paid attention to everything Jeffrey did. And I think that’s how I got called in for an audition for Friends.
I read for David and Marta, and then I had to go back and read for Jimmy Burrows. That scared me a lot, because of Frasier. He’s kind of who fired me.
Kudrow had originally been cast as Roz on the sitcom Frasier but was fired during rehearsals for the pilot episode, which Burrows directed.
Lisa Kudrow: So I was nervous to go in, thinking I’m about to read for the guy who doesn’t get me and doesn’t think I’m funny. My audition was a monologue, so there was no reacting off of anybody. Jimmy said, “No notes…O.K., thank you, Lisa.” And I thought, All right, so that’s it. “No notes” either means “It was so great I don’t have anything to say” or “Why do they keep putting this girl in front of me?”
At one point I even said, “You know, I’m more like Rachel.” And they told me, “No. You’re this quirky girl.” And then once I knew that I was going to the network-and that’s when you work out that deal-that’s when I was like, “Thank God it’s on NBC. Pilots work and don’t work, but we have to protect Mad About You, please.” That’s the only thing I cared about, so that I could still do that show. I thought since it was on the same network maybe it wouldn’t be a problem.
David Crane: When we got out first time slot, we were following Mad About You. It was weird, so that’s when we said, “What if Phoebe and Ursula [Kudrow’s Mad About You character] were sisters?” We called Danny Jacobson [a co-creator and executive producer of Mad About You], and he said, “O.K.” I’m not sure I would have.
Harold Brook (former executive vice president of business affairs, NBC and NBC studios): With Friends, the last actor to sign was David Schwimmer. Everybody loved Schwimmer, and his agent knew it. We were $2,500 [per episode] apart. We both dug in our heels. Lori Openden came to me and begged [me to make the deal]. I hated it, but we gave it to them.
Marta Kauffman: Schwimmer had auditioned the year before for a pilot we were making, and he just stuck in our heads. That was an offer. No audition.
Eric McCormack (actor): I went out for Schwimmer’s role on Friends. Years later I told Burrows the story, and he said, “Honey, you were wasting your time. They wrote the part for Schwimmer.”
Fed up with the industry after a bad experience on a short-lived series, Schwimmer had vowed never to work in TV again.
David Schwimmer: I told my agents not to send my anything. I was in Chicago doing a play with my company. [Schwimmer is a co-founder of Lookingglass Theatre Company]. We were doing The Master and Margarita-the book that we had adapted. I was playing Pontius Pilate with a very short Roman haircut, which is why Ross eventually had this haircut.
I got the call from my agent [Leslie Siebert at the Gersh Agency], and she said, “Look, I know you told me not to send you anything, but there’s a show I really think you should take a look at. It’s by Marta and David, who-if you remember-had done that show Couples,” [the pilot Schwimmer had auditioned for]. And I go, “Oh, yes. I remember loving the writing.” And she said the magic words to me: “It’s an ensemble show. There’s no star. There are six people, all similar age.” And I say, “O.K., I’ll read it, but I’m not going to do it.”
Then I got a phone call from [actor and director] Robby Benson in Chicago, who is friends with Marta and David. I was a huge fan of Robby Benson, and I had never met him. Out of the blue, I get this phone call from him. He said, “Look, I really think you should consider doing this. At least go and meet Marta and David and talk about it.” And then Jim Burrow called. Jim is my idol. I just think the world of him.
It was hugely flattering, and I thought, Well, it’s quite disrespectful with all this talent asking to meet and you just consider it. I’d be an idiot not to go.
Lisa Kudrow: I’d be at Mad About You, and other guest stars would say, “I’m reading for Joey, will you help me with it?” And I thought, Wow. Everyone wants to do this show. I wonder why.
The drama people really wanted to do ER, and the comedy people really wanted Friends. The whole thing is such a crapshoot, and just because the script is good doesn’t mean much.
Marta Kauffman: The first day we went to a run-through, and the six of them were together for the first time, onstage in the coffee shop, I remember the atmosphere being electric. A chill ran down my spine. I knew we had something special.
David Schwimmer: I felt that it was something special immediately in the first rehearsals. Even the first read-through, I thought, Oh. You could feel it. The energy.
The miracle is the casting. Having been on the other side of it now in terms of directing and producing, to find one magical actor who is just right for the role is difficult enough, but to find six and then to have them actually have chemistry with each other is just kind of a miracle. I think we were just lucky. I looked at the five of them, I watched their work, and I thought, Everyone is just so talented and perfect for their character. And they grew into their characters and enriched them and deepened them.
David Crane: We had absolutely no idea what this show was going to be. For us, it was just another pilot. We’d just had a series canceled. We were thinking we’d never work again, so we were scrambling. You pitch a bunch of stuff. We were doing this thing at Fox and at NBC. Friends was feeling good, but it was just another pilot. Or it was just another pilot until Jimmy Burrows wants to direct it. Excuse me, James Burrows. We thought, that’s crazy.
Marta Kauffman: I was most surprised by how good he was dramaturgically. He had such a good sense of structure and story.
David Crane: And he really embraced what we wanted to do. In the pilot, the structure is really loose. We started out doing a much more traditional story. It still had to do with Rachel leaving a guy at the altar, but we had an original version where her parents came and the act break [before going to a commercial] was her parents’ showing up. It wasn’t good.
We approached it again and made it much looser. The structure is loose and unconventional. There’s no event at the act break. Ross [whose wife, a lesbian, has left him] and Rachel are looking out at the rain. In a pilot, that seems crazy. You couldn’t do it today, and I’m surprised we did that then.
Marta Kauffman: Jimmy had a way of making a moment with a small action. You realize very quickly that Ross has a terrible crush on Rachel, and there’s a scene at the end where he says, “Do you maybe want to go out maybe on a date sometime?” And Rachel says, “Maybe.” There was one Oreo cookie left. I will never forget, Jimmy said to David, “Try the cookie in your mouth when you say that line.”
David Crane: Rachel says, “Maybe,” and David says, “Maybe I will,” and pops the cookie in his mouth.
Marta Kauffman: It was such a victory for him. It made the moment.
David Crane: The first four minutes of the pilot were just the group sitting in the coffeehouse talking about nothing. Chandler has had a dream. Ross comes in, and he’s mopey. It’s just talk. There’s no movement. There’s no story. When Jimmy read it in our first meeting, he said, “It’s great. It’s radio.” The fact that he got that and embraced it made all the difference.
Matt LeBlanc: I was this kid who got this gig, and here I am with the guy-Jimmy Burrows. I remember thinking, Every episode of Cheers? I love that show! And almost every episode of Taxi? Wait a minute, I love that show!
He had this air about him that I had never seen. At that point, I had worked with a handful of different directors, and I had never come across anyone who had such an ease to him. Like “It ain’t the cure for cancer” kind of thing. I’m sure he understands the value and importance of it all, but he never let the actors worry about that. “That’s not your job to worry about that. All of that happens after we shoot it, so let’s not worry about that. It’s all about these little moments. We’re all in it together. And also, I want to be out by two.”
Lisa Kudrow: I was terrified that first week. It was Jimmy…again. He would say, “Why are they friends with her?” Meaning me. “We have to figure that out. She doesn’t fit.” And I was like, “Oh my God, here we go again. Well, if everyone just acts like they like me. If Monica acts like she likes me.” And at one point he thought it would be funny if I deliver my monologue under the table. They’re all sitting around the table. Instead of being with them, I’m under the table, because I’m “quirky.”
I thought, This is the run-through where Marta and David are going to say, “This character doesn’t work. We have to reconceive it. She’s just not part of the group.” And I really thought that was going to be what came out of that run-through. And, thank God, they said, “Um, Lisa, not that it’s a bad choice, but I don’t think that’s a good spot for you, under the table.” I didn’t know how to answer. I would never put myself under the table. Jimmy said, “No, that was me. We were just trying it.”
David Schwimmer: What I was most struck by was the spirit of collaboration.
Lisa Kudrow: Courteney Cox was the best known of all of us, and she had done a guest star on Seinfeld. She said, “Listen, I just did a Seinfeld, and they all help each other. They say, ‘Try this’ and ‘This would be funny’.” And she said, “You guys, feel free to tell me. If I could do anything funnier, I want to do it.”
There’s a code with actors. Actors don’t give each other notes under any circumstances. So she was giving us permission to give her notes, and we all agreed that that would be great. Why not? And she also said, “Listen, you know, we all need to make this thing great.” She just set the stage with: “I know I’m the one whose been on TV, but this is all of us.” She was the one who set that tone and made it a real group that way. And I thought that was a real turning point.
David Crane: We were the last pilot to deliver [to NBC for consideration for the coming season], and we got one note from Don Ohlmeyer [the network’s West Coast president]: “The opening is too slow.” The word came down that Don said if we didn’t trim it we weren’t on the air. We fucking loved the beginning. It’s right. We don’t want to change it. We cut a 90-second opening title sequence to R.E.M.’s “Shiny Happy People.” We didn’t cut anything, but it started with energy. Don said, “Now it’s right.”
Warren Littlefield: It may seem hard to believe today, but in ’94 we were playing in core-conceptual territory that hadn’t been explored that much on network TV-young-adult relationships. We wanted these characters to feel real, and we knew they had to be likable. We thought Marta and David were navigating that well, and of course we had Jimmy, TV’s best barometer. Don didn’t see it that way.
One subplot in the pilot has Monica going on a first date with “Paul the wine guy.” She brings him home for the night after he confesses that he hasn’t been able to sleep with anyone or two years, since his wife left him. The next day, Monica learns this was just a line.
Martha Kauffman: We were doing the network run-through with an audience, and Don said that when Monica slept with Paul the wine guy she got what she deserved-that’s how he rationalized it. Fire began to come out of my nose.
They handed out a questionnaire to the audience: Do you think Monica sleeping with wine guy makes her (a) a slut, (b) a whore, (c) a trollop. And even with the deck stacked that way, the audience didn’t care [about the sex].
Jamie Tarses: The questionnaire for the audience after the run-through-that was completely Don. He didn’t like the casual sex. It was just one guy worrying about this.
David Crane: Overall, the network notes were almost nonexistent. Don objected to a Maxipad joke. [The joke was] Ross couldn’t throw out his ex-wife’s Maxipads. He was using them as arch supports. O.K., Don was uncomfortable with Maxipads.
Preston Beckman: The Friends pilot didn’t test great.
Warren Littlefield: True-a “high weak”-but we loved it! Even though we still only had Jennifer Aniston in second position-CBS had yet to cancel Muddling Through-I decided to take another multi-million-dollar bet and shoot episodes with Jennifer in them.
Karey Burke: Six of One was the name of the show during the pilot. Then Kauffman and Crane came back with Friends, which we thought was such a snore. Some people thought the show was too Gen X, way too narrow. There was much more buzz about Fox’s version of the same concept, a show called Wild Oats with Paul Rudd. Between Friends and NewsRadio [another NBC comedy that had only modest success, comparatively], I couldn’t have told you which one would be a hit. The Friends cast came to the pilot taping of NewsRadio. Jimmy Burrows was directing it, and the Friends cast was jealous.
Jim Burrows (director): Based on the [live] audience for the Friends pilot, I knew how popular that show would be. The kids were all pretty and funny, so beautiful. I said to Les Mooves, who was head of Warner Bros., “Give me the plane. I’ll pay for dinner.” I took the cast to Vegas.
Matt LeBlanc: Who goes to Vegas on a private jet? And Jimmy gave me 500 bucks to gamble.
Lisa Kudrow: On the plane he showed us the first episode of Friends. None of it had aired yet.
Jimmy took us to dinner, and he gave us each a little money to gamble with. He said, “I want you to be aware that this is the last time that you all can be out and not be swarmed, because that’s what’s going to happen.” And everyone was like, “Really?” I thought, Well, we’ll see. Maybe. Who knows? We don’t know how the shows going to do. Why is he so certain?
Jim Burrows: I told them they had a special show and this was their last shot at anonymity. They wanted to gamble, and I was the only one with money. They wrote me checks. Schwimmer gave me a check for $200, and Jen did. I should have saved them.
Matt LeBlanc: We went to Caesars for dinner. We sat at the big table in the middle of the room. Jimmy said, “Look around.” Nobody knew us. People kind of knew Courteney from that “Dancing in the Dark” video.
He said, “Your life is going to change. The six of you will never be able to do this again.” It was almost like Don Corleone talking. He’s not going to be wrong. He’s Jimmy Burrows.
Friends premiered on Thursday, September 22, 1994, at 8:30, to generally good reviews and solid but not initially spectacular ratings.
Jamie Tarses: I remember sweating the ratings of Friends the first few weeks. It was falling off more than anybody wanted it to. Outside of development, there was a lot of doubt about Friends. The first couple of scripts after the pilot, we were struggling with scripts and struggling with story. Then it was a soap opera, and it was hilarious. The Ross-and-Rachel thing set the tone for that, and you got thrust into a sort of soapy storytelling.
Warren Littlefield: For me, we were about six scripts in, and each time I’d read one I saw tremendous emotional resonance. I thought, This is a Shakespearean soap opera. It’s a drama that’s really, really funny, and with a complex architecture. Unlike Seinfeld, which lived to be funny but not to feel.
David Crane: That’s why we were always surprised when people compared us to Seinfeld.
Matt LeBlanc: In between all the jokes, there was this emotional thread. You cared about these people. You were invested in these relationships. You can’t get enough of these people. Why? No one could describe their passion for it. An emotional soap opera is a great way to describe it. That emotional through line threaded the whole season.
Marta Kauffman: It was so surprising to us how invested the audience was in these characters, how desperately they wanted them to be happy, how putting them together made some kind of weird sense.
David Crane: The fear was that we’d jump the shark. We only had six characters. When we brought Monica and Chandler together [in Season Five], I don’t think we thought it would last. They’d just sleep together.
Marta Kauffman: One crazy lesson from the show was that everything was better with the six of them. Sometimes it was better to hear them talk about something that happened rather than see it dramatically. What the audience wanted, we had to learn, was the six of them in the room.
David Crane: Apparently, what they really wanted was two of them in the bed.
Jim Burrows: Ross and Rachel were the guts of that show. Everybody was good-looking on that show, so the critics didn’t realize how funny they were.
Marta Kauffman: The cast was very astute, very smart, and when things didn’t work for them, they didn’t work for a reason.
David Schwimmer: I would give so much credit to David and Marta and the other writers, because they really invited our ideas. They created an atmosphere in which we could play and fail and pitch stuff, and because of that, it wasn’t about any individual-it was about all of us trying to come up with the funniest and the best and the most emotional material we could.
It was thrilling to be a part of, and it was hands down the best creative experience I’ve had professionally as an actor. That kind of collaboration with your director, with those writers, and with the other actors-it’s a huge high, and it spoils you for life. It does.
Matt LeBlanc: There was a conversation I had early on, when the show was just starting to take shape, and I remember standing back and being as objective as I could about Joey and thinking, This thing could go a long time. Does my character fit if it goes a long time? Because in the beginning I was hitting on the girls all the time.
Strictly out of self-preservation. I went to Marta and David and said, “Can I ask you guys something? I have an idea.”
They said, “Yeah, sure.”
I said, “What if Joey hits on every girl in New York but these three? What if I’m like a big brother to these three?” Of course, I didn’t say, “Because I’m afraid that you’re going to run out of stories for me. I’m going to have to move out from across the hall.”
We went in that direction, and then my guy fit in more. He became this sort of big brother to the group.
Lisa Kudrow: When we started shooting that first season, Jimmy said, “Use my dressing room to hang out.” Because it was bigger. We would all hang out playing poker and bonding because I think we all understood that the point of the show was that we were family and best friends. We needed to hang out, get to know each other, and bond as quickly as possible, because that’s the only way that the show was going to work.
Matt LeBlanc: It wasn’t like we were in college. We were on a giant fucking television show together. Everybody worked really hard. Lisa Kudrow said it best. She said that she worked harder on these relationships than she did on her marriage.
We really spent a lot of time if someone’s feelings got hurt. “Oh, lets drop everything and fix that. And I’m sorry.” Rule No. 1: Get along. Everyone knew the importance of getting along the whole way through.
David Schwimmer: We spent an enormous amount of time together those first several years. We wouldn’t want to leave each other. We’d go out to dinner after work, or we’d go to lunch together, or play poker, or just play games. I think we were genuinely having the time of our lives, and also there was something very bonding about how scary the whole experience was. We had the other, like a very protective cocoon.
Warren Littlefield: One way in which Friends did resemble Seinfeld is that it really found its audience over the summer of 1995 in reruns. That’s when the main title song, “I’ll Be There For You,” by the Rembrandts, exploded too.
Matt LeBlanc: It was that first season of reruns that did it. We were like No. 27 in the big grand scheme of things. It was that summer that we broke the Top 10, or Top 5.
Warren Littlefield: During the show’s second season, on January 28, 1996, after a particularly compelling Super Bowl (featuring Dallas and Pittsburgh) that delivered a whopping 46.1 rating and 68 share, we played a special one-hour episode of Friends featuring guest appearances by Brooke Shields and Jean-Claude Van Damme. 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. 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.
David Schwimmer: For whatever reason, I was “the breakout.” I was the guy who had the movie offers-everyone since then has had their time, their moment, but I was the first when the show started. And my agents were saying, “This is the time when you go in for a raise.”
I knew-because all of us were friends at this point-that, back when we started, each of us on the show had a different contract. We were all paid differently. Some had low quotes; some had higher. So I knew that I wasn’t the highest-paid actor on the show, but I wasn’t the lowest. And I thought, O.K., I’m being advised to go in for more money. But, for me, it goes against everything I truly believe in, in terms of ensemble. The six of us are all leads on the show. We are all here for the same amount of hours. The story lines are always balanced.
Matt LeBlanc: David was in the position to make the most money. He was the A-story-Ross and Rachel. He could have commanded alone more than anyone else, and David Schwimmer quoted the idea of socialist theatre to us. Did he know ultimately there would be more value in that for all of us as a whole? I don’t know. I think it was a genuine gesture from him, and I always say that. It was him.
David Schwimmer: They usually had three story lines going on at any given time. So I said to the group, “Here’s the deal. I’m being advised to ask for more money, but I think, instead of that, we should all go in together. There’s this expectation that I’m going in to ask for a pay raise. I think we should use this opportunity to talk openly about the six of us being paid the same. I don’t want to come to work feeling that there’s going to be any kind of resentment from anyone else in the cast down the line. I don’t want to be in their position”-I said the name of the lowest-paid actor on the show-“coming to work, doing the same amount of work and feeling like someone else is getting paid twice as much. That’s ridiculous. Let’s just make the decision now. We’re all going to be paid the same, for the same amount of work.”
John Agoglia (former head of business affairs, NBC): We convinced ourselves that we’d be better off with the cast if we recognized their success early instead of waiting until their contracts ran out. Chemistry was crucial to that show, and it was important to keep the cast happy. We started giving them raises as they were going along. At one point David Schwimmer’s mother convinced the cast to negotiate as a group. She’s a prominent divorce attorney. Her license plate is EX BARRACUDA.
David Schwimmer: I thought it was significant for us to become a mini-union. Because there began to be a lot of decisions that had to be made by the group in terms of publicity.
That was actually a by-product of how the impulse originated, which was from my ensemble theatre. [At Lookingglass] we all paid dues. We were all waiting tables and doing other jobs, but we all paid the same amount of dues, and we were all paid out equally. That idea was really important to me.
Harold Brook: The problem was how much they wanted to be treated the same. The numbers were insane when it came time to renew their contracts.
Warren Littlefield: That would have been after the fifth season. The cast, quite publicly, was negotiating as one.
Harold Brook: The night before we were going to announce the schedule, I was in the bathroom at a restaurant and got a call from Warner Bros. “It’s starting,” they said. The negotiation started around 10 P.M. and closed around 3 A.M. We had two promos made-one was the season finale, and one was the series finale.
Dick Wolf (producer of Law and Order): When they made the Friends deal, the $100,000-apeice [per episode] deal, I was pretty upset. What I would have done was come out the first day, say I was disappointed the cast had chosen to negotiate in the press, and I had the unpleasant news that Matt LeBlanc wouldn’t be on the show next year. I guarantee that you’d never have gotten to a second name.
Harold Brook: We didn’t say “Pass” a lot [i.e., walk away from a negotiation]. It’s a ploy, and a lot of times we couldn’t back it up. You do it once, maybe it wins. You do it twice, it isn’t really a pass. Also, the actor could be in another show at another network in a heartbeat.
David Schwimmer: That negotiation made us realize that the six of us should be making decisions as one and looking out for each other. It’s just like a union, that’s all. We’re all equals, and by the way, every decision was a democratic vote.
Marta Kauffman: We didn’t experience the success of the show the way the cast did. We could walk through the airport, and we’d see pictures of them on the magazines, but that wasn’t us.
Lisa Kudrow: When we were on Oprah, I think that first summer, she showed us all of these people in Internet cafes. People were online talking about the show, which was the first time that people were using the Internet to connect with each other, like the new watercooler. I thought, O.K., this is something then. This is a big deal. That’s when I got it. She was telling us this stuff, and we were watching their little film that they’d made, and she was like, “You all look like you don’t know what I’m talking about. You have to know.” And we just went, “No, but this is great news.”
David Schwimmer: I had never been part of the entertainment industry. I didn’t know anyone famous. I’d never seen it. I had a girlfriend at the time, and I remember walking down the street with her, holding her hand, when some girls came up, pushed her out of the way, and asked for my number. They were like, “Oh my God, can you come out with us right now?” As if my girlfriend just didn’t exist. I found it very difficult to handle.
Matt LeBlanc: I remember I was living in an apartment in Beachwood Canyon, which, ironically, ended up being the apartment building that they used for the opening credits on Joey. I had to move so quickly. It was unbelievable. All of the sudden, the people in the building were banging on my door. People knew I lived there.
I was like, “I’ve got to get a house. I need a house with a gate, because I need to be able to hide.” It’s funny – nowadays people that are famous get chased by the paparazzi. They have this fame, but they don’t have the money to hide from it. We were really fortunate that we were compensated well enough to be able to turn the switch off, as much as one can. Kind of disappear. Barricade yourself in.
Lisa Kudrow: We did a photo shoot for Entertainment Weekly. When we walked out of it, our cars were all the way across the street, and there were tons of paparazzi, and it was nighttime, and we were blinded by all the flashing. It was unnerving, because they yell at you. It’s more of an assault than any kind of congratulations, or “We love you.” That’s not ever how it feels. So, that was jarring, and then I think all of us understood, “Oh, I get why people get so antagonistic with paparazzi.”
David Schwimmer: For me, the fame is something I’ve wrestled with and struggled with since it happened. I don’t think I responded very well to the sudden celebrity, the sudden fame, and the loss of privacy. There were several moments that were quite traumatic for me. I remember in the early days of just going to the airport and walking to my gate when I heard bloodcurdling screams, and I thought someone was being killed. Before I knew it, a group of girls was running at me and literally grabbing me and wouldn’t let me go.
Lisa Kudrow: Fame doesn’t cure whatever is going on inside of you, however you feel about yourself. The Lucky thing was that the six of us had each other to go through it. All we would talk about is “What about people who have this and they don’t have you and you, and they are just on their own dealing with this?”
David Schwimmer: As an actor, the training I received was that I walk through the world as an observer of life and of people. That’s my training. My job is to actually be looking out all the time and watching people. But the effect of celebrity on me was that I suddenly found myself with a baseball cap, with my head down, hiding everywhere I went.
Lisa Kudrow: I think before you are famous you think, Oh, if you’re famous you’re loved and adored. Then when you really experience that attention and everyone cares what you’re doing and wants pictures of you, it doesn’t feel like a warm hug. It really feels like an assault. Then, not long after, you start to realize, This has almost nothing to do with me, and I better do the work.
At first it was all thrilling, I remember going to the Golden Globes, and I was at a table with Kathy Bates. Then you learn soon enough that you’re meeting these people, but you’re not friends. It’s just meeting people. That’s all it is.
Matt LeBlanc: I never set out to be a role model. I set out to pay the rent.
Warren Littlefield: For the first time in my memory at NBC, we had to worry about overexposure. We became gatekeepers for the Friends cast. Everyone wanted a piece of them: an electronic interview, a photo shoot – something. We realized the cast was so white-hot that we had to pull back, to help protect both them and their show.
To their credit, they all just kept their heads down and worked. Worked hard. The writers and actors on Friends were notoriously particular about what made it onto the air. A Friends shoot night could extend well into the small hours of the morning.
David Crane: Our hours were crazy. There were so many mornings when were still finishing the rewrites. We’d get notes from the studio and the network.
Marta Kauffman: But it was our notes that killed us. We knew we had to listen to the audience. Their silence tells you a lot. Laughing in good and bad ways. Laughing at setups instead of jokes.
David Crane: We also felt everyone’s opinion was valid. There was no hierarchy. It made everything better, but longer too. Sometimes we lost our energy because we took so much time trying to find a better joke when we should have just moved on. We’d talk out after ever episode and say, “There’s another one that didn’t suck.” And we meant it.
Marta Kauffman: We only had problems with Standards. For a long time, we couldn’t show a condom wrapper.
David Crane: The rules kept changing. For the first three years we could say “penis.” Then we couldn’t say “penis.” Then we could say “penis” again.
Marta Kauffman: They’re masturbating on Seinfeld and we can’t show a condom wrapper.
Warren Littlefield: That made me crazy. I had a lot of battles with broadcast standards over that. What could be more socially responsible than those characters practicing safe sex?
David Crane: Then in Season Eight or Nine we had Joey fall for Rachel, and that scared everybody. She was pregnant. The actors freaked out. Matt kept saying, “It’s wrong. It’s like I want to be with my sister.” We said, “Yes, it’s absolutely wrong. That’s why we have to do it.” You can’t just keep spinning the same plates. You have to go places where you’re not supposed to go.
Matt LeBlanc: It felt wildly inappropriate. 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.
We went to David and Marta as a group and said, “We’re really concerned about this. It doesn’t feel right. We have a problem with it.” David said, “It’s like playing with fire, and then you put it down, and you go, ‘Remember when we played with that fire?’ We’re aware of everything. The feelings that you’re feeling, we’re feeling them, too, and we like it.”
David Crane: Once it actually started, it was heartbreaking because it couldn’t go anywhere. It was always going to be Ross and Rachel.
Marta Kauffman: The Ross-and-Rachel thing was fascinating. My rabbi, when I dropped my daughter off for Hebrew school, would stop me and say, “When are you going to get them together?”
David Crane: From a technical standpoint, it was really challenging to keep them apart without pissing off the audience. In the pilot, Ross says to Rachel, “Can I ask you out sometime?” We go through an entire season, 24 episodes, and he never asks her out. Every time it’s about to happen- we brought in the Italian guy, we threw a cat on his back. We kept asking ourselves, “Will they let us go one more?”
Then they got together and broke up.
Mart a Kauffman: And got married and broke up. Their fights were some of my favorite moments.
David Crane: The episode [in Season Three] where Ross and Rachel are on a break and Ross sleeps with the Xerox girl – and the whole episode is in the living room with the other four locked in the bedroom- it’s really sad, and we kept going to the bedroom for funny. That’s probably one of my favorite episodes.
For the two of us, the emotional stuff was what sustained us.
Marta Kauffman: We did not want to go out on the bottom. We wanted to feel more like it was time for your child to go to college, not die.
David Crane: we wrote three last seasons. It looked for a while like Season Eight was the last season. Then Season Nine. Warner Bros. told us this has to be the last season. Two days later, they came back and say, “Jeff Zucker [who had become NBC’s CEO] stepped up and it’s not the last season.” Amazing reversal.
Marta Kauffman: At that point, we said, “Season Ten it is.”
David Crane: You can’t keep writing the last season. You have to know where you’re going and go there.
Having seen the Seinfeld finale and knowing when you depart from who you are it doesn’t make the audience happy, let’s deliver to the audience what they want and what they’ve earned.
Mart Kauffman: Everybody knew where we were going to end up. Ross and Rachel were going to be together somehow. We just had to make it entertaining.
David Crane: We talked about doing a qualified ending…they’re not together together, but there’s the hope they can be together. We said, “Fuck it. We’ve jerked these people off for 10 years. Who are we kidding? We’ve just got to do it well.”
David Schwimmer: You knew intuitively that that’s how it had to end, with Ross and Rachel together. It was a romantic comedy, so it must end- as in great Shakespeare-with the lovers together. So the challenge is how the writers are able to create enough obstacles to sustain over 10 years.
I really sympathize. I think it’s incredibly difficult, because I don’t think anyone expected it to go for 10 years. So for David and Marta to rise to the challenge of making sure every moment, and every choice, and every decision made by this group of writers – in conjunction and collaboration with the actors – it kept this tension going without upsetting the audience or driving them crazy.
Lisa Kudrow: I felt like we could have gone longer. David and Marta were saying, “It is getting harder for Rachel and Ross, coming up with reasons why they’re not together.” And then, ultimately, it’s a good thing that we were done, because sometimes you have to be pushed out of the nest.
Matt LeBlanc: That whole ending, that was a rough two weeks. We went away for Christmas for two weeks, and then we came back for two final weeks to shoot the one-hour finale. I had quit smoking for four years, and in that final two weeks I started smoking again because we were so aware that our time together was coming to an end. “Yes, I’ll talk to you. Yes, I’ll always know you, but I won’t know you like this. I won’t see you every day, all day. Eat lunch together every day. To have this awesome, awesome experience every week. It’s coming to an end.”
So in those final two weeks, we would steal away these little moments. “Hey, let’s go hang out. Let’s go sit in my room.” It was really…a lot of Kleenex.
There’s only five people in the world who know exactly what being on Friends was like, other than me. There’s five of them. David, Matthew, Lisa, Courteney, and Jen. That’s it. Martha and David were close, but when they left the stage, no one knew what they did. We could never leave the stage, metaphorically speaking. Still can’t. Still on that stage. That will follow us around forever.
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. 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.
I did not want it to end.