One day in late 1993, a young television writer named Marta Kauffman was driving along Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles when she passed a funky coffee shop called Insomnia Café.
With lumpy couches, garish chairs, strings of Christmas lights and towering bookshelves piled high with mismatched books, the place was a beacon for local artists and loafers.
Marta was trawling for ideas that could be turned into sitcom pilots, and she wondered: could a comedy set in a coffee shop appeal to viewers?
Yes… and that appeal has never faded.
But the extent to which this ‘coffee shop comedy’ would change TV and influence the world was impossible to foresee.
Saul Austerlitz explores how TV sitcom Friends became one of the most watched shows of all time. Pictured left-right: Joey (Matt LeBlanc), Ross (David Schwimmer), Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow), Rachel (Jennifer Aniston), Monica (Courteney Cox) and Chandler (Matthew Perry)
A quarter of a century after Friends first aired on 22 September 1994, it is still one of TV’s most popular shows.
When all its ten series became available to stream via Netflix last year, binge-watchers went wild for it.
A show about six young Manhattan-ites had such universal appeal that it was screened in at least 54 countries, and when the final episode was shown in Britain in 2004, 8.6 million people watched with tears in their eyes.
We’ve never stopped watching repeats since.
Envisaged as a show for young audiences, it proved addictive to all ages. It changed the English language: people stopped saying ‘very’ and used ‘so’ instead.
That is so Friends.
And it changed hairstyles too: an estimated 11 million UK women have had ‘the Rachel’… although Jennifer Aniston calls it ‘the ugliest haircut ever’.
Writers Marta Kauffman and David Crane, went against advice from NBC executives to have an older character to offer advice to the twentysomething friends. Pictured: Chandler (Matthew Perry) and a girlfriend in the coffee shop in series four
But Friends nearly didn’t happen.
Marta and her writing partner, David Crane, had had a failure with Family Album – a comedy about a Californian doctor who moves his family to Philadelphia to look after his parents – which ran for six episodes before being cancelled.
It took insane optimism to even try again, and the odds were heavily stacked against them.
Back at their desks, they imagined who might hang out at a cafe like Insomnia, and came up with six characters whose lives were intertwined.
How do you fire a cheeky monkey?
Ross, pictured with Marcel on the show
During the first season of the show, the most popular supporting character on Friends was also the one who caused the most dissatisfaction behind the scenes.
He was mercurial, prone to unpredictable rages, and untrustworthy as an actor.
There was a movement afoot to have him fired, but he was so beloved by audiences that it was hard for Friends to let him go.
His name was Marcel, and he was a monkey.
Rachel lost Marcel in ‘The One Where The Monkey Gets Away’, and the monkey got away for real during the episode’s rehearsals, escaping from his handlers and disappearing backstage.
With a set that ran four storeys high before ascending to the rafters, there was a great deal of ground to cover before he could be coaxed back.
Unsurprisingly, Ross soon decided to send his monkey away to San Diego Zoo.
Crucially, they wanted three female protagonists who were given equal time and heft.
Marta and David even came up with a tagline to pitch to the network: ‘It’s that time of life when your friends are your family.’
The title was in that tagline, but it was a long time before they realised it.
At first, when NBC commissioned a pilot, it was Insomnia Cafe… then Bleecker Street… then NBC Pilot Which Still Needs A Title.
Gradually, the writers had less of the story unfolding in the cafe and more in the characters’ apartments.
What if roommates Joey and Chandler were directly across the hall from Monica and Rachel’s apartment? Another title appeared: Across The Hall.
The NBC executives doubted a show about twentysomething friends could have wide appeal, so they suggested having an older, avuncular figure to offer sage advice and support.
He was nicknamed Pat the Cop, a policeman whose presence might get older viewers to tune in.
Marta and David hated the idea and begged the executives to drop it.
Instead, they bargained: older characters played by guest stars could be introduced as the parents.
Now they needed to find the perfect actors for each role – New Age princess Phoebe, successful but emotionally distraught Ross, tough-talking ‘downtown woman’ Monica, self-impressed heartthrob Joey, runaway bride Rachel and sarcastic, perpetually single Chandler.
An obvious choice for Ross was David Schwimmer, a stage actor who had just starred in a short-lived sitcom called Monty opposite Henry Winkler from Happy Days. But David didn’t want to do more TV.
Monty was a miserable experience, and he saw TV-land as somewhere you reported for duty every day to do mediocre, unsatisfying work.
The creators were tasked with finding the perfect actors for each role – New Age princess Phoebe, successful but emotionally distraught Ross, tough-talking ‘downtown woman’ Monica, self-impressed heartthrob Joey, runaway bride Rachel and sarcastic, perpetually single Chandler. And they did. Left-right: Courteney Cox, Matthew Perry, Jennifer Aniston, David Schwimmer, Matt LeBlanc and Lisa Kudrow
The writers looked at other actors, including Eric McCormack, who later became a lead in Will & Grace.
But they felt David was ideal… and, after the pilot episode’s director told David (inaccurately) the role had been written with him in mind, he agreed to do it.
A parade of Phoebes in nose rings and bell bottoms, and Joeys with fake chest hair, were tried out.
Phoebe was, according to the pitch, ‘sweet, flaky, a waif’.
Hairdo that graced millions of heads
Friends launched the most popular new hairstyle for women since Farrah Fawcett’s curly blonde locks swept the nation in the era of Charlie’s Angels.
‘The Rachel’ began as an attempt to temper Jennifer Aniston’s unruly locks.
Her hair had always been kinky and long, and she was looking for something more elegant when she approached Chris McMillan, proprietor of a Beverly Hills salon, during the first season of Friends.
Jennifer Aniston (pictured before left and sporting her Rachel in 1995 right) had her hair transformed by Chris McMillan in the first season of friends
He came up with the idea of combining partial bangs (fringe) with a layered look – trimmed at the bottom, layered, pinned and blow-dried.
Matching half-moons of hair ran the spectrum from blonde to dirty blonde to brown.
The result was a complex but eye-catching style that looked as if a stylist had grown bored at the last second and decided to conjoin two different hairdos.
McMillan would later acknowledge that he was ‘high’ when he created the Rachel look.
David and Marta pictured her as a free spirit who played bad folk songs on her guitar and dated a lot: ‘She sees the good in everyone.’
One actress was suddenly free. Lisa Kudrow had been cast as Roz in Frasier. This Cheers spin-off, with Kelsey Grammer as psychologist Dr Frasier Crane, was set to be a hit.
But despite excellent auditions, Lisa struggled in rehearsals.
She couldn’t be as steely as radio producer Roz needed to be, and every day the scripts were altered to suit her style.
After a few days, she was fired. Lisa was convinced she’d let the role of her life go.
Then she got the call to try out for something that, this week, was called Friends Like Us.
The biggest star being considered for the cast was Courteney Cox, who had made her name on long-running US show Family Ties.
She was thought perfect for the part of… Rachel, the poor little rich girl who can’t help breaking Ross’s heart again and again.
But she looked at the script and asked to read for Ross’s sister, Monica.
The producers agreed, to humour her… and realised she was right. She nailed Monica’s character.
Then there was Joey, ‘a handsome, smug, macho guy’ whose main interests were ‘women, sports, women, New York and women’.
Joey thought he was the next Al Pacino, even when he worked in a department store.
Enter Matt LeBlanc, who got into acting when he turned round to admire a woman’s backside in the street and she had turned to admire his.
She told him she was an actress, and invited him to meet her manager.
Matt was best-known for a Heinz advert, where he placed a ketchup bottle on its side at the top of a skyscraper so it could drizzle sauce onto his hot dog below.
With a backstory like that, he was a real-life Joey.
Chandler was the wise-cracking office drone who lacked the confidence to ditch his job even though it was killing his brain cells.
With his innate comic flair, Matthew Perry suited the part perfectly.
That left Rachel, the girl who flees her wedding and runs into the coffee shop in her bridal gown.
Jennifer Aniston tried out for it, but she was snapped up for another show.
Chandler, Rachel, Joey and Monica kick back in Central Perk, the show’s meeting spot
The producers considered countless actresses, before offering the role to future Hollywood A-lister Téa Leoni.
By the time she’d turned it down, Jennifer was available again.
The pilot – now called Six Of One – was filmed in May 1994, and director James Burrows was struck by the exuberance of the studio audience, especially during scenes that paired Ross and Rachel.
They had an indescribable mix of attraction and loathing that left the air charged with anticipation.
We thought it was best for the dynamic of the show to negotiate together. We didn’t want one person making a fortune and another making nothing.
But some at NBC were still sceptical about the concept of young people spending so much time in a coffee shop.
It seemed too New York, too hipster. ‘Everyone will be going to a coffee shop after this,’ the writers reassured them.
The show still needed a theme song. Marta Kauffman was married to a musician, Michael Skloff, and she asked him to come up with music for the credits.
As he got in the car to pick up their daughter, he switched on the radio and heard Paperback Writer by The Beatles.
Its jangling euphoria captured the feeling Michael had when he read the script.
Michael thought the song should sound like the feeling of waking up on a Saturday morning with a smile on your face.
He was no lyricist but he came up with one line for the chorus: ‘I’ll be there for you’. Ambitiously, he offered the song to Michael Stipe of REM to record.
When that didn’t work out, he found an unknown duo called The Rembrandts.
Brooke Shields (pictured) guest starred as Joey’s stalker in season two, when Friends was given the opportunity to air after the Superbowl
The cast shot a title sequence, dancing in a fountain with umbrellas, in front of a sofa.
Just in time, the network settled on a title: simply, Friends. David and Marta knew fans were unlikely to remember the name of a given episode when talking it over the next day.
Instead, it would be, ‘Hey, did you see the one with the…?’ So, Friends’ titling was born, with nearly every episode’s name beginning, ‘The One With’ or ‘The One Where’.
From the first episode, critics adored it. The LA Times called it ‘flat-out the best comedy series of the new season.
We could never leave that stage, metaphorically speaking. Still can’t. That will follow us around forever.
‘It’s wittily vacuous, with crisp dialogue.
‘It is so light and frothy that after each episode you may be hard-pressed to recall what went on, except that you laughed a lot.’
Like all new US shows, Friends was commissioned with no guarantee it would survive a first season.
But the reaction was so good extra episodes were quickly demanded, and the writers set about making the characters deeper.
Monica became obsessed with tidiness. Joey became sweeter, if also dumber.
The writers remodelled both of them to mirror their actors.
The characters began to develop their own language.
Matthew gave Chandler an instantly recognisable verbal tic, placing an emphasis on random words.
Guest stars in Friends have included Richard Branson, Brad Pitt (pictured centre) as Ross’s school friend Will and Helen Baxendale as Ross’s British girlfriend
Joey became famous for his come-on: ‘How you doin’?’
The sudden success surprised everyone at NBC, including Marta and David.
When Coca-Cola asked to have the Friends advertise Diet Coke, the writers came up with two commercials.
In the first, the six friends appear in a police line-up, swearing their innocence after the theft of a Diet Coke.
Then each one is interrogated: Phoebe suggests candles to lighten the atmosphere, while Monica complains the interviews are unfair – she doesn’t have a boyfriend so has no alibi.
During season two in 1996, Friends was awarded the honour of airing right after the Superbowl – the US’s biggest sporting event.
A superstar cast of guests was recruited, including Brooke Shields as Joey’s stalker, and Julia Roberts as a former schoolfriend of Chandler who wants payback for a practical joke.
Friends (pictured) was commissioned without the guarantee that it would survive a first season, however critics adored it from the first episode
Filming was fraught. After a scene in which Brooke licks Matt’s hand, tennis champion Andre Agassi (then her boyfriend) barged onto the set and began yelling at her.
Humiliated, the actress burst into tears and had to be coaxed back.
Meanwhile, action hero Jean-Claude Van Damme, playing himself, turned up 12 hours late and, though he had only a few lines, had to be coached all the way.
But ‘The One After The Superbowl’ became the most-watched episode in the history of Friends, with 52.9 million viewers in America.
The network was now reaping around $4 million per episode from advertising – about £5.5 million in today’s money.
But the actors were on a comparatively low pay scale: they had all signed contracts locking them in for five years, at $22,500 (£28,000 today) per episode.
David Schwimmer thought it should be more. Seinfeld’s cast got $600,000 an episode (£800,000 today).
David asked his co-stars to join forces. ‘Here’s the deal,’ he said.
‘I’m being advised to ask for more money but we should all go in and talk about the six of us being paid the same.’
David Schwimmer (pictured left) convinced his co-stars to join forces in asking for more money per episode, in the final season the cast were each earning $1 million an episode
He suggested they threaten to walk if their demands were not met.
Matthew Perry later explained, ‘We thought it was best for the dynamic of the show to negotiate together.
‘We didn’t want one person making a fortune and another making nothing.’
After a five-hour, late-night negotiating session, the union got a deal that saw them all being paid equally, with more promised each year till they reached $125,000 an episode (£155,000 today).
In fact, when the final episodes aired in 2004, each was earning $1 million an episode.
Britain loved Friends so much the producers gave Ross a British girlfriend, Emily (Helen Baxendale), and sent the gang to London.
This trip was inspired by VHS sales in Britain: about £100 million of videotapes of the show had been sold.
Richard Branson heard about the plans and offered to fly the cast and crew first class to Britain on his Virgin Atlantic service… in return for a cameo role.
Richard was cast as a souvenir salesman who flogs Joey a Union Jack top hat.
The guest stars got even starrier. Kathleen Turner played Chandler’s transgender father.
Brad Pitt, then married to Jennifer, was Ross’s schoolfriend Will, who loathed Rachel.
But not every big name was hired. Owen Wilson was lined up, until the writers saw an interview in which he said his biggest fault was ‘giving writers a hard time’.
In the writers’ room, where they regularly worked 16-hour days, everyone agreed they could do without that.
Big salaries and fame came at a cost.
As Matt LeBlanc said later, ‘We could never leave that stage, metaphorically speaking. Still can’t. That will follow us around forever.’
Actors who had been on the show in the early years noticed an increasing distance from its stars.
Kathleen Turner described the six as ‘a clique’. The Friends read lines together in their dressing rooms.
Guest stars were not included, and there was little chance to socialise with their co-stars.
Matthew Perry began to drink heavily after filming: he said alcohol filled the void created by all the empty accolades.
In 1997, after a jet-ski accident, he was prescribed the painkiller Vicodin, and spiralled into prescription pill dependency.
Binges and bouts of rehab meant he’d be bloated in some episodes, thin in others.
Much of this was hidden from viewers, as the on-off romance between Ross and Rachel repeatedly flared into life before stalling.
Over 236 episodes, it tantalised us: the idea they wouldn’t eventually get together was unthinkable, but the couple piled so many obstacles in their own way.
In the end, the show still managed to deliver a surprise.
Ross waits until the last moment to tell Rachel he loves her, as she is about to board a plane to Paris and fly out of his life.
‘I am so in love with you,’ he pleads.
‘Please don’t go. I shouldn’t have waited till now, that was stupid. I’m sorry. Do not get on this plane.’
She does get on the plane – but in one of the most uplifting moments in TV, she appears at his door that night.
‘I got off the plane,’ she says.
Friends was always both a comedy and a soap opera – this was a perfect goodbye.
Adapted from Still Friends by Saul Austerlitz, to be published by Trapeze on Thursday at £12.99 and also available as an audiobook. © Saul Austerlitz 2019. To order a copy for £10.40 (valid to 27/9/19; p&p free on orders over £15), call 0844 571 0640.