Entertainment

Friends then and now – how show originally named Insomnia Cafe became mega hit


Need some company when the rain starts to fall? You know where to turn.

17 years after its finale aired in the UK, Friends is still the go-to TV show for many of us after a busy day – so it’s hard to believe it once was just another TV show pilot with narrow chances of making it off the cutting room floor.

“NBC’s pilot season of 1994 is legendary in the business,” reflects former NBC network president Warren Littlefield, speaking to Vanity Fair. “In a world where failure is commonplace, we midwifed the birth of both Friends and ER.”

But ER now looks like small fry by comparison to the longevity and success of Friends.

So what went so right for our coffee-inhaling, serial dating, barely working gang of six?



FRIENDS -- Pictured: (l-r) Lisa Kudrow as Phoebe Buffay, Matthew Perry as Chandler Bing, Jennifer Aniston as Rachel Green, David Schwimmer as Ross Geller, Courteney Cox as Monica Geller, Matt LeBlanc as Joey Tribbiani
What made NBC’s Friends such a perfect hit?

In 1994 when the show was commissioned, it responded to president Littlefield’s desire to commission a really great show about the young urbanites who flocked to major US cities for work and play. “I imagined young adults starting out in New York, L.A., Dallas, Philly, San Francisco, St. Louis, or Portland all faced the same difficulties,” he said to Vanity Fair.

But the critics weren’t quite so sure the idea was original. “According to the horde of 20-something comedies crowding the schedule like flannel-clad devotees at a Smashing Pumpkins concert, most young people do nothing but drink coffee,” wrote a critic in the Columbus Dispatch.

If Friends seemed like fantasy land to critics back then, it certainly feels far removed from the reality of millennial and Gen Z financial woes now.



Pictured: (l-r) Matthew Perry as Chandler Bing, Jennifer Aniston as Rachel Green, David Schwimmer as Ross Geller, Courteney Cox as Monica Geller, Matt Le Blanc as Joey Tribbiani, Lisa Kudrow as Phoebe Buffay
Pictured: (l-r) Matthew Perry as Chandler Bing, Jennifer Aniston as Rachel Green, David Schwimmer as Ross Geller, Courteney Cox as Monica Geller, Matt Le Blanc as Joey Tribbiani, Lisa Kudrow as Phoebe Buffay

Yet for the 1990s, the show was viewed as progressive: even if some of these six young people didn’t have jobs and somehow lived in airy, spacious apartments in Midtown Manhattan.

But the well-polished end product wasn’t a simple journey from script to studio. The show went through many name changes, and was initially pitched as Six of One to NBC by producers Marta Kauffman and David Crane.

The show in its early stages also went by the name Insomnia Cafe, and another name change before the show hit the air was Friends Like Us, but eventually, the series was named just Friends.

Simplest is always best.



Courteney Cox was Monica Geller despite initially being in line to play Rachel
Courteney Cox was Monica Geller despite initially being in line to play Rachel

Hilariously, in early screen tests, Courteney Co x was lined up to play ditzy Rachel rather than highly-strung chef Monica. It’s difficult to imagine, as we’re so used to seeing Courteney playing Monica, who is worlds apart from her best friend Rachel. Cox found Monica’s personality more appealing than Rachel’s though and requested a role change.

Cox was the most famous of the actors at the time, having already starred in Bruce Springsteen’s Dancing in the Dark video and on some other US TV shows, although she was hardly a household name.

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When Cox took the reins on Monica, she softened her from the grittier, harder Monica producers had imagined. She was reportedly originally credited to be “tough, defended, cynical, sarcastic,” but in the guise audiences know her she is firm but warm, with vulnerabilities.

Friends fans, prepare to say ‘Ooooooh Mmmmmy Gooood!’, because Maggie Wheeler, who played the loveable but needy Janice, Chandler’s ex, actually auditioned for the role of Rachel too, but in the end relative newcomer Jennifer Aniston was given the role.

Unfortunately for Deep Impact and Jurassic Park actor Tea Leoni, she chose to turn down the role of Rachel in favour of another sitcom called The Naked Truth, having initially been the favourite. Unlike the ten-season juggernaut that was Friends, The Naked Truth was cancelled not long after it began.



The role of Rachel made Jennifer Aniston a household name
The role of Rachel made Jennifer Aniston a household name

At one point, the casting of Jennifer Aniston as Rachel was hanging on tenterhooks too. Aniston had filmed some episodes for an unreleased comedy called Muddling Through, and if the series was picked up, Aniston would have bowed out of Friends halfway through the first season, report Entertainment Weekly.

Luckily, Muddling Through was canned and Aniston lived on to embody the famous character, including her ‘The Rachel’ hairdo, which inspired a legion of women in the mid-nineties.

It wasn’t only the cast playing switcheroo that jeopardised the success of the show though. NBC bosses also wanted an older character to join the comrades in the Central Perk coffee shop to help attract an older viewing audience.

However, the character developed by Kauffman and Crane never made it past the writing process. “The writers made a good-faith attempt, even casting the role, but hated the resulting script so much that they pleaded with NBC to drop the idea,” pop culture historian Saul Austerlitz writes in his book, Generation Friends.

“If only NBC would kill Pat the Cop, they promised, they would give their six protagonists parents notable supporting roles, and find older guest stars to attract a more mature audience. NBC gave its permission, and Pat the Cop was no longer.”

It wasn’t only the characters that could have been different. The show was also originally pegged to be more racially diverse. Producers had intended on a multi-ethnic cast, but executives shelved the idea for fear it would drive down figures.



Lisa Kudrow rose to stardom as Phoebe in Friends
Lisa Kudrow rose to stardom as Phoebe in Friends

TV executives, says Austerlitz in his book, “were more fearful of asking audiences to laugh along with characters of color, concerned that such shows would be ignored by the majority-white audience.”

After producers had initially “expressed a desire to be open about race and ethnicity,” the idea was shelved.

Producer Marta Kaufman and stars Lisa Kudrow and David Schwimmer have since spoken out about the lack of diversity on the show.

“I wish I knew then what I know today. I would make very different decisions,” Kauffman told a panel for the ATX Television Festival. “We’ve always encouraged people of diversity in our company but I didn’t do enough. Now all I can think about is what can I do? What can I do differently? How can I run my show in a new way? And that’s something I not only wish I knew when I started showrunning but I wish I knew all the way up through last year.”

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Ross Geller actor David Schwimmer has discussed diversity on Friends before
Ross Geller actor David Schwimmer has discussed diversity on Friends before

David Schwimmer, who played Monica’s nerdy, insecure brother Ross on the show, revealed that he’d appealed directly to have more diversity in the casting, including for the roles of his girlfriends like Charlie, played by Aisha Tyler.

He told The Guardian: “I was well aware of the lack of diversity and I campaigned for years to have Ross date women of color

In an interview with The Sunday Times, Kudrow urges viewers not to criticise the show today but to see it as a “time capsule,” not to be held to account for “what they did wrong.”

“It would not be an all-white cast, for sure,” Kudrow said of the show if it were made today, believing it would be “completely different.”

Nevertheless, the show as it was then was to change cultural perceptions of young people, becoming one of the most popular and successful shows of its time, and break box office records.



Friends starred Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, David Schwimmer, Matt LeBlanc and Matthew Perry
Friends starred Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, David Schwimmer, Matt LeBlanc and Matthew Perry as twenty-somethings struggling with life and love in New York City

Across its eleven-year lifetime, Friends was nominated for 62 Primetime Emmy Awards. Empire magazine ranked it the 7th on their list of The 50 Greatest TV Shows Of All Time and the finale became the most watched television episode of the noughties.

Advertisements in commercial breaks in the finale episode in 2014 were sold for $2 million for 30 seconds of screen time. The finale of Seinfield held the record previously, charging £1.7 million.

Quite the rise, then, for six jobbing actors, mostly unrecognisable to audiences, who thought they’d turned up for just another TV pilot on the day that they established these characters that would go down in history.

And these days, the show’s contemporaneity is astonishing. Jennifer Aniston, still most recognised as Rachel despite a host of Hollywood leading lady film roles, gained the Guiness World Record for fastest user to gain a million followers on Instagram in five hours 16 minutes when she signed up in 2019.



Matthew Perry as Chandler Bing, Matt Le Blank as Joey Tribbiani, David Schwimmer as Ross Geller, Jennifer Aniston as Rachel Green, Lisa Kudrow as Phoebe Buffay, Courteney Cox as Monica Geller in Friends
The six stars will soon be seen in a reunion special

What did Aniston sign up to the social media platform for? To share a photo of the six Friends cast members meeting for a reunion, of course. “And now we’re Instagram FRIENDS too. HI INSTAGRAM,” she captioned the selfie, which sparked rumours about a Friends reunion which soon rang true.

A comeback special filmed recently.

Fans hoping for an update on Ross and Rachel’s will-they-won’t-they relationship, Monica and Chandler’s ambitions for a home in the countryside and for a glimpse into what a middle-aged Phoebe Buffay’s song collection might have evolved into will be disappointed though, as the reunion is non-scripted, meaning it’s just the actors chatting. There isn’t expected to be any dialogue from them in-character.

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Hefty sums upwards of $2 million each were reportedly paid to each of the actors to make the reunion special, according to the Wall Street Journal, and each of the cast shared the same vintage 1990s promotional shot on their Instagram pages when the announcement about the return was made.



Rachel and Ross' on-off relationship was part of the reason for Friends' success
Rachel and Ross’ on-off relationship was part of the reason for Friends’ success

But what made them return now? Perhaps a hefty slab of their own nostalgia. 17 years since the finale aired, each of the cast are still most famous for their roles on the show, so perhaps other acting roles aren’t coming in as quickly as they’d hoped and they each have time on their hands.

Of the cast, Jennifer Aniston has become the most established household name, and films like Along Came Polly where she starred opposite Ben Stiller, Bruce Almighty with Jim Carrey and the more recent She’s Funny That Way, with Owen Wilson, have demonstrated her potential to successfully head up big Hollywood films.

Lisa Kudrow had success after Friends with HBO series The Comeback, about a former soap star hoping to keep her career on an upward trajectory.



Lisa Kudrow, Courteney Cox and Jennifer Aniston in recent times
Lisa Kudrow, Courteney Cox and Jennifer Aniston in recent times

Unsurprisingly, the satirical show was written and created by Kudrow, who was presumably also trying to do much the same as her character on the show.

She also starred in the sci-fi sitcom Space Force, playing the wife of Steve Carrell’s character, and for British audiences, recently won hearts as the cold, emotionally checked-out mother of a troubled young queer Brit in Netflix and Channel 4 comedy Feel Good, which returns shortly for its second series.

Courteney Cox made slasher movie Scream during her time on Friends, and has since returned for three sequels, including the most recent, Scream 4, which was released in 2011. Another film, simply called Scream, is in production. She’s become known for slasher movies more widely too:

She also starred in The Tripper and another called November. A successful TV series called Cougar Town, a comedy about a group of neighbours headed up Cox, also ran on ABC and TBS from 2009 to 2015.



Matt LeBlanc went from Joey in Friends to a role on Top Gear
Matt LeBlanc went from Joey in Friends to a role on Top Gear

These days she’s also likely to be found posting wholesome videos with her kids on Instagram.

The men have all moved on to other TV and film work too, although nothing has captured audiences quite like Friends. Matt Le Blanc, who plays ditzy womaniser Joey on the show, worked on the titular spin-off series Joey, but it wasn’t renewed after two seasons and didn’t get the critical or ratings successes of its original.

For UK audiences he also professed his love for petrol engines as a presenter on Top Gear.

Matthew Perry has worked more in TV since the show ended, with his biggest success being another show about flatmates, The Odd Couple, which ran for three seasons.



Matthew Perry became well known due to his role as Chandler Bing in Friends
Matthew Perry became well known due to his role as Chandler Bing in Friends

He has struggled with alcohol addiction, and even wrote a West End play partly inspired by it called The End Of Longing, which premiered in London in 2017. His performance gained warm reviews.

David Schwimmer has also trod the boards in London. In 2005 he starred in American dramatist Neil LaBute’s play Some Girl(s), and he’s enjoyed success in films and on TV, including providing the voice of a giraffe for animated film series Madagascar and in Stephen Soderbergh-directed biographical comedy, The Laundromat. Notably for British audiences he also starred in the war drama, Band of Brothers.

But none of these roles can ever compare to the legacy of Friends. 17 years ago, audiences were preparing to wave goodbye to the wide-eyed, coffee slurping, denim-clad sextet for a final time, but it wasn’t to be so final: according to the Media Nations Report 2018, Friends is still top of the list when it comes to the UK’s most-watched programmes on streaming services.

“Friends comes as close as a new series can get to having everything,” a critic for the New York Times wrote in 1994 when the show premiered. 27 years later, many viewers would stand by thay claim.

And Friends will still be there for you, to this day, streaming on Netflix here in the UK.





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