"The One We Wouldn't Normally Do": The Uncensored Story of the 'Friends' Super Bowl Episode

Friends Superbowl illustration
Photo Illustration: Bright, Kauffman, Crane: John Lamparski/Getty Images (2). Friends: ©NBC/Courtesy Everett Collection (3)

We were on a break. Regina Phalange and Ms. Chanandler Bong. The Trifle. The Routine. When it comes to the lore of Friends, the season-two episode “The One After the Superbowl” features absolutely none of the iconic sitcom’s most classic jokes and moments. And yet, it’s arguably the most significant episode in its decade-long history — and a TV game-changer.

To understand why, you must go back to the summer of 1995 when NBC executives started batting around ideas of what to schedule after the biggest, most popular TV event of the year. An ABC Melrose Place-in-the-mountains drama titled Extreme had just aired in the coveted slot, only to crash and burn after six episodes. Two years earlier, NBC ran with the pilot of the sitcom The Good Life (featuring a then-unknown comic named Drew Carey) followed by an installment of the fledging The John Larroquette Show. Neither made headway. Could it be any more obvious where this story is heading?

“We decided to flip the script,” says then-NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield. “Instead of trying a new show, we asked ourselves, ‘Why don’t we just give people what they want?’ There was nothing hotter than Friends.”

Airing on Jan. 28, 1996 — just minutes after the Dallas Cowboys defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers — the hourlong Friends extravaganza highlighted big-time guests mixing it up with the six congenial stars. Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) and Monica (Courteney Cox) fight over the chance to date Jean-Claude Van Damme; Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) sings inappropriate ditties for kids, much to the shock of a librarian (Chris Isaak); Joey (Matt LeBlanc) falls for a crazed fan (Brooke Shields); Chandler (Matthew Perry) flirts with a former classmate (Julia Roberts) who secretly seeks revenge; and Ross (David Schwimmer) reunites with his pet monkey, Marcel, on the set of the retrospectively ominous movie, Outbreak 2: The Virus Takes New York. 

“The One After the Superbowl” [sic] garnered a whopping 52.9 million viewers, making it the highest-rated Super Bowl lead-out show to this day. It’s also the highest-rated Friends episode, including its 2004 series finale. Perhaps more importantly, the episode further catapulted the sitcom into the cultural stratosphere. Inevitable backlash ensued, though nothing could ultimately dent its status as one of TV’s all-time great comedies.

In honor of the episode’s 25th anniversary (and ahead of the much-anticipated HBO Max reunion), Friends creators, writers, guest stars and more talk with The Hollywood Reporter about their TV touchdown. (The six original stars and Roberts declined to participate.)

*** THE ONE THAT WASN’T FRASIER ***

Alexa Junge, staff writer: The show did well in the first season, but I still remember running into Jennifer and David in the mall during that time. Then over the summer the cast was on the cover of Rolling Stone and people rewatched it. That’s when the popularity really took root.

Littlefield: We had Seinfeld, but Friends was on the ascent and could ultimately benefit more from [the slot]. Frasier could have been a great idea, and it’s very possible we would have gone to them if [Friends co-creators] Marta [Kauffman], David [Crane] and Kevin [Bright] hadn’t embraced the opportunity. But they said yes.

David Crane, co-creator: All we wanted to do in the beginning was not get canceled. And suddenly we go from that worry to airing on Thursday night. We were a success on Thursday night and we go from that to, “Do you want to follow the Super Bowl?” in a year and a half.

Kevin Bright, exec producer: It was a great honor to be asked. Everybody knows that you get the widest available audience to sample a show.

Marta Kauffman, co-creator: I wanted to do it because I had heard a statistic that Super Bowl Sunday is the day associated with the most number of partner abuse. My thinking was that if this helps one woman from being beaten, I’m all for it.

***THE ONE WITH ALL THE CHALLENGES***

Littlefield: We told them it had to be an hour because we weren’t going to turn the extra time back to the affiliates. And we figured that people had been watching TV for eight hours at this point so it shouldn’t be the subtlest episode. They had to go for it and have fun.

Crane: The Super Bowl forced us to do a kind of episode that we wouldn’t normally do. People had been conditioned to watching just 30 minutes. That was our first challenge.

Kauffman: The show was so focused about the six of them. It was always challenging to bring in more and to do more.

Crane: This needed to be our Friends half-time show. The fact that we called it “The One After the Superbowl” as opposed to anything that had to with the other stories shows you our approach to it.

Mike Sikowitz, co-writer of Part 1: We wanted to make sure there was big, promotable and funny stuff in all the stories. The last thing you want is for all those millions of people to watch the Super Bowl and then watch your show and go, “Well, that was pleasant and contemplative.”

Jeff Astrof, co-writer of Part 1: Mike and I knew there was going to be one story that carried through the hour, which would be Ross reuniting with Marcel — but we had to break it up in two parts for the repeats. We pitched a story about Chandler left wearing nothing but this girl’s underwear in a bathroom stall. It was based on something that sadly happened to me with a girl. My embarrassing experience spiraled into Ross seeing Chandler’s tushie.

Junge: David and Marta ran such a democratic room, in that there was no hierarchy. The best idea won. For this episode, those guys wrote a detailed outline — probably 15 pages single-spaced, every beat in every scene — and then we as a group would try to make the jokes funnier. So we were all given a way to make our individual marks on them.

Michael Borkow, writer of Part 2: I just rewatched the episode for the first time and it was fun to see the various references that I put in there. Julia Roberts’ character is named Susie Moss after a friend of mine.

Junge: I worked on some of Phoebe’s inappropriate songs. There’s a little bit of Phoebe in me. And some of Monica’s anal-retentive OCD.

***THE ONE WITH THE FLIRTY FAXING*** 

Crane: I’ll say this: We never, over the course of doing the show, wrote for a specific guest. We came up with stories we thought were funny and put it out to our casting to find the best people. But for this episode, we couldn’t just go with a really good actor. We needed names.

Brooke Shields, guest star: I was on Broadway doing Rizzo in Grease. I got a phone call and said yes before I even knew what the part was because they said, “Would you be in the Super Bowl episode?” I was sort of obsessed with the show. There was no way I wasn’t going to do it.

Bright: We were all aware that Brooke had never done this kind of role before. Chris Isaak was an interesting choice because we were all fans of his music. His song [“Wicked Game”] is in the background when Ross and Rachel first hooked up in the planetarium. And it’s a soft-spoken part because he’s playing a librarian.

Chris Isaak, guest star: I was always on the road and didn’t watch a lot of TV. So, to my benefit, I wasn’t a huge fan of the show at the time. If I were, I think I would have been terrified.

Crane: We needed a really attractive movie star to play himself. It ended up being Jean-Claude Van Damme. The part we wrote for him wasn’t necessarily different than how he was in real-life.

Kauffman: Getting Julia Roberts was incredibly exciting. We knew she would have the right touch for it. And when she said yes, it was pretty awesome.

Bright: Do you know the story of how we got her? Matthew asked her to be on the show. She wrote back to him, “Write me a paper on quantum physics and I’ll do it.” My understanding is that Matthew went away and wrote a paper and faxed it to her the next day.

Junge: They may have met before the episode, but she was interested in him from afar because he’s so charming. There was a lot of flirting over faxing. She was giving him these questionnaires like, “Why should I go out with you?” And everyone in the writers room helped him explain to her why. He could do pretty well without us, but there was no question we were on Team Matthew and trying to make it happen for him.

Michael Lembeck, director of both episodes: I’m looking at the original shooting script right now and Julia’s name is not on the cast list. It’s an actress with the initials M.C. It could be that we kept her off deliberately so nobody would know.

Kauffman: I don’t remember who that actress was, but I’m sure it was a red herring.

Littlefield: I remember when I got a call and they said, “Oh, we got Julia Roberts,” and it was like, “Are you f—ing kidding me?” And we’re going to give you Chris Isaak and Marcel?! Marta said in the first season not to get attached to Marcel because it’s not easy to work with a monkey. When they put the monkey in the Super Bowl episode, it was this little gift surprise.

Bright: The monkey was not our finest moment. The monkey is not story. The monkey is not heart. The monkey is not feeling even though we tried to do that in this episode. But I will tell you that I loved that we cast Dan Castellaneta and Fred Willard to work at the San Diego Zoo. Their scenes are my two favorite moments.

***THE ONE WITH JEAN-CLAUDE’S COCOA PUFFS*** 

Lembeck: Even for an episode like this one, there’s no extra prep. You get a script, you make your notes. You have a table read and production meeting on Monday and then you’re rehearsing all week and shoot in front of a live studio audience on a Friday night. The whole process is two weeks. But this was a lot because of all these extra scenes in a zoo and on the streets.

Crane: All three of us were there for every episode, but this is the only one we’re in. It’s on the movie set, which was the Warner Bros. lot [in Burbank]. Joey is trying to come up with a dramatic moment so he can be in the movie, and we’re the people looking up like, “Who is this guy?”

Shields: We got new material every day, which was shocking to me. I started memorizing and the guys said not to bother. I listened because I was just a day player. Then one day midweek, either Courteney or Lisa asked me if I wanted to go to lunch with the girls at the commissary. They told me, “We thought you’d be difficult or stuck-up, but you’re cool.”

Kauffman: Brooke Shields hit it out of the park. She surprised us.

Shields: I was rehearsing a scene where I was licking Matt LeBlanc’s fingers. There’s a maniacal laugh that comes before it. Then toward the end of the week, Marta came up to me and told me not to do it because it made me look too crazy. I thought it was funny, but I figured they knew better. So on show night, I did it another way. Across the stage, Marta yells, “Put it back in!” The skies opened up.

Lembeck: Brooke was with Andre Agassi at the time. He shows up on shoot night and sits in the audience with the largest hamburger bodyguard. She does the scene where she starts licking Matt’s hand. Then I see him come down, pull Brooke aside and eviscerate her because he’s crazy-jealous. She’s reduced to tears! I broke the show for awhile, and the girls took Brooke aside and loved her, took care of her and got her back on that stage. She did great because of the support of those three. He was a jackass. [Editor’s note: Shields declined comment on the incident.]

Littlefield: I was watching the rough cut in my office and saying “Holy s—t, Brooke Shields is without fear.” And I called Marta and David and asked, “Is Brooke Shields as good as she seems?” They said they had a blast with her. So I reached out to her representation and said I wanted to do a comedy with her. That turned into [NBC’s 1996-2000 sitcom] Suddenly Susan.

Lembeck: Chris Isaak is such a swell guy. But his scenes with Phoebe? It was like working with a salmon. In order to get him to invest some spirit in the scene and help us with the comedy, Lisa had to work hard with him and hope for the best.

Isaak: Lisa Kudrow could not have been nicer to me. She asked, “Do you want to run lines together? Do you want to work on ‘Smelly Cat’?” She made me feel at ease in a way that I’ll never forget and still think about. She could have been a real big shot. By the way, she has a beautiful singing voice.

Astrof: I thought it would be really funny if he had long hair and, like, shook out his hair and took off his glasses before they kissed. But nobody wanted to put Chris Isaak in a wig because they wanted the audience to react when they saw him. So he walks in [to Central Perk] and there’s this awkward beat because nobody knew who he was! I’m like, “Man, we should have had the wig.”

Isaak: My reputation as an actor is that I will show up and be dependable. If you want me there at 8, I’ll be there at 7. I don’t want to be a pain in the neck. I know a million people could do this job better than me.

Littlefield: Jean-Claude Van Damme may have fallen into the category of, "Who’s more difficult to work with, him or the monkey?"

Bright: He arrived at the set three or four hours late and went straight to his trailer. So David and I thought we’d introduce ourselves and ask him if he had any questions. We went over and he says, “No! First, I memorize lines. Then you give me the feeling.”

Sikowitz: I think that when Jean-Claude showed up, he asked through his manager or some other person who came to the set with him for Cocoa Puffs. I believe a P.A. ran out and got them.

Lembeck: Having completely blown up our shooting day, we had to scramble. Then he’s unprepared and arrogant! But this is the story I want to share: We shoot him and Jennifer first. Then she walks over to me and says, “Lem, Lem, would you do me a favor and ask him not to put his tongue in my mouth when he’s kissing me?” I tell him everything is great but it’s a tight shot so maybe let’s not do that. Then we’re shooting a scene later with Courteney. Here comes Courteney walking toward me and saying, “Lem, can you please tell him not to put his tongue in my mouth?” I couldn’t believe it! I had to tell him again, but a little firmer.

Bright: Jennifer told me about it and I remember telling her that maybe he doesn’t understand this isn’t the movies? But we asked him several times. [Reps for Van Damme did not respond to THR’s requests for comment.]

Borkow: He’s not a comedy star, and I think it showed. On the other hand, we didn’t need him to be funny. We needed a big Hollywood star that the girls would fight over and he did that great.

Junge: I didn’t like that storyline. I was upset that my Monica and Rachel sold each other out romantically.

Lembeck: Julia Roberts was a joy. She hadn’t been in front of a live audience since she did Agnes of God onstage when she was 15. The first night, she held my hand so tightly before she went on that I thought she was going to break my knuckles. Her performance anxiety was extraordinary.

Junge: Julia said she wouldn’t do the scene in the bathroom unless she was barefoot. She thought it would ground her. Her sister is in the episode, too [as Outbreak 2’s P.A. who goes out with Joey].

Astrof: I remember standing with her on the sidelines. She kept saying, “Chandler’s so funny!” And I’m like, “I wrote every one of those lines!” I don’t know if she fell in love with Matthew on the spot but they soon started dating. I felt like Cyrano [de Bergerac]. Like, "Chandler is going to date Julia Roberts and I’m going to go home to my horrible girlfriend." That’s my memory of that episode.

***THE ONE WITH THE LOVE BOAT CONCERNS*** 

Littlefield: I thought the results were phenomenal. Many of us took the printed sheet of Nielsen ratings and had it framed. The NBC framer was very, very busy after the Super Bowl.

Isaak: I was performing the night it aired, but I heard so much about that episode after. I stole a magnet off Monica’s fridge to give to my friend, and she freaked out. My band thought it was hilarious that Phoebe made fun of my “manly voice.”

Borkow: The show took off from there, and it was a thrill. But you know, it wasn’t as if our goal was to get 50 million people and there was this huge victory dance after we got the numbers because we pulled it off. We always tried to do the same quality of work, even if 50 people were watching it.

Bright: The results were mostly upside. But it was a double-edged sword in the sense that the episode presented a very different version of the show to new viewers compared to the one we were invested in.

Junge: All the famous people started to want to be on it. We were excited about it, but we were like, “OK, we need to be judicious about where we use people so it doesn’t feel like The Love Boat.”  I just didn’t want the secret sauce to get away from us.

Kauffman: Second seasons are hard. You have to keep it up, you have to meet expectations or go beyond them. There was no backlash from that specific episode but it did happen [around that time].

Crane: It was triggered by the Diet Coke ad campaign, which I think was the low point for us. People worried the show had become too commercial. But over 10 years, there are highs and lows and suddenly they love us and then there’s pushback and then they fall in love again.

Bright: I find it hard to believe that the audience was upset by the Diet Coke campaign. You’re either going to watch Friends in that moment or not.

***THE ONE WITH THE ‘EXTRAORDINARY’ LEGACY***

Littlefield: We’ll never see those numbers again. There are too many choices out there. On that night, we were the only place to be. It wasn’t about the game.

Shields: People talk to me all the time about that appearance. It’s extraordinary. Personally, I’d always believed I had a comic instinct but I was never given a chance to put it out there. I’ve called Marta and thanked her for trusting me, because it changed my life.

Isaak: I’m surprised by how many people still talk to me about it. People watch Friends like I watch The Andy Griffith Show. Even though I know the episodes by heart, they’re comforting.

Crane: The episode isn’t in my top five. We were much happier with six of them in the apartment and doing proposals and weddings and having babies. But given the marching orders, I think we did pretty well.

Junge: Just looking at it today, I just thought it was really well-plotted. Like, the whole idea that Marcel was kidnapped and went into showbiz is so loopy. This episode is such a good example of all the things the show could be, which is satiric but heartfelt. It’s really our tour de force.

Lembeck: People will talk about this episode forever, and I can’t tell you why because I don’t know why. I can see one glorious movie and either eight people will see it or 80 million. None of us can define or characterize it. You have to be chosen. Look at the six actors — they had 30 failed pilots among them before they were cast! But it was lightning in a bottle. I think because it’s so clear they loved each other. The chemistry is always there.

Friends is streaming on HBO Max. The reunion special is expected to film in March.