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‘Friends’ Creators on Creative Regrets and Biggest Reunion Reveals: “It Was a Very Hot Topic on the Set”

Creators Marta Kauffman and David Crane as well as exec producer/director Kevin Bright weigh in on everything from the show's lack of diversity, Matthew Perry's health, what would have happened to Joey (had there not been a spinoff), and whether or not Ross and Rachel were truly on a break.

Oh. My. God.

After 17 years of debating if Ross and Rachel were really on a break, it turns out we were all asking the wrong question as (spoiler alert!) HBO Max’s Friends reunion special delivered a bombshell when stars Jennifer Aniston and David Schwimmer revealed that they had romantic feelings for one another during the first season of the former NBC comedy.

The nearly two-hour reunion special — directed, produced and shepherded by Ben Winston — also revealed that Joey’s faux twin was nearly cast in the role that went to Matt LeBlanc and offered for the first time a look at just how the actor injured his shoulder while filming the hit series.

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The reunion gathered stars Aniston (Rachel), Schwimmer (Ross), LeBlanc (Joey), Courteney Cox (Monica), Lisa Kudrow (Phoebe) and Matthew Perry (Chandler) together for only the second time in the 17 years since Friends wrapped its 10-season run. The special also marked the return to the show’s iconic set — which was re-created on the famed Warner Bros. soundstage — for Friends creators Marta Kauffman and David Crane and exec producer/director Kevin Bright. The trio participated in pre-taped segments and were in the audience for the special but missed out on a real reunion with the six actors whose careers they helped to launch.

In three separate interviews with The Hollywood Reporter, all of which are combined below, Kauffman, Crane and Bright open up about the big reveals from the Friends reunion, share where they think the six characters are today — including what would have happened to Joey had NBC not launched spinoff Joey — address if there will be any more new Friends content (either scripted or unscripted) and weigh in on the show’s diversity, creative regrets and battles.

For so long everyone involved shut down reunion and reboot rumors, but here we are. When did that change and who was the hardest to convince?

Crane: I was the hardest to convince. The idea of doing a reboot or anything where you see the characters again was off the table. We ended the series the way we wanted to end it, and the idea of revisiting the characters was never interesting. But even a reunion, I was apprehensive. But Ben Winston presented his vision of it and I found myself getting really excited. I left that meeting going, “Oh, this actually could be very cool.”

What it was like to be back on this meticulously re-created set? Did you get time to look around?

Bright: Everything was dictated and compromised by COVID. There were COVID cops on the set. We couldn’t go out and walk around. We did a little bit, but not really in the way that we had a moment with it. They were shooting during the time, so we could only spend so much time [on set]. But seeing it all put back together was stunning. They had the art director and the prop person from the show put it back together. The detail was exact; it was like it never left.

Crane: I went into it a little apprehensive. I was saying to my husband, Jeffrey [Klarik], “I feel like we’re going back to our high school reunion.” And he said, “Yeah, but you had a really good time in high school!”

The three of you were interviewed ahead of time with pre-taped segments but you were all in the audience for the reunion. Were able to reunite with all six cast members for the first time since the show ended?

Bright: No. That was all dictated by COVID, too. We were there on the two shooting days. Talking about old times and that kind of stuff couldn’t happen because of COVID. We saw the cast on both days before and after shooting and that was pretty much it. And then we saw the show. We got to experience it more as the audience than as the producers. Having these gushy moments with all nine of us together again and talking about old times couldn’t happen.

Kauffman: The last time the nine of us have been in a room together is 17 years ago. So yeah, it was an incredibly emotional experience and truly sweet.

Crane: To get that quick hug in and to see everyone together on the stage, it was amazing. We didn’t get to hang out, but it was lovely.

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The “Friends” set was re-created for the reunion special. Courtesy of HBOMAX/Terence Patrick

How disappointed are you that there couldn’t be this big reunion with the nine of you?

Bright: We were lucky we got to have an audience. We moved it from the set to outside to be able to get like a hundred people. The show is good, that’s what we’re happy about. Ben Winston did a terrific job. But COVID ruined and put a damper on the warm and fuzzy part of this reunion, for us anyhow. For the six of them, it was a very different experience.

In addition to explaining for the first time how LeBlanc hurt his shoulder, the reunion also featured Aniston and Schwimmer confessing that they had romantic feelings for one another in season one. Did you guys know at the time?

Bright: It was a very hot topic on the set because the electricity between them in the scenes was like, “Oh my God, they can’t be acting that, there’s got to be something!” Everybody was suspicious that something was going on. People made up their own rumors and at a certain point. But we all thought something might have been going on because they were just so good together. We were so invested in Ross and Rachel, like the rest of you. There was something about them. But like the show, in a certain way, you had to wait a long time and then it never happened. The happy ending is in the show.

Kauffman: It was pretty obvious. We didn’t know for sure because we never asked either of them, but yes, we thought that perhaps might be going on. It did not wind up inspiring [Ross and Rachel’s storyline] honestly at all. If anything, their ability to channel those feelings into Ross and Rachel just made the longing all the more relatable.

Crane: I didn’t know! Of the three of us, I was on stage the least. I was always in the writers’ room, so there’s probably a lot of stuff that went on, on stage, that went by me. If it wasn’t about improving the story or punching up a joke, I probably missed it.

Did you ever discuss the troubles that come when showmances don’t work out with them?

Bright: You’ve got to let these things take their course. You don’t want to get involved in actors’ personal lives, then you’re really in trouble as a producer. We never did because nobody saw anything, nobody found anything; it was just rumors that were all based on how good they were as actors.

Aniston noted she had to beg CBS’ Muddling Through, her other pilot at the time, to drop her so she could do Friends. What would you guys have done if Muddling Through had refused?

Bright: We would have had to re-shoot the pilot and recast it. We didn’t have a backup. There wasn’t a second Rachel. There wasn’t a second Chandler. There wasn’t a second Ross or Phoebe. We didn’t go in with anybody else.

Louis Mandylor — who played Joey’s pretend twin in an episode — was nearly cast as Joey. Were there other people who you had as top choices for any of the six leads?

Bright: Nancy McKeon from The Facts of Life for Monica. Wouldn’t that have been a different show?!

The reunion featured the cast sharing where they think their characters are today. Where are they for you?

Kauffman: Ross and Rachel have done a lot of marriage counseling, but they’re doing well. Monica owns a restaurant by now. Phoebe has two biological children and seven foster kids with Mike (Paul Rudd). And Chandler and Joey form a family band. I’m kidding but I think Matt nailed it for Joey and Chandler is in a job he hates and still sneaks cigarettes once in a while.

Crane: The show ended for me when it ended, mentally. So, I don’t have fantasy scenarios. Given the nature of Friends, I’d like to believe they all ended up happy, which is also one of the reasons why we always resisted the idea of doing a follow-up or a reboot. Because you’re going to do a show where if you’re going to keep their stories going, you need conflict. I don’t want to see the episode where characters are getting divorced or, God forbid, they all come back to Central Perk for someone’s funeral. Everybody ended up well. Phoebe and Mike, Monica and Chandler, and Rachel and Ross are all still together. Everyone ended happily ever after, because that was the show.

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The “Friends” reunion special Courtesy of HBOMAX/Terence Patrick

LeBlanc said he thought Joey would be running a sandwich shop today in Venice. But Joey really never got an ending after his spinoff didn’t work. What would have happened to him had there not been a spinoff?

Bright: The real version of the spinoff. I’m not a fan of the storyline of Joey. I’m the producer of the show and that storyline did not do service to the character. Joey should have come out to Hollywood and had the time of his life. It should have been far more an Entourage than it was this family “Joey needs to grow up” show. Joey would have gotten a pilot, come out to Hollywood and had the time of his life and gotten into all kinds of trouble. And we would have discovered new parts of Joey in the process. It would have been a lot more fun than the nerdy nephew and the barking sister. I don’t even know where it’s streaming now. We all would have watched the Joey I imagined, but that’s what happens when you finish one show that’s a giant hit: you go back to the back of the line and you don’t know anything and the network and studio get their imprints on it. That’s not the way Friends came together, I can tell you that.

Kauffman: I thought Matt’s answer was pretty dead on, either way. Maybe his sandwich shop would have been in New York. I think he’s got four daughters and he’s a happy man.

Crane: I’d like to believe that for Joey Tribbiani, there was an acting gig out there that worked. That something took him beyond Days of Our Lives and that Joey could have gotten a sitcom. I don’t mean the sitcom, Joey; but Joey could’ve gotten a show [that wasn’t Mac and C.H.E.E.S.E.].

The reunion did a great job of uncovering these untold stories. Are there more to tell?

Bright: If they’ve been untold for now, maybe they need to be buried for a little bit longer.
Crane: I don’t think I’d do another reunion because it’s 27 years later — or 17 since we finished — and it’s amazing that we got this opportunity, but if you make a regular habit of it, it’s not quite as special. So, I’m going to say, no, this is it.

Have you been approached by anyone at HBO Max or Warner Bros. about doing any other kind of unscripted content around Friends? There was so much new behind the scenes footage in the reunion that I wonder if you could do a commentary cut for super-fans.

Bright: There have been a couple of ideas that were floated around at one point, but before the reunion. But we were more invested in seeing the reunion happen and not having those ideas come out. We’ll see now that this has done and how it feels. There might be some version of what you’re suggesting. But we’re just happy that the reunion turned out well.

Kauffman: We’ve had no conversations like that with them. Let’s see what happens here, but I feel, not unlike how we felt at the end of the series, where it stops here and you don’t want to do a reboot or anything like that. Isn’t it better to end on a good note, then do something just because people want to see them? If it can’t be excellent, why do it?

Crane: My knee-jerk reaction is to say, “No. We’re done.” If people want Friends, it’s available on HBO Max and on cable. And that’s the best version of the show. I don’t know that the show is well-served by going back and revisiting it.

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The “Friends” reunion special Courtesy of HBOMAX/Terence Patrick

Kudrow previously mentioned there was a pitch that Cox had a few years ago about doing a watch with the cast-type of thing for Friends. But it didn’t happen.

Crane: Well, you could. I don’t know that there’s a need to. But to do new things, I feel like an awful lot work went into this one to make it the best version of itself that it could be. I’m really proud of this reunion special, but it didn’t leave me going, “Oh, we’ve got to do these every year.”

Bright: The thing we’re invested in now is Friends is a candidate for true 4K. We shot Friends all on film and I’d like to see all the shows remastered in 4K for the future. I remastered 12 of the episodes for movie theaters two years ago and got to see the original negatives and do color correction on them. It’s night and day, even from HD. That’s what I’d like to get over the fence next.

Kudrow posted an image on Instagram this month with her son graduating from college. Considering you wrote her pregnancy into Friends, it made me wonder what the kids who were born on the show — Ben and Emma, Jack and Erica as well as Leslie, Chandler and Frank Jr. Jr. Would you ever consider a spinoff about this next generation?

Bright: No, because it won’t be as good. These six actors, the time, the place, everything was special. We don’t want to look at the show as a brand that you just spin it off into another generation. If we were going to do it, we want to do something maybe with the six characters, but we don’t want to do that because as Crane says, “We’d have to undo everything we did to make another show happen.” And we’re not interested in doing it. It was a perfect ending; don’t touch it. Maybe someday somebody will come up with a great idea and present to us how they envision making a movie. But doing the Friends movie with this cast — older Friends — it’s not the same show. All the energy from the show wasn’t just the chemistry of the actors, but it was driven by youth. That, “What’s my job? Who am I going to be in love with? What am I going to do for the rest of my life?” That’s what drove the show. Imagining divorce issues and other things? None of it is appealing. If you’re going to do a truthful version of what would have happened to them, they can’t all still be married and together.

Kauffman: Absolutely not. Nope. No. There’s no reason to. It’s never going to be the six of them, it’s a whole different show and it’s not a show I’m particularly interested in doing. And if it’s not fantastic, or as good as Friends, it’s going to just piss people off.

Crane: No, because inevitably, if you do something like that, you’re competing with the original show and why do that? We were so blessed. We managed to get lightning in a bottle with the perfect cast and it all came together so well. The odds of that happening again are really slim. It’s like if you won the lottery, stop buying tickets.

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The “Friends” reunion special Courtesy of HBOMAX/Terence Patrick

The reunion reiterates that Friends was pulled from your lives and Marta and David wrote the script with specific people in mind. When you look back at casting, the one thing the show is criticized about was the fact that this is an all-white, heteronormative cast. Was that a conscious choice?

Bright: For the parts of Chandler and Phoebe, we saw everybody and we picked what we thought with the two best actors. There are different priorities today and so much has changed. There was no social media when Friends was on the air. Can you imagine what every episode might have been like if it had to go under that scrutiny every week? You might not have gotten the whole series. It’s important for today’s shows to be reflective of the ways society truly is. But for our experience, the three of us, that may have been our experience when we were young and in New York. But we didn’t intend to have an all-white cast. That was not the goal, either. Obviously, the chemistry between these six actors speaks for itself.

Kauffman: No. There are many things that I could say if I only knew then what I know now. Back then, there was no conscious decision. We saw people of every race, religion, color. These were the six people we cast. So, it was certainly not conscious. And it wasn’t because it was literally based on people, because it wasn’t literal. You get an inspiration for someone, you write what you think their voice is going to be, but it wasn’t literal.

Looking back, would you have done anything differently?

Bright: No. I don’t have any regrets other than hindsight. I would have been insane not to hire those six actors. What can I say? I wish Lisa was Black? I’ve loved this cast. I loved the show and I loved the experience. I know Marta has a different feeling about it. I think it affects us all.

Kauffman: There are probably a hundred things I would have done differently. I’ve talked about it in the past and I do have very strong feelings about my participation in a system, but it comes down to I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

If you wrote the Friends pilot today, what do you think would change?

Bright: We would be so aware. It would be integral to the chemistry and the conversation that these guys would be having. Do they get together as much as they do on the show, or is this more of a social media back and forth? So much would change, but to get them to behave realistically within this time, there would be a lot that would change about them. And the racial makeup of them would change because of that. If we did Friends today, no, I don’t imagine they would probably end up being an all-white cast.

Kauffman: You couldn’t write that pilot today. You couldn’t do it. They’d all be sitting on their phones.

Crane: A lot, certainly. I had to re-watch the pilot leading up to the reunion and thought it was interesting that we don’t end acts on a joke or plot twist. It’s just Ross and Rachel looking out the window longingly. For 1993, that was gutsy. And the way the show opens with just people sitting around and talking? There’s no story, no one comes in and goes, “Oh my God, I’ve lost my job. And I have to move in with my sister.” We were able to set a template for the show in the pilot and able to stick that balance of comedy, caring and investment. And that by the end of that pilot you start to fall in love with these people. I’m really proud of that.

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Several iconic scenes were re-created as part of the “Friends” reunion special. Courtesy of HBOMAX/Terence Patrick

Looking back on the show’s 236-episode run, what’s the storyline you can’t believe you got away with doing?

Bright: The lesbian wedding. That’s a combination of astounded we got away with it and so happy we were the ones to do it. When the show gets hammered about a lack of diversity, I like that episode also to be remembered as doing something that nobody else had done before: a lesbian wedding on television. I would have figured that NBC would have been so pressured by the middle of the country that they would have shut it down — and they didn’t. And we got Candace Gingrich to be the priest.

Kauffman: There was never a storyline where we thought, “This doesn’t belong in our living rooms.” There were storylines I wish we’d rewritten to make them better. But I’m not going to say which because then some writer’s going to be calling me and going, “I can’t believe you brought up that episode.”

What was the creative fight that stands out?

Bright: When we first started the arc where Joey was going to get together with Rachel. The cast revolted when they read the first script on it: “No. Joey would never do this to Ross.” Marta and David were able to explain how it wasn’t going to end in a place that would compromise Joey as a character for stealing his buddy’s girlfriend. That almost didn’t happen. And we would have lost what was a very good season for that. I’m glad they won that one.

Kauffman: NBC, after we did the pilot, came to us and said they think the show needs an older character, like a guy who owns the coffee shop. That was a huge disappointment. Ultimately, thank God, they let us do what we felt we could do, which is to make these characters identifiable enough that you don’t only have to be 20 to want to watch the show.

Crane: Once the show took off, it was easier to win those arguments. I would talk to Standards and Practices about language and how many times you can say the word “penis.” It was just stupid. So that never left. But when we were doing the pilot, there was an NBC executive who objected to the fact that Monica sleeps with a guy on the first date. We pushed hard for that story because we thought it makes her vulnerable. Ultimately, he convinced himself that it was OK because, and these are his words, when the guy disappears, “Monica gets what she deserves.” You could see the steam coming out of Marta’s nose and she got up and walked away. There was an audience for the dress rehearsal and NBC handed out a questionnaire — which I still have somewhere — and one of the questions was, do you think Monica was, and I’m paraphrasing here, a slut? A whore? A floozy? Everyone was like, “I’m fine with this.” That helped, too.

Are there storylines or episodes you regret?

Crane: The lesbian wedding. I was happy that Carol and Susan got married but my only wish looking back is that we had told that story more from their point of view. Our mantra was always that the show was about the six of them. And so many of the stories happened off-screen and the six would come back together at the apartment of the coffee house and they’d talk about what just happened. I wish we had violated that rule in that case.

Bright: I’m not a big fan of Monica thinking Chandler likes watching shark sex to get off. I thought that bit belonged in a Seinfeld episode, not on our show. But it was during the time with Matthew Perry and, well, I don’t want to get into that.

Did you have an opportunity to talk with Matthew Perry at all? I hate to even bring this up, but there’s been a lot of concern about his health recently.

Bright: I talked to him. It was great seeing him again. And what people say is what people say. I don’t have any to say about that, except it was great to see him. And I think he’s very funny on the show. But yes, I think he’s OK. He seems stronger and better since the last time I saw him, and excited about going forward.

The reunion opens with a reminder that Friends averaged 25 million viewers a week, with 52 million tuning in live for the series finale, and it’s been watched by more than 100 billion times across all platforms. What does it say about our industry that the reunion special for a massive broadcast hit is airing on a streaming platform?

Bright: That was a shame. Our life was on NBC. But since the show happened, the whole world has changed, and certainly the business and how it operates. Streaming has been responsible for single-handedly reviving the interest in the show, for making it readily available and for continuing to support it. Streaming was the greatest thing that could have happened to Friends, and the timing couldn’t have been more fortunate. But it is the end of an era in television. When you think about those numbers — 25 million a week!? — that’s 20 hit shows now. Because what’s a hit, 2 million? 6 million? It’s just so different.

Kauffman: That things have changed. Some of these places have it right, where they air on their streaming channel right after their network premiere. That’s smart, and it reaches a wider audience because they can go beyond the U.S. It carries great irony.

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Marta Kauffman and David Crane in the ‘Friends’ reunion audience. HBO Max

Would you ever go back and make a show for broadcast today?
Kauffman:
I would. I’m happy to do any of it as long as it’s a show I’m proud of.
Bright:
I would, but probably not the show that broadcast is interested in anymore. I’ve been making documentaries for the last 10 years and my focus is in a different place now.

Would you make a Friends documentary?
Bright:
That Friends around the world segment from the reunion planted a few ideas. When you see Malala talking about your show, it just blows you away and transcends everything. That’s something that does interest me.

So, wrapping things up, for the record: Were they on a break?

Bright: Yeah! There was a break. They weren’t on a break with honor. On a break, you don’t expect someone to move on quite that quickly, admittedly, but they were on a break.

Crane: I’m not answering that! I love that there is no definitive answer to that question. From a writing standpoint, something that characters can argue about for years is the best question ever. You could make the argument that of course they were on a break. The other side of it is, well, they may have been on a break technically, but come on.

Interviews condensed and edited for clarity.

Coming Friday to TV’s Top 5 podcast, director Ben Winston shares the backstories on all those memorable reunion highlights.