Why the team behind ‘Friends’ finally agreed to a reunion after ‘147,000’ asks
The figure is far from official, but according to Marta Kauffman, the co-creator of TV’s enduring global blockbuster “Friends,” she’s been approached 147,000 times — give or take — about a reboot or revival of the NBC sitcom.
“It started before we went off the air!” Kauffman says with a laugh. She’s heard all the ideas, old and new. Hey, what about a show centering on Ben Geller — who would now be roughly the age his father, Ross, was when the show started — and his circle of friends?
“Oh, 100 people have mentioned that idea,” she says. “And I shut that down. My question is: Why? We can’t do better than what we did in this arena. So if we’re trying to do some version of it, it’s already watered down.”
It’s a position the producers and cast have held firm on in the years since “Friends” concluded with 10 full seasons under its belt, even as television networks have become increasingly obsessed with dusting off old shows for a new audience. This year alone will see the return of more than a dozen familiar properties, including “Frasier,” “The Wonder Years” and “Gossip Girl.”
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“We’ve seen some shows do it, to varying degrees of success,” says executive producer Kevin S. Bright, who noted that calls for a reboot reignited more seriously after the “Will & Grace” revival. “But you really can’t go backward. It’s not like a movie sequel where you can go back 10 years later. This is a little bit more sensitive. And I think everybody has such a well-shaped image about the show. It wasn’t even a consideration for us. We would not do it. When the 25th anniversary was happening [in 2019], I think that’s when things changed for us. We realized we really wanted to get something done for the fans.
With a little bit of patience and a push by WarnerMedia executives seeking star power to help with the 2020 launch of HBO Max — the platform where the long-running sitcom is available to stream after years of being on Netflix — a breakthrough came when the show’s producers and six cast members, Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry and David Schwimmer, agreed to participate in a reunion special.
Even after overcoming any reticence among participants about a return, it’s been a long road to get the “Friends” reunion to the screen. The pandemic caused a year of delays between the original planned shoot and when production ultimately happened. But over two days in April on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, the cast of “Friends” was there for us once more.
In a weird way, “Friends: The Reunion” is a jolting reminder of the passage of time. With the show still playing on a loop thanks to its streaming afterlife, it can feel like no time has passed at all since the series finale, “The Last One,” aired in 2004. But it’s been 17 years since Rachel got off the plane bound for Paris to be with Ross — thanks, in large part, to Phoebe — and Chandler and Monica welcomed twins and bid adieu to city life, making sure Joey had a room in their suburban home.
The two-hour special features new footage with the cast, including a sit-down interview; segments showing them marveling at the carefully reconstructed sets on Stage 24, the same studio where the series originated; and vignettes of them doing table reads of classic moments from the series. Mixed in are stories about the making of the series from the cast and producers, as well as testimonials from fans — both celebrity and everyday admirers — about their adoration.
“It was emotional,” Kauffman says. “And it was full of joy. And it was sweet. And it was nostalgic. And more than anything, I was happy that the nine of us were in a space together.”
David Crane, who co-created the series with Kauffman, described the drive home to Santa Barbara following filming as euphoric.
“Going in, I couldn’t help but be a little apprehensive because you just don’t know,” Crane said. “We’ve been so precious about so much with this show, so to finally make this decision and do something like this, it’s like: It better work.”
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The delay in production proved valuable, according to Ben Winston, the director and producer of the special: With the extra time to research, he watched all of the show’s 236 episodes, read two books about “Friends,” and spent time getting to know the cast better over Zoom.
Winston, who also serves as showrunner of “The Late Late Show with James Corden,” said the concept for the special didn’t change much from what was originally planned, with the exception of the location for the interview portion moderated by Corden. It was originally going to take place indoors, with the plan to build out Stage 24 into something resembling the setup for the “Saturday Night Live 40th Anniversary Special,” and lean into the glam with audience members in formal wear. It was Schwimmer who suggested moving the segment outdoors because of the pandemic.
The biggest logistical challenge, unsurprisingly, was finding dates that worked for the six cast members and would align with a window in which Stage 24, which remains one of the busiest stages on the Warner Bros. lot, would be available for five weeks. (Three weeks to build the sets, a week for rehearsal, the two-day shoot, and the dismantling of it all.)
“I was most worried that somebody would get COVID in the lead-up to it,” Winston says. “There was no margin for error; if somehow, at the last minute, somebody tested positive or whatever, then it’s over. So I was always nervous about that. And I think just the weight of expectation of this show. I’d be lying if I didn’t have a bit of butterflies in my stomach.”
It was crucial, Winston says, that the sets and the stage, from the dressing room to the audience bleachers, be as identical to what existed when “Friends” originally filmed there as possible — a task made somewhat easier with John Shaffner, the production designer on “Friends,” also working on the reunion special.
Most of the artifacts were in the archive, with a few exceptions. One was the neon light that hung over the audience: “We found it on all archive photos, but no one could find that neon light,” Winston says, “so we had to get it remade.” Another was the rug in Monica’s apartment, which they also had to have remade.
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“I really was obsessive that when [the cast] walked in on that set, I wanted them to feel like they’ve literally just got back in time and have a very weird, emotional out-of-body experience,” he explains. “And I think that as soon as you see something in the wrong place, or something’s in the wrong order, or that was never the right color, that immediately takes you out.”
Ultimately, what matters most to fans is that this is the one where the group gets back together. And as a semblance of normalcy creeps back into our daily lives, there’s something to the special arriving when it does, according to Kauffman.
“As the world is opening up again, I think it’s a really positive, celebratory [thing]. People have been waiting for this for a long time, like they have been waiting for other things during this year. I’m hoping that what it does is provide some real joy and laughter, and maybe a tear or two.”
‘Friends: The Runion’
Where: HBO Max
When: Any time, starting Thursday
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