Sunday, January 27, 2002

'Friends' grows in stature, ratings

        BURBANK, Calif. — Ten writers and producers huddle like a football team in front of the Friends Central Perk cafe set while stars Jennifer Aniston, Matt LeBlanc and David Schwimmer wait for them to punch up the scene.

        Ms. Aniston, who plays pregnant Rachel on TV's top-rated sitcom, has been rushed to the hospital with false labor pains in the episode to air Thursday.

        The writers are displeased with the lack of response from those of us in the bleacher seats on the Warner Bros. sound stage.

        We didn't laugh when Ms. Aniston grimaced, as the baby's father (Mr. Schwimmer) dismisses the false labor: “That's no big deal. Most people don't even feel them.”

        After the impromptu writers' meeting, Rachel shows her contempt with a comeback on the next take: “No uterus, no opinion!”

        The studio audience howls. So will most of the 24 million Friends viewers Thursday.

    • What: Friends
  • When:8 p.m. Thursday (Channels 5, 22)
  • Reruns: Weekdays at 6 p.m. (Channel 19) and 7 p.m. (Channels 19, 2, WTBS).
        My recent visit to a Friends taping at Warner Bros. shows why the ensemble comedy, in its eighth season, is TV's best. And why millions of viewers worry that their favorite TV Friends might call it quits when their contracts expire this season.

        Friends is blessed with a cast that can deliver both verbal and physical comedy, such as Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) giving Monica (Courteney Cox Arquette) a massage while trying not to hear Monica's orgasmic moans. Their comic timing is perfect, take after take after take.

        Unlike most sitcoms, Friends juggles multiple story lines every episode. Thursday's subplots include Phoebe's massage; Chandler's (Matthew Perry) obsession with Monica's locked hall closet; and dimwit Joey's (Matt LeBlanc) new-found passion for Rachel, who had been Ross' soul mate for seven seasons.

        The Friends taping also is memorable for another reason — the six hours needed to tape the 22-minute show. The retakes and rewrites make it twice the length of most sitcom tapings.

        We sit so long that they pass outpizzas to the audience. Twice.

        “What makes it long are the rewrites,” says comedian Jim Bentley, who entertains the 300-member studio audience between takes. “That's what makes this show good.”

        While tossing and turning in bed, Joey dreams of Rachel giving birth. When he pulls back the blanket to look at the baby's face, he sees Ross.

        “I hope you're a better father than you were a friend!” Ross says.

        Friends has enjoyed a creative — and ratings — resurgence this fall with the pregnancy story line. Executive producers Kevin Bright, Marta Kauffman and David Crane have turned the formula on its head — shifting the focus from the Ross-Rachel unrequited love to Joey's feelings for Rachel, while Ross struggles through career difficulties usually experienced by Joey.

        Some TV critics attribute the Friends revival to our craving for the familiar after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the “comfort food” theory.

        Les Moonves, CBS president and CEO, has another theory on why the show has gained 4.6 million viewers over last season.

        “Marta and David are terrific show-runners,” says Mr. Moonves, who was head of Warner Bros. Television when the Friends pilot was made in 1994. He points out that the Bright-Kauffman-Crane team, no longer trying to keep afloat Veronica's Closet or Jesse, is devoting full attention to Friends.

        “Friends lost it a little bit, and then Marta and David got back in there,” Mr. Moonves says. “They did a great job. They deserve all the credit in the world.”

        A year ago, CBS' Survivor 2 became the first show to beat Friends, the cornerstone of NBC's “Must See TV” lineup. This season, Friends consistently topped Survivor 3.

        That Friends —or any show — could be No. 1 in its eighth year is an achievement in itself. Only Cheers and Seinfeld have done that since The Andy Griffith Show.

        Friends and Seinfeld also share another distinction: They became hits with the original cast intact, something that can't be said about Cheers, Roseanne, The Cosby Show, Andy Griffith or ER.

        Some fans have been disappointed in the budding Joey-Rachel romance. Even some Friends are repulsed by Joey, the bit-part actor, having feelings for classy Rachel. As smart aleck Chandler says to Joey in this show: “How's the hideously inappropriate crush on Rachel coming?”

        Adding a baby to a sitcom can be risky. Remember Mad About You? But Garth Ancier, former NBC Entertainment president, trusts the executive producers.

        In the eighth year, “you start running out of stories to tell,” says Mr. Ancier, now a Turner Broadcasting vice president.

        “Something has to happen. You can't keep jockeying people around the same story lines. They (producers) would not make this move lightly . . . They probably have all 24 of the episodes laid out in their minds,” he says.

        Most surprising has been the broad range of Mr. LeBlanc's Joey. One minute he's concerned about the expectant mother; the next he's still as dumb as a fence post.

        As he says Thursday: “I'm great! No, I'm better than great! I'm good.”

        When Mr. Bentley exhausts his stash of give-away goodies — Friends pencils, plastic cups and T-shirts, plus candy bars and bottled water — he solicits questions from the studio audience.

        It doesn't take long for someone to ask the one on the mind of every Friends fan:“Will this be the last season?”

        “That's the question we'd all like to know the answer to,” Mr. Bentley says.

        NBC executives don't know, either. Faced with losing a second No. 1 show (Seinfeld) in five years, NBC says renewing Friends is the top priority.

        “There's absolutely no acrimony or anything like that. We're in discussions,” says Jeff Zucker, NBC Entertainment president. “We want them to come back.”

        His boss, NBC West Coast President Scott Sassa, says money is not an issue for the six stars, each now making $750,000 a show. They likely have been offered at least $1 million per episode, or $22 million a year, Mr. Ancier says. (Kelsey Grammer makes a reported $1.6-million per episode for NBC's Frasier.)

        Whatever the cast decides, it will likely be unanimous, as with other Friends decisions. The cast gelled in 1994 with a rare all-for-one loyalty that has distinguished Friends from other shows.

        All six insisted on appearing together on magazine cover photos in the first season, as Friends established itself as a top 10 show. They held out together for raises in 2000, demanding that each be paid the same. (All have declined interviews this season, and closed rehearsals to the press.)

        “From the beginning, we made sure that we'd always tell each other what was going on, because we were having such a good time,” Ms. Aniston told me after the first season. “We're friends, actually.”

        Before this season started, Ms. Aniston told reporters this would be the last for Friends.

        “It's really heartbreaking for me, every time I think about it I'm on the verge of tears, I really am,” she said in August, promoting her Rock Star film.

        “When this will be over, it will be hard, it's hard for me to think about right now,” she said. “We have all shared so many crossroads of our lives together, and then we're all going to go our separate ways."

        On this night, the Friends cast heads separate ways before the taping ends.

        Only Ms. Arquette, Mr. LeBlanc and Ms. Kudrow stick around for the wildly enthusiastic curtain call. (It didn't sound like we were sitting there six hours.)

        Ms. Aniston split early to attend the Sundance Film Festival with her husband, Brad Pitt. Mr. Schwimmer and Mr. Perry had other engagements, explains a Warner Bros. employee.

        Is this a sign of a crack in the famous Friends unity? How much longer will they “be there for you,” as the theme song says?

        It's strictly up to the six stars, Mr. Sassa says.

        “I don't believe we can convince them of anything,” he says. “It's really a decision for them, it's not a negotiation. A decision: Do they want to do the show?”

        What stars did before they were 'Friends'

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