How the Producers of Friends Made a Show That’s as Popular Now as It Was 25 Years Ago

Adweek's Media Visionaries Marta Kauffman, David Crane and Kevin Bright reflect on their show's legacy

Friends producers David Crane, Marta Kauffman and Kevin Bright reflect on 25 years since the show's debut. - Credit by Scott Witter for Adweek
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Marta Kauffman, David Crane and Kevin Bright are finally getting a chance to revel in their legacy.

A quarter-century ago, the trio began executive producing Friends, a sitcom chronicling the relationships among six lovably neurotic 20-somethings (played by Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry and David Schwimmer) living in the same New York apartment building. The NBC sitcom became a runaway hit soon after it began airing in 1994, but Kauffman, Crane and Bright were too busy making the show to enjoy its popularity.

“When you are doing a show, you don’t experience the success of it because you’re working and you’re just trying to make another good episode,” says Kauffman, who along with Crane created and wrote the series. The trio spent the show’s 10-season run “just putting our heads down and doing the work,” Crane adds. “For us, it was a train that would start moving at the beginning of the season, and we’re throwing tracks in front of the train, trying to get to the end.”

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The trio might have missed out on the Friends frenzy then, but 15 years after its 2004 series finale, the series is surprisingly as popular than ever, thanks to an unexpected source: Netflix, which began streaming it in 2015. Last year, according to Nielsen, Friends was Netflix’s No. 2 most-streamed show in the U.S., where it is captivating a new generation of viewers.

So it’s little surprise that for the sitcom’s 25-year anniversary, Warner Bros. Television has thrown what seems to be the largest celebration of a classic TV show ever, including limited-edition merchandise collections from Pottery Barn and Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf (both of which sold out in 24 hours), a Lego set of the show’s Central Perk coffee shop, themed activations and installations throughout the country and celebratory stunts around the world. One of this fall’s buzziest installations was a Friends pop-up museum in the SoHo neighborhood of New York, which featured replicas of props, costumes and sets, including Central Perk and the fountain from the show’s opening credits.

Last month, Kauffman, Crane and Bright—Adweek’s Media Visionaries of 2019—visited New York to see the pop-up and celebrate Friends’ big anniversary. Settled on a replica of the iconic orange couch that appears in the show’s opening credits and Central Perk, the three executive producers say the sitcom’s legacy is greater than they could have ever dreamed. “If any of us said this is what we were imagining when the show was over, you know we’d be lying to you,” says Bright.

The Friends pop-up museum in NYC featured replicas of props, costumes and sets.
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The pop-up walls near them are printed with the Friends characters’ catchphrases and quirks, while other parts of the pop-up make references to jokes from the show—some of which the trio don’t even remember coming up with, and others that make them laugh all over again. “It’s not like every show gets this,” says Crane. “It’s not like every show turns 25, and you get a museum. This has been amazing.”

For the trio, making Friends was, as Crane puts it, like catching “lightning in a bottle.” Crane and Kauffman, who lived together with other friends in New York themselves, co-wrote the show in an effort to tap into a “simpler time” in their lives, Kauffman says, and they wanted to focus on having a truly ensemble cast where no character outshone the other.

Video: Josh Rios

“There wasn’t a show like it on TV,” says Crane. “There wasn’t a show with a group of truly young people. And it’s just so simple. If you look at the pilot, so little happens. There’s no uh-oh drama point. There’s nothing. There was something so appealing about doing a show that was very simple.”

Over the course of the 10 seasons, Friends stayed simple—even as the show and its six stars became a phenomenon. In the writers room, there were two rules that guided each episode’s storyline. “You had to care, and it had to be funny,” Crane says. “We would throw out a whole story and replace it with something that had some emotional stakes. And if the show wasn’t funny enough, we would stay up until the sun came up coming up with more jokes.” And with as many as 25 episodes a season to make, the writers never had “the luxury of writer’s block,” Kauffman says.

On the set of Friends
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Perhaps “the biggest misstep” for the show in all 10 seasons, Crane says, was a series of ill-fated Diet Coke commercials featuring the Friends sextet that aired during the show’s second season, and helped trigger a brief backlash against the series. Kauffman says the deal “sounded very cool” at the time, and it was made easier because “there was a lot of money involved,” Bright adds. But the ads ended up being off-putting to viewers, and all three producers say in unison that they “wouldn’t have done it” if they were to get a do-over.

But they brushed themselves off and went back to work, and Friends avoided any major subsequent controversies while retaining high ratings for the duration of its run (its 2004 series finale was watched by 52.5 million people). Through it all, the show operated with relative autonomy, surviving four different NBC leadership regimes and only occasionally having to fend off executives’ off-the-wall ideas for the show. One discarded idea from network execs, Kauffman recalls, was to add an older character to the show. Named Pat the Cop, he would have offered advice to the ensemble cast.

“It was awful,” Crane recalls with a laugh. “After one draft, we said, ‘We can’t do it.’”

Friends producers David Crane, Marta Kauffman and Kevin Bright

Even prior to its Netflix resurgence, Friends had been a hit in syndication for years, and Warner Bros. Television estimates that the series has been viewed more than 50 billion times across all linear platforms in the U.S. alone. Kauffman, Crane and Bright credit that lasting resonance to the show’s emotional tenor.

Bright notes, for example, the friendship among male leads Chandler (Perry), Ross (Schwimmer) and Joey (LeBlanc). “It wasn’t one of those sanitized relationships,” Bright says. “They stole each other’s girlfriends—you know, real stuff that happens between guys. And yet they managed to find a way to get past all of that and maintain their friendships in a way that was incredibly real.”

For Kauffman, the characters managed to be both aspirational and relatable, and this kept audiences coming back. “Because the characters genuinely loved each other and because the show was warm, it struck a note,” Kauffman says. “It … gave them characters they could love and invite into their homes, and stories that they could relate to and identify with.”

Friends can thank traditional TV for its first wave of popularity, but during the last several years, the show has found a new life thanks to Netflix. Last year, Netflix U.S. viewers spent 32.6 billion minutes watching Friends’ 254 episodes on the streaming service, second only to The Office, according to Nielsen. But it’s not just longtime fans who are streaming it. Nearly half of Friends viewers on Netflix are under the age of 35, and around 11% of them have just started watching it for the first time, according to the firm Branded Entertainment Network, which conducts tracking studies of Netflix users every month.

The Friends cast and producers celebrating 150 episodes
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When Kauffman found out Friends was going to Netflix, “I had no idea that it was going to start a resurgence of popularity for the show,” she recalls. She began to realize what a phenomenon the show was becoming—yet again—when her teenage daughter’s friends began raving about the show, which they thought was a new Netflix series that happened to be set in the ’90s.

“We’ll stay indebted to Netflix for making this all happen,” Bright says. “It’s really been an incredible revival of the show, and they have to get a lot of credit for that.”

Friends will soon be headed to a new streaming home. This summer, WarnerMedia’s upcoming streaming service HBO Max landed exclusive streaming rights to the sitcom beginning next year, meaning it will leave Netflix at year’s end. The trio is optimistic that Friends will continue to thrive on HBO Max, and excited that the sitcom will be available in a library alongside other popular shows like Game of Thrones, The Big Bang Theory and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

Ultimately, though, what matters to them is the way their show has touched so many lives, and continues to do so. At a restaurant recently, Bright says, he sat near a child wearing a Friends T-shirt. “I asked her, ‘Why do you like that show? It’s an old show, it’s 25 years old,’” he recalls. “Very simple answer. She said, ‘It’s funny.’ And I think that’s the foundation of it all.”

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This story first appeared in the Oct. 21, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@kelseymsutton kelsey.sutton@adweek.com Kelsey Sutton is the streaming editor at Adweek, where she covers the business of streaming television.