Kelsey Miller is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn, New York. The following is an excerpt from her forthcoming book, I’ll Be There for You: The One About Friends, out October 23.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Americans don’t get British humor. It’s too dark and sophisticated for our sensitive palates, or something. Our humor, on the other hand, is deemed as sweet and uncomplicated as a Hershey bar. It’s unclear when this schism took place — at some point between the Reformation and the birth of Ricky Gervais — but it remains one of the greatest cultural divides between our wry forbearers and us goody-goodies here in the New World. As Gervais has put it, “America rewards up-front, on-your-sleeve niceness … We avoid sincerity until it’s absolutely necessary.”
There is, of course, one enormous counterpoint, and that is touchy-feely Friends. To this day, it remains appallingly popular in the UK. Reruns have aired almost around-the-clock since the series finale, and as of 2015, the rerun ratings were going up.
The Friends effect in Britain became apparent soon after the UK premiere, in the spring of 1995. By 1997, when Kauffman, Bright, and Crane were planning Season Four, it had reached a fever pitch. It seemed like the right place and time to try something new. That’s how, a year after Season Three’s low-key conclusion at the beach, Friends capped its fourth year with a true grand finale, in London.
The show had earned back the right to go big again. Following the slow-burn of Season Three, Season Four turned up the heat just so, delivering some of the series’ most beloved episodes (“The One with the Jellyfish;” “The One with the Fake Party”), dynamic story lines (Phoebe’s surrogacy; the Chandler-Joey-Kathy triangle), and just really, really good lines (“15 Yemen Road, Yemen.”). This is the season that gives us such iconic moments as Monica’s lesson on a woman’s erogenous zones, from one to seven (seven, seven), and Joey’s catchphrase, “How you doin’?” (before it became a catchphrase). All that before we even get to London, and the big surprise waiting for us there.
Best of all, Season Four includes “The One with the Embryos.” More widely known as the one with the trivia contest, it’s touted as either the all-time greatest episode of Friends, or a close runner-up. Either way, “The One with the Embryos” is a breathtaking high note in the history of television comedy, and a real Must-See TV moment.
The titular storyline began when Lisa Kudrow herself discovered she was pregnant, toward the end of the show’s summer hiatus. Though not far along, she told Kauffman and Crane right away, knowing they’d need time to strategize. “We didn’t want to do another TV show where you had a woman carrying packages in front of her for nine months, and in big coats,” Crane later explained. So, they came back to Kudrow with an idea: Phoebe would become the gestational surrogate for her brother, Frank (Giovanni Ribisi), and his wife, Alice (Debra Jo Rupp), who was older and struggling to conceive herself. Kudrow initially balked, telling them, “It’s really early on. I understand that this serves the story really well, but if, God forbid, something happens to my pregnancy, I’m still stuck playing a pregnant woman.” After talking it through with Kauffman, they went ahead with the idea, knowing that, if need be, they would have an out. Phoebe’s pregnancy storyline wouldn’t begin until halfway through the season, and for obvious reasons, she’d be doing IVF (a procedure that doesn’t always work). Thankfully, Kudrow’s own pregnancy went smoothly, and by Episode 11, Phoebe was off to the doctor to get implanted.
That’s when the contest began. This storyline, too, was drawn from reality. Jill Condon and Amy Toomin Straus, who wrote the episode together, were pitching ideas with the rest of the team when the idea of a who-knows-who-best competition came up. Coproducer Seth Kurland knew a group of writers who’d shared a house after college, and once hosted their own friend-group trivia night—complete with a Jeopardy!-style game board. The Friends writers ran with it, and started throwing out potential quiz questions, pitting Joey and Chandler against Rachel and Monica. They raised the stakes even further, by adding the ultimate wager: if the girls won the contest, the guys would be forced to get rid of the chick and the duck; if the guys won, they’d get Monica and Rachel’s apartment. With that in mind, the writers amplified the contest storyline, making it even bigger and more elaborate.
Bright, on the other hand, was always looking for ways to keep production simple. For one thing, they’d gone overbudget in the early days, thanks to setups that spread the cast out and required additional sets and actors. For another, they’d realized the audience preferred episodes where it was just the six main characters, in the coffeehouse or at home—like the previous season’s excellent bottle episode, “The One Where No One’s Ready.” This at-home contest concept was great. It wasn’t until they actually shot it that Bright and the others realized just how great.
On shoot night, the audience was hooked from the start, the studio filled with a crackling energy. Everyone was immediately invested in Phoebe’s story, eager to find out whether or not she’d get pregnant. It was a safe bet she would (this was Friends, after all), but surrogacy was such an unusual topic for a sitcom that it did seem possible she might not. The contest outcome, though, was anybody’s guess. The story started out slow, with Rachel coming home from grocery shopping, and Joey and Chandler trying to guess what she bought. From there, it quickly snowballed into a full-blown, high-stakes competition, and by the time the audience caught on, said Bright, “everybody was on the edge of their seats.”
And he took note of that. So did everyone on the stage. By now, this had become standard practice. More so than any other show, Friends was guided by its viewers, especially those watching it live. The writers crafted the material, but the crowd decided whether or not it was good enough. If a joke didn’t yield the expected laugh, the writers huddled up, rewriting on the spot. The actors tried multiple line readings, listening to hear which one landed best. If the audience seemed uncomfortable or put off by a line, they fixed it and tried the take again — and again, if necessary. This meant shoot nights were a marathon, often going until 1:00 or 2:00 a.m. (and sometimes required swapping out one sleepy audience for a fresh one halfway through). Sometimes producers would turn to the crowd between takes, asking for a show of hands to see how many got the joke. In part, Crane chalked it up to “our people-pleasing need to be liked.” But even more important was pleasing their people in surprising new ways. Kauffman pointed out that Friends fans had grown increasingly savvy. “They would sometimes laugh at setups to jokes, ’cause they knew the characters so well. They were ahead of us, more than not.” If Schwimmer walked in with a hangdog look, they giggled before he could even open his mouth and deliver that mopey, “Hi.”
The more popular the show became, the harder the writers had to work to meet viewers’ expectations, while not pandering. The audience was not only familiar with Friends, but emotionally attached to it, and therefore highly attuned to its rhythms and beats. Another Season Four episode had Rachel impulsively proposing to Joshua (a guy with whom she’d gone on four dates) in an effort to one-up Ross (who’d just gotten engaged to Emily). It was meant to be funny — Rachel at her most ridiculous. But in the script, the scene came directly after Ross announced his engagement, and it just seemed sad. The audience felt awful for Rachel and couldn’t bring themselves to laugh at her. The writers quickly realized they couldn’t tweak their way out of this one, and decided to simply shoot the scene as written, but move it into the next episode, giving Rachel and the viewers some recovery time. It was an extreme change to make, but that’s how much faith they put in their audience. Kauffman explained, “We had to trust their judgment about things that were working and not working.”
That’s why “The One with the Embryos” still works so well. Condon and Toomin Straus’s script condenses all the best elements of Friends, undiluted by anything else. There are no stunts, few guest performers, and nearly every scene takes place in Monica’s living room. The trivia game keeps most of the core cast together, just being friends — literally, trying to out-friend each other. As the competition gets more heated, the jokes come faster and funnier. (The finished product looks effortless but Crane recalled they shot numerous variations on the trivia questions and answers, pushing for the biggest laugh possible.) Before we know what’s happening, the girls have lost the game and — twist! — they’re really switching apartments. It wasn’t a bluff. This completely outlandish scenario is actually happening, and after everything else that’s happened in the last twenty minutes, it doesn’t read as ridiculous. The guys ride in on their big, white dog statue, and lo and behold, it’s still funny.
All this, in an episode that also discusses surrogate pregnancy, infertility, and IVF. What makes “The One with the Embryos” such an emblematic Friends episode is that it balances high-pitch humor with high-stakes emotional drama. In the midst of all the sitcom high jinks, real life is happening, too, and in the end it’s Phoebe’s story that takes precedence. The episode concludes with her coming out of the bathroom, interrupting the apartment-switching chaos and announcing she’s pregnant. In an instant, the contest is forgotten, the fighting ceases, and everyone encircles Phoebe in a spontaneous group hug. As ever, friendship comes first.
Excerpted from I’ll Be There for You: The One About Friends by Kelsey Miller, published by Hanover Square Press. Copyright © 2018