book excerpt

A Party Room and a Prison Cell

Inside the Friends writers’ room.

Here’s proof that they were really friends. Photo: Copyright © Bruza Brother Productions, LLC
Here’s proof that they were really friends. Photo: Copyright © Bruza Brother Productions, LLC

Every writer knew the sinking feeling in the pit of their stomach. David Crane would enter the room, toting a script full of notes scribbled in the margins. He would sit down in his chair and begin drumming his fingers on the table before announcing, “All right, we’ve got a lot of really good stuff here.” The assembled writers would silently groan, knowing that this was Crane-ian code for a full script rewrite. Everything was out, and it was time to start again.

“Good enough” was not a concept Crane, or Marta Kauffman, understood or accepted. One day during the first season, writer Jeff Astrof approached Crane with a proposal. “Look,” he told Crane, “right now we work one hundred percent of the allotted time and we have a show that’s one hundred. I believe that if we worked fifty percent of the time we’d have a show that’s seventy-five, so maybe we work seventy-five percent of the time and have a show that’s like a ninety.” Crane instantly rejected the proposal: “Absolutely not. The show has to be one hundred.” There might have been a faster way to get the work done. But this was Marta Kauffman and David Crane’s show, and their room.

After hiring their staff for the first season, Crane and Kauffman gathered the writers to deliver a pep talk, and a challenge. “Comedy is king,” Crane told the assembled writers. “This is a show where we want everything to be as funny as it can be.” For writers in their mid-twenties, many of whom were on their first or second jobs in the industry, this was a thrilling proclamation. Writers like the team of Astrof and Mike Sikowitz had always felt deeply competitive about crafting the best possible joke and getting it into the script — Astrof’s concerns about the punishing schedule notwithstanding — and Crane was seemingly opening the doors wide to all competitors.

Sikowitz soon realized that Kauffman and Crane felt confident about being able to supply the emotional backbone for the show, leading the process of designing the season-long arcs for each character, and were counting on their writing staff to jam their scripts full of as many killer jokes as possible. It was a remarkable feeling to be given the green light to simply be funny. The planning of emotional beats was a major part of the preparatory work for the season and would be done by the writers’ room as a whole, but it was understood that Kauffman and Crane were the ablest writers when it came to finding the nuances of feeling that would hook viewers.

The Friends writers’ room was simultaneously a party room and a prison cell, a wild daily gathering whose participants, like the dinner guests in Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, could never leave. Participants were thrilled to be granted the privilege of being a part of the work of writing Friends. Each day was a marvel, and it was an honor to be granted the opportunity to work alongside such gifted, committed, fiercely original imaginations. But it was simply not possible to avoid occasionally sighing and wishing to go home.

Adam Chase was astounded by the regular fourteen- to- sixteen-hour days around the giant desk in the seventh-floor boardroom, which on occasion stretched to a full twenty-four-hour shift, like a doctor on call or a factory worker earning overtime pay. But for Chase, the drudgery was also a moveable feast, an ongoing party that he was lucky enough to be invited to on a daily basis. A good deal of the pleasure came from Crane and Kauffman’s willingness to let relative newcomers like Chase play as near-equals.

On many shows, there was one overhanging question lingering behind any discussion in the writers’ room: “What’s the pitch?” If you weren’t coming in with a distinct, carefully worked-out resolution to the problem you were chewing over, there simply was no time to devote to your musings. The showrunner would be annoyed at your having wasted their time, and the conversation would rapidly move on to more fertile territory.

This was never how Friends worked. Crane and Kauffman were only too pleased to have any one of their writers, however young or inexperienced, bring the discussion to a halt with a question or concern. Kauffman and Crane would listen and then open it up to the room. How do we solve this problem?

This was in part because Crane and Kauffman themselves were still relatively new to the ways of television. They had never been writers in someone else’s room, having gone directly from theater to freelancing to running Dream On. Crane, by his own estimation, lacked time-management skills, content to let his staff wander far afield before returning to the task at hand.

The remarkable thing about the Friends writers’ room, Chase believed, was its complete allergy to compromise. Not only would Kauffman and Crane never admit defeat and accept what they deemed a mediocre line or joke, neither would any of the members of their staff. (On one rare occasion, after an exceedingly poor run-through, Crane had asked NBC if they might skip that week’s episode. NBC said they would take a new episode in whatever shape it was in, and “The One Where Rachel Smokes” proceeded to air.)

Photo: Copyright © Bruza Brother Productions, LLC

Friends’ style was adapted from Seinfeld’s interlocked model, in which each episode had an A, B, and C plot (Carol is pregnant; Monica is cooking for her parents; Rachel has misplaced her engagement ring). This created the challenge of intertwining separate stories, but it also prompted an insatiable hunger for story lines. A single season of Friends would require seventy-two separate plots, each with its own introduction and resolution, each with its own array of jokes and emotional moments. And fully plotted stories would regularly be tossed out because they flopped in rehearsals or during a shoot. The sheer volume of polished material that the writers of Friends had to come up with placed inordinate pressure on the writers’ room to work in sync and to pick up each other’s slack.

On other shows, more emphasis would be placed on individual effort. Writers would go off on their own and craft scripts, and while the room might polish them, they would remain demonstrably the product of an individual’s effort. Friends was different. Writers would write the first drafts and ultimately be granted credit for the episode. But the true work was done in the room, together. Everyone was responsible for improving each line, each joke, each emotional beat of the show, and it would never be enough to simply do your own work.

Writers would have to endure the process of watching their scripts be slowly, steadily dismantled and rebuilt. To bristle at the process, or to attempt to defend a rejected joke, was counterproductive and would reflect poorly on the writer who attempted it. Writers soon learned that it was far better to jump in and help fix your own script than attempt to protect your original work. This was a team, and anyone who insisted on publicly toting up their batting average would soon find themselves riding the end of the bench.
(Later in the show’s run, there were joke rubber stamps passed out to the staff that read, “I Pitched That!”)

The Friends writers’ room was, as some of its participants described it, a remarkable feat of alchemy, in which a dozen talented individuals transformed into a team that was far greater than the sum of its parts. Crane and Kauffman were responsible for hiring writers who each had their own preferred writing style and voice, and ensuring that they complemented each other. It was like an arranged marriage between a dozen different people, and should have been as impossible. Instead, there was a kind of magic present in the room, where writers competing to tell the best joke were also able to carve out their own voices.

Sitting at opposite ends of the conference-room table, Kauffman and Crane were curators of the staff’s efforts. Rather than looking for a fully formed idea that could be inserted directly into the script, they were happy to gather the shards of their writers’ inspiration. They would take one idea from here and one joke from there, and begin assembling workable material. And if they hadn’t found something they were pleased with, they would tell the writers to keep looking. Their writers’ lack of experience was a bonus, not a problem. More than anything, Crane and Kauffman did not want to hear from their writers that this was the way it had always been done on Who’s the Boss? They preferred the company of young writers who did not know about How It Was Done on Television.

The result was an atmosphere that was simultaneously competitive and cooperative. Mike Sikowitz would have times when he drove home to West Hollywood after a long day on the Burbank lot with a feeling of intense disappointment over not having managed to get a single solid joke into the script that day. “What’s wrong with me?” he would think. “I used to be funny.” On the days where Sikowitz successfully logged some killer jokes, he would make the same drive home feeling like he was the king of the world. Being in the Friends writers’ room, Sikowitz thought, was like an emotional stock market. Some days you made a killing, and others you lost your shirt.

It was fun to be in a room of raconteurs, entertainers, and one-liner machines bantering, debating, and performing for each other. But there also was no specified end to the workday, no moment when the writers would punch out and head home. Ordering dinner at the office was a matter of course. All-nighters were a fairly standard occurrence. On David Lagana’s first day on the job as a writers’ assistant, he showed up for work at nine-thirty a.m. and left for home at six-forty-five the next morning. The last day of the workweek was widely known as Fraturday, as it often did not end until Saturday morning. “I think I just saw your beard grow,” Alexa Junge told Mike Sikowitz during one late night.

The writers would entertain themselves with antics like tossing a small toy football back and forth for hours without letting it drop (which would inspire the episode “The One with the Ball”) or offering cash inducements to eat an entire jar of garlic pickles. They would play video games to blow off steam or watch the latest installment of The Osbournes. And then there were Taste Test Wednesdays, when Scott Silveri or one of the other showrunners would send an assistant to the grocery store to purchase, say, every brand of plain potato chip. The writers would try each variety and vote on their favorites, and then the singular best potato chip would be declared, to the merriment of the assembled judges.

On days when it became clear that it would be another late night, the writers would put on their preferred jam, Chuck Mangione’s jazz-fusion hit “Feels So Good,” on their boombox and listen to it as the sun went down. Sometimes, their dinner order would arrive at the same time, and the writers would burst into Mangione-inspired song: “The food is here, the food is here.” It was no surprise, given what passed for entertainment there, that the room transformed everyone, as Ellen Kreamer thought, into a slightly fatter, greasier-looking version of themselves. Even years later, Kreamer would find that the sound of a crinkling takeout bag would be enough to bring her momentary joy.

One late night, writer Shana Goldberg-Meehan, who joined the show in the fourth season, entered the room, took note of the roiling discontent, and told fellow writers Kreamer and Robert Carlock that they had thirty seconds to go “apeshit crazy” before they got back to work. Kreamer and Carlock jumped on tables and tore the room apart for precisely thirty seconds. It was also the late nights when the conversation in the room, fueled by boredom and exhaustion, often turned to its bawdiest and most puerile, for which there would be notable long-term consequences.

On the rare evenings when he was able to leave the office early (early for Friends, about ten-thirty p.m.), Adam Chase would get home, smoke some weed, and turn on the eleven p.m. rerun of Law and Order. Working on Friends was so intense that Chase needed some time to decompress at the end of the day, but he found that his mind was still coming up with jokes — only now they were for Jerry Orbach’s Detective Lennie Briscoe.

Chase was later introduced to René Balcer, a Law and Order producer, who suggested Chase try his hand at some punch-ups for their jokes. In one, Briscoe was talking to a medical examiner standing next to a body with a javelin sticking out of its chest. “What made you go into this line of work?” Briscoe asked. The best the Law and Order crew could come up with was “To meet charming detectives like you.” Chase, whose comic sensibility had been forged in the fires of Friends, knew he had a better answer: “Free javelins.”

Jeff Astrof would look out through the room’s wall of windows during the endless days working over scripts in the first season, and watch sets being built for the Michael Jordan–starring Looney Tunes film Space Jam (1996). He was surprised to find himself staring at the construction workers and thinking to himself, “Now, that’s a cool job.” There was a profession in which one’s progress could be assessed on a daily basis, in which there were no notes or comments from one’s superiors. At the end of one’s labors, there was a physical object that had not existed prior to the start of your work. The idea of a working life without a constant stream of notes and suggestions and rewrites was deeply tempting to Astrof.

Astrof would joke that, on those regular early-morning drives home, he would encounter himself returning to the office, ripping a hole in the space- time continuum. Crane would regularly endure the deeply unpleasant experience of driving home from the Valley to Brentwood during the a.m. rush hour, making what would normally be an easy reverse commute into a harrowing drive. Crane would find himself drifting off to sleep at red lights and resorted to calling his partner, Jeffrey Klarik, on his car phone and demanding that he chat with him in order to keep him awake on the drive home. Writers would learn what it looked like to see the sun come up over the Warner Bros. lot.

Kauffman, who had two young children, particularly feared having a story collapse during run-through, since this would inevitably lead to another very late night. Kauffman had a private rule: She would not miss her children’s bedtime two nights in a row. On late nights, Kauffman would drive home, put her children to bed, and then return to the office. On very late nights, Kauffman would drive home as the sun came up, shower, feed her children breakfast and get them dressed for school, and head back to work.

Generation Friends will be published on September 17.

Sometimes, the best jokes would emerge out of the late-late-night sessions, when writers were sagging in their chairs or napping on one of the couches. They would be staring out the windows as days turned into nights, and the glimpses of the world going on without them on the streets below would be transformed, with the sun’s departure, into a mirror reflecting their own faces back at them.

Exhaustion had the propensity to tear away the expected response and sometimes reveal the odder pitch lurking underneath. One late night during the first season, the staff was talking through the episode “The One Where the Monkey Gets Away,” in which Rachel accidentally allows Ross’s monkey, Marcel, to escape and everyone fans out to search for him.

There was a scene in which Joey and Chandler would knock on some attractive neighbors’ door. Joey and Chandler would be enticed by the radiantly beautiful women but would carry on with their search. The staff was at a loss as to what joke might work best there.

Astrof, half-conscious, muttered something to himself, and Adam Chase, hearing his comment, quieted the room: “Wait. What did you just say? Say that again.” Astrof repeated his suggested line for Joey: “We promised we’d find this monkey. If you see him, he’s about yea high, and answers to the name Marcel, so if we could get some pictures of you, you’d really be helping us out.” It was a left-field joke, only made possible by a room too tired, at three or four a.m., to deliver the more obvious punch lines.

Kauffman and Crane were willing to trust their writers’ enthusiasm, even when they didn’t entirely share it. They would rarely simply veto a story line, preferring to push back against their writers when they felt a pitch was too juvenile or emotionally barren. Greg Malins’s pitch about an obstetrician who would enter the room offering an array of facts about Fonzie from Happy Days while delivering Phoebe’s triplets so thoroughly amused the writers that it made the final version of “The One Hundredth.” Crane insisted that the idea made no sense at all but was willing to be won over by his writers’ enthusiasm.

At other times, the writers could not overcome Kauffman and Crane’s skepticism, as with their suggestion for a story line in which Phoebe’s gusto for Chinese food leads her to attempt to marry it. “I just find myself not caring,” Kauffman would regularly respond to pitches that she felt lacked an emotional through-line. Writer Andrew Reich, trained to write jokes, found it enormously beneficial to have Kauffman and Crane ask questions like “What does Rachel want in this scene?” On occasion, the actors would nix plotlines they could not stomach, as with a story in which Chandler would sneak into a gay bar because he loved the chef’s tuna melts. Matthew Perry said no, and the story was shelved.

The atmosphere in the room called for quick wits and a hunger to leap on any opening with the biggest possible joke. Sikowitz remembered one moment in the first season when the writers were approaching a wide-open setup and pondering their choices. In “The One with All the Poker,” Rachel was going to enter the room bubbling with excitement, saying, “Guess what, guess what, guess what!” It was an ideal opportunity for a Chandler witticism, but what might he say?

Quicker than Sikowitz could even form a cogent thought, Jeff Astrof burst out with a line: “The fifth dentist caved, and now they’re all recommending Trident?” Sikowitz was stunned. Had Astrof known somehow? Had he prepared the joke in advance? It was a huge joke, guaranteed to get an audience response, and Sikowitz had been nowhere near coming up with anything, let alone something as good as that line. It was maddening to be surrounded with people who were that good at being funny.

Sikowitz had his moment later in the process of writing “Poker,” when a similar opening announced itself. “Could you want her more?” Chandler asks Ross at Central Perk, gesturing offscreen with a rolled- up newspaper. Ross, feigning ignorance, asks, “Who?” Sikowitz leapt in and suggested a line for Chandler: “Dee, the sarcastic sister from What’s Happening!!” Sikowitz was terribly pleased to have buzzed first on that answer.

For Sikowitz, there was simply nothing better than the sensation of Matt LeBlanc coming over and asking of a particular joke, “Whose was that?” and being able to take the credit. LeBlanc would call them “bombs,” meaning a joke that had knocked an audience flat with laughter. He and Matthew Perry in particular hungered for bombs and were intensely pleased when a script gave them an opportunity to dazzle an audience.

Crane and Kauffman had recruited a staff that cared deeply about their characters and took passionate stands about what might have appeared, to less zealous outsiders, as fleeting details. When, early in the first season, the character of Paolo, the hunky Italian lover Rachel meets in “The One with the Blackout,” was initially proposed, writer Jeff Greenstein balked. The Latin lover was a tired trope, he insisted, and the show should avoid such lazy, secondhand characters. The room was tied up for most of a day debating how to find a less obvious boyfriend for Rachel to serve as an impediment to her getting together with Ross. For a time, there was serious discussion of transforming Paolo into an Inuit visitor to New York, but the prospect of a stud in mukluks was ultimately deemed to be a bridge too far for audiences.

Jeff Strauss believed that Crane thought of the writers’ room as an expansion of his brain. This was not to say that Crane was anxious to take credit for anyone else’s work, but rather that, when the room was working in the fashion it was supposed to, Crane would turn to the writers to ably and rapidly flesh out every emotional, uproarious, tender, or bawdy idea he might have, or wish he had.

Crane and Kauffman were gentle and encouraging of their writers, who saw them as figures they wanted to please, and occasionally rebel against. They were ill inclined to crack the whip or insist on getting back to work. They were also perfectionists. Every line had to be the absolute best it could possibly be. Every plot had to be ironclad.

The writers liked to pretend that Crane, who had been born in 1957, had actually come of age in the 1950s, and they poked fun at what seemed to them to be his advanced age (he was thirty-seven when Friends premiered) by breaking into the dramatic “DUH-duh-duh” opening of the jazz classic “Sing, Sing, Sing” or fondly reminiscing about that time they had all thought Thomas Dewey was going to be elected president. Crane was like their good-natured dad, willing to withstand the constant ribbing since it emerged from a place of love, even though in some cases he was only a few years older than the writers on his staff.

The writing process was intensely collaborative. Writers might be assigned to craft a first draft of a given script, but by Adam Chase’s estimation, 98 percent of the work was actually done in the room. Often, an idea would be filtered through numerous writers, who would add their own flourishes. During the second season, conversation turned to Phoebe while they were writing the episode “The One with the Baby on the Bus.” Chase suggested Phoebe play a song called “Smelly Cat.” David Crane began to sing the title, and Jeff Astrof chimed in with the line “What are they feeding you?” Someone else contributed the kicker “It’s not your fault,” and the pillars of “Smelly Cat,” which would be Phoebe’s most fondly remembered song, had been rapidly assembled.

And the writing staff felt a distinct, and at times surprisingly intense, sense of ownership over their work. During the filming of “The One with the Baby on the Bus,” Chase was watching Lisa Kudrow perform “Smelly Cat” and growing increasingly distressed. Kudrow was as funny as ever, but when she reached the chorus, Kudrow was hitting the second word: “Smelly cat, smelly cat, what are they feeding you?” Chase was insistent that emphasizing smelly would be notably funnier and pulled David Crane aside to share his concerns: “I think it’s funnier if she hits the first word.” Crane was nonplussed: “You seriously want me to go out between takes, in front of a studio audience, and give her that note?”

Chase panicked — what happened to no-name writers who gave acting notes to the stars of their shows? — but held firm. Crane was always willing to go out on a ledge for his writers and gamely stepped onstage to share Chase’s suggestion with Kudrow. The scene was, by collective agreement, funnier after Kudrow began emphasizing smelly instead of cat. But Crane approached Chase after the shoot and told him, “Look, you’ve got to pick your moments. Because sometimes you’re right, but a lot of the time, it’s not worth it. If it’s three percent funnier, it’s not worth it. This time, I’ll give it to you.”

The writers and cast were working in tandem, and their devotion to delivering the best version of that joke was a notable part of their shared effort. Chase was still early enough in his career that he was fixated on the precise words of the script. What he had written, he thought, was the best possible version of a joke, and it would be a shameful mistake to shoot it any other way but the one the writers had come up with.

The room was like a vampire, forever hungering for fresh blood to suck. And the writers themselves were often content to bite off hunks of their own flesh and transform it into fodder for their characters. The Friends characters were the writers’ stand-ins and doppelgangers, their adventures and discoveries simultaneously reflections of the writers’ own lives and romanticized versions of their more humdrum existences. There was something simultaneously terrifying and cathartic, as Jeff Strauss saw it, about this filtered version of the writers’ own reality being passed along to the characters and dispatched to the audience through their television screens.

The trick was not only to mine your own life, but to know which parts were serviceable for the show, which characters might be best served with the autobiographical morsel, and how a funny anecdote might be extended, exaggerated, or adjusted.

Adam Chase had once been in an upscale clothing store with a female friend who suggested a pair of expensive leather pants. Wanting to impress her, he tried them on, and then was swayed by the blandishments of the beautiful store clerk, who told him the pants looked great on him. Six hundred dollars later, Chase owned a pair of pants he would likely never wear again.

The incident was a terrific start but needed more to serve Friends’ needs. The writers went to work and began to think about what might happen if someone were not only to purchase the leather pants but get stuck in them. The memorable plotline of “The One with All the Resolutions,” in which Ross uses a variety of bathroom products in a fruitless attempt to wiggle out of his uncomfortably tight pants (“The lotion and the powder have made a paste!”) was born.

Stories could come from anywhere. Ted Cohen had once entered a steam room at the gym with his glasses on and had accidentally sat on a fellow patron’s knee, inspiring Chandler’s sitting on his father-in-law’s lap in the sauna in “The One with Phoebe’s Cookies.” Andrew Reich remembered visiting a friend named Katie who lived in a walk- up apartment with a very narrow staircase. When he got up to Katie’s apartment, he noticed she had an oversize couch and wondered just how she had managed to get it up those stairs. Reich brought this thoroughly unremarkable observation back to the room, where it eventually mutated into the memorable “Pivot!” couch-moving sequence from “The One with the Cop.”

Photo: Copyright © Bruza Brother Productions, LLC

Comedy writers had a relationship to the world that differed notably from that of civilians. Where the average person sought to bury moments of profound embarrassment or failure, a comedy writer might look at the most humbling or humiliating moments as potential material. One day early in the show’s run, Adam Chase was playing with Marta Kauffman’s son, Sam, then a toddler, who was visiting the set. He was picking up Sam, tossing him in the air, and then catching him. On about the third attempt, Chase sent Sam hurtling directly into a metal door frame.

Chase saw his career flash before his eyes, convinced that he would be instantly fired from his job for endangering the life of his boss’s son. Sam ran off to find his mother, crying hysterically, and Chase went with him, seeking to apologize to Kauffman. She comforted her son but was otherwise unruffled: “I drop him on his head all the time.” The incident would eventually serve the third-season episode “The One with the Giant Poking Device,” in which Monica accidentally hits Ben’s head against a wooden pillar, and he proceeds to dub her “Monica Bang.”

And when there was nothing left to mine in your own life, it was time to move on to your friends’ shenanigans. Greg Malins remembered hearing about the time when his friend Sebastian Jones had just moved to Los Angeles, carrying a plastic bag filled with his clothing to their mutual friend Brian Boyle’s apartment. One day, when Jones was out, Boyle emptied the bag on the floor and proceeded to don every item of Jones’s clothing. When Jones came back home, Boyle gestured to himself and said, “Look, I’m wearing all your clothes.”

Boyle’s prank became Joey’s revenge in “The One Where No One’s Ready,” refitted with a far superior punch line: “Look at me, I’m Chandler. Could I be wearing any more clothes?” (Adding to the air of self-referentiality, both Jones and Boyle would join the Friends writing staff in later seasons.) Neither Crane nor Kauffman was familiar with the term going commando, but when the entire staff urged them to include it, asserting that their audience would instantly understand the reference, they acceded. (Eventually, the Oxford English Dictionary would credit Friends with one of the earliest recorded usages of the term.)

The squabbles and absurdities of the writers’ room found their way into scripts as well. On one occasion, a late-night session was interrupted by someone from the show’s office, who poked their head in to tell Greg Malins his fiancée was on the phone. After Malins left the room, writer Michael Borkow said, “Huh. Wapah!” All the other writers turned to Borkow, confused. He responded, “You know. He’s running out to take a phone call. He’s whipped. Wapah!” The joke was less about Malins’s being “whipped” than a kind of meta-joke about the Stockholm syndrome of the room, in which even taking a phone call felt like a major retreat from commitment. What was funny, though, was the sound that came out of Borkow’s mouth.

Chase responded, “That’s not the whip sound. This is the whip sound,” doing a more traditional “hoo-pssshh” crack of the whip. Borkow agreed: “That’s what I just did. ‘Wapah!’” Borkow’s inability to make a convincing whip-cracking noise became Chandler’s struggle in the fourth season’s “The One with All the Wedding Dresses.”

Kauffman notwithstanding, the Friends writers’ room was, at the outset, an exceedingly male place, its tastes and interests formed by the concerns of funny young men. (In later years, the staff would have a more even gender balance.) It was left to the few women in the room to push back against plotlines that dismayed them, but while Crane and Kauffman made space for their concerns, this, too, came with a cost.

In the second season, when preparations were commencing for the high-pressure Super Bowl episode, writer Alexa Junge, at the time one of only two female writers on the staff other than Kauffman, took umbrage at what she perceived to be the hackneyed and sexist plotline that pitted Monica and Rachel against each other in competition for movie star Jean-Claude Van Damme. “You know,” she told the other writers, “if they’re friends they’re not going to do that. That’s bad for the sisterhood. We would never do that.”

Junge was disturbed by the girl-fight vibe of the episode, complete with the wardrobe choices. Why were Monica and Rachel wearing flimsy T-shirts on a cold set on what was supposed to be a winter day, their nipples instantly visible beneath their clothing?

Junge’s feminist feathers were ruffled, and she told Crane that she thought the plotline was beneath the show’s lofty standards. Crane heard her out and told her, “Listen, I don’t exactly understand what some of the politics you’re saying are and I get that you’re really riled up about it and we actually are going to do this story, but over the course of the day, could you just stop me when something’s offensive to you?” Junge felt like she had been put in a difficult position, hired against her will to serve as feminist scold and designated spoilsport, but she dutifully communicated her concerns to Crane over the course of the shoot. (The T-shirts stayed.)

Much of the writing staff was locked in on crafting killer jokes, but to serve in Marta Kauffman and David Crane’s writers’ room was to receive an ongoing lesson in the balance between comedy and drama. Huge jokes were the white whale they were all hunting, but the romantic through- line that gave episodes like “The One with All the Poker” their meaning clarified that all the jokes in the world could never convince an audience to care about the show’s characters.

Kauffman and Crane were permanent reminders in the writers’ room that as much as this crew of mostly single, mostly twentysomething smart alecks might have been allergic to sentiment, it was that very sentiment that would win audiences over to Friends’ side. The room generally agreed that, along with Crane, Kauffman and Junge were among the best at providing the emotional nuances the show needed. Without Ross and Rachel, and the audience’s desire to see their relationship through, viewers would never have bothered with the show, no matter how many bombs Chandler or Joey might have dropped.

This was television on the Cheers model: joke, joke, joke, joke, until suddenly the ground falls away and a moment of unexpected sentiment retroactively justifies and enriches all the effortless humor that preceded it.
Kauffman and Crane’s script craft doubled as a series of lessons in humanity, offered free of charge to their youthful staff. For Sikowitz, moments like Ross’s tossing a poker game to give Rachel a much-needed victory in “The One with All the Poker” would catch in his throat unexpectedly, and he would find himself saying, “Oh wow — that was cool.”

Excerpted from Generation Friends, by Saul Austerlitz, to be published on September 17 by Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Saul Austerlitz.

A Party and a Prison: Inside the Friends Writer’s Room