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‘Friends’: Six Lives on Videotape

No sex, bad jobs, improbably huge apartments – why do we like this show so much?

(L-R) Matthew Perry, Jennifer Aniston, David Schwimmer, Courteney Cox, Matt Le Blanci, Lisa Kudrow in 'Friends' circa 1995.

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To: Sol the agent
From: Marcel the monkey
Re: Getting my primate ass off Friends

First of all, Bubby, how the hell did we end up without a piece of the action on Outbreak? Don’t get me wrong, Solly – I’m delighted with what the flick’s done for Dustin. I’m just pissed Dusty’s getting rich while I’m back to being another banana-munching pisher scratching myself on goddamned episodic TV. How many times do I have to tell you – features, features, features!

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So anyway, we catch a break, and I hit big on this sitcom. Who knew? You told me this Friends thing looked like The Real World with punch lines – 13 weeks max, a quick payday and back to the zoo. A bunch of good-looking white kids hanging around drinking fancy coffees in New York – not exactly a recipe for success, right? Now America’s going ape for us. I’m on the hottest show on television, Solly, but I ain ‘t feeling the heat. Everyone else is getting movie offers, and the mammal media’s calling this Schwimmer kid the breakout star. Who does NBC think is bringing the 9-to-15 demographic to this party – Matt LeBlanc? I saw the guy’s work on that Married … With Children spinoff, and they call me simian!

Sol, I want out. The rest of the Friends treat me like I’m less evolved, and they get all the good lines. Hey, I didn’t do four years with Stella Adler just so I could hump Schwimmer’s leg! Don’t misunderstand, the show’s excellent, and those sexy grrrls are a real riot – I loved Courteney Cox’s work in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective as much as the next animal.

Here’s my proposal: Let’s boldly rethink this show. How about calling it Marcel’s Friends? Screw this human-ensemble shit Give the people what they really want – me – instead of neurotic pop-culture cannibals sipping lattes, yapping, watching TV, not making monkey love.

Babe, if you can’t help me, maybe CAA can. Please talk to Littlefield ASAP.

P.S. Also check to see if maybe Ellen likes monkeys.

* * *

Kato is about to testify, But nobody inside Stage 5 at the Warner Bros. studios in Burbank, Calif., is paying any attention whatsoever to the court proceedings being broadcast on a tiny black-and-white TV near the makeup room. Perhaps that’s because everyone on this crowded soundstage is way too busy rehearsing the season-ending episode of a television series even more entertaining and popular than those wacky nonanimated Simpsons – namely that six-headed monster hit Friends.

“Courteney Cox was obsessed with the trial for a minute or two,” says Matthew Perry, who plays the show’s resident wise-ass, Chandler Bing. “But we’ve had to work right through the whole thing. However, I have been on the phone with Kato constantly, dealing with this whole crazy newfound-fame thing. ‘Kato, man,’ I tell him, ‘I do believe the time has finally come for a seventh Friend.’ “

Even without Kato apartment sitting, Friends has proven to be much more than the horribly contrived, Generation-X-rated Cheers wanna-be that its coffeehouse setting originally suggested. Friends may have looked like some scary market-tested flannelfest – imagine a less biting Reality Bites: The Series – but the reality’s turned out to be something else entirely. Arguably the most consistently funny sitcom on TV, Friends has won over an evergrowing number of Nielsen pals as the show has made its way through such memorable episodes as – yes, Virginia, these are the actual titles – “The One With the Butt,” “The One With the Boobies,” “The One With the Monkey,” The One With the East German Laundry Detergent” and “The One With the Evil Orthodontist.”

Photograph by Mark Seliger

This afternoon the cast and crew are preparing “The One Where Rachel Finds Out,” an emotional cliffhanger in which princess-turned-waitress Rachel Green (played by Jennifer Aniston) discovers what the rest of us have known all season – that sensitive paleontologist Ross Geller (David Schwimmer) is desperately in love with her.

The mood on the Friends set today seems warm, casual and, yes, extremely friendly, if just a tad tense.

“I’d say it feels like the last days of freshman year in college,” says Lisa Kudrow, who plays the spacey hippie Phoebe Buffay, as she takes a break on the Central Perk coffeehouse set. “We’re usually pretty touchy feely around here, but now more than ever.”

“We’re all about to go into some form of Friends withdrawal,” adds Schwimmer.

The show’s executive producers – Kevin Bright, 40, Marta Kauffman, 38, and David Crane, 37 – seem friendly, too, despite the burden on their shoulders. It’s Monday, usually the most difficult day in the show’s work cycle. Tomorrow evening the show tapes, and the three friends who run Friends have their eyes on the prize now within their sight: a perfect TV season.

“The One Where Rachel Finds Out” finds Bright directing Friends for the first time. As a result, Perry – who, true to character, serves as Friends’ on-set master of sarcastic ceremonies – is already going around calling the episode “Kevin’s Gate.”

“Laugh hard,” Perry tells Kauffman’s young daughter as he prepares for a scene. “Your mommy’s the producer.”

Perry’s jokes are slightly loaded because nobody wants to screw up now. “At the end of every episode, we always look at each other and say, “Wow, there’s another one that doesn’t suck’ ” says Kauffman. “We all know from past experience how much can go wrong on a series. And on this show, everything’s gone right.” With that, Kauffman looks around for some actual wood on which to knock.

Kauffman and Crane – creative partners since their days studying theater at Brandeis University – came together with veteran comedy producer Kevin Bright while working on their popular HBO series Dream On, an unusually adult comedy much noted for its incisive wit, its use of vintage TV clips as a sort of postmodern Greek chorus and – lest we forget – the occasional tit shot.

Friends is a different and larger-scale sort of TV phenomenon and a more wholesome one as well. Think of Friends as a sort of anti-Melrose Place: a wildly successful show about a whole bunch of beautiful young people in improbably huge apartments not sleeping together.

The rapidly escalating popularity of Friendsis such that even other TV shows are making note of this baffling lack of sexual interaction. On a recent All-American Girl, Margaret’s grandmother commented, “It’s such an unrealistic show. Six very attractive, clever people who drink lots of coffee and don’t have sex with each other. Yeah, right.”

Perry has heard this point before. “Listen, none of us are sleeping together, either,” he says with a grin. “What I have in the back of my head is that when these characters originally met, there was a little of that tension, but it worked itself out.”

Even if they’re not doing the deed, the show’s cast members conveniently seem to have become the best of friends. “Yeah, it’s pretty much a lovefest around here,” says Jennifer Aniston. “It is kind of sickening, isn’t it?”

“There’ve been no real fights to speak of,” says Matt LeBlanc, who plays the Danzaesque would-be actor Joey Tribbiani. “Except, of course, for that time I beat the crap out of Aniston.” Tragically, for the sake of inquiring minds, everyone around this surprisingly unglamorous studio appears legitimately fond of everyone else. Blessedly, there’s one very notable exception: Marcel, Ross’ pet monkey, whom virtually the entire cast confesses to loathing on a professional level. America loves the beast, but his colleagues reveal that as an actor, Marcel is less than generous. Actually, Marcel is played by two female monkeys – one creatively named Monkey, who was indeed seen in Outbreak, and her trusty double, Katy. “God bless the monkey – it’s an innocent animal,” Schwimmer says diplomatically. “But believe me, trying to capture a monkey doing what the writers want has become a complete nightmare. Put it this way: I really enjoy acting with people.”

“You can’t talk to that monkey,” adds Perry, “and it’s always eating its own feces – as opposed to the rest of the cast, who have the manners to just leave ours there.”

Recently, the hairiest Friend was written off the show. An NBC press release compared this early series departure to those of David Caruso, Shelley Long and McLean Stevenson. But according to NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield, no Marcel spinoff series is currently in the works. “That monkey’s got a multipicture deal,” Littlefield says with a laugh. “The monkey’s tied up for years.”

Within the species there’s a disconcerting and frankly exciting amount of hugging and massaging taking place on the set today. “As completely corny and weird as it may sound to everyone, these people are now my friends,” says Courteney Cox, 30, who plays saucy sous-chef Monica Geller, Ross’ sister. Perhaps as a result of all this chaste yet decidedly intimate interaction, Friends has a certain pent-up sexual energy that makes things all the more exciting when, say, Chandler accidentally sees Rachel’s “nipular area” or when Ross briefly makes out with Chandler’s mother (played by Morgan Fairchild) and gets branded a “mother kisser” in the process. Certainly it can’t hurt matters that the show’s cast members are all uniformly appealing and attractive, as well as – and this helps on a comedy – funny.

“They’re all funny and really good actors,” says James Burrows, the legendary TV director who worked on the pilot and 10 of the season’s 24 episodes. There’s nobody you have to cut away from.” There’s been talk of Schwimmer’s becoming Friends’ breakout star, but in terms of story-line division, the sitcom’s been remarkably evenhanded. That makes it a true rarity in the world of ensemble comedy, where traditionally there’s a central Sam Malone, an Alex Reiger or a Mary Richards to anchor things.

“The Friends should be like the Beatles,” says Marta Kauffman. “Everyone has their favorite, and who you choose says something about you as a person.” Except on Friends, they’re all the Cute One.

Furiously verbal and unusually fast-paced – “overcaffeinated” is how Kauflman puts it – the show has struck a powerful chord with the viewing public. Currently, Friends boasts ratings and demographics to die for. Not bad for a show that couldn’t even find a name for a time. In the planning stages it was called Insomnia Cafe, Six of One, Across the Hall and Friends Like Us. Finally, around the time NBC gave the show a heavenly Thursday-night time slot alongside Seinfeld, Mad About You and another up-and-comer called ER, the network suggested simply the minimalist Friends. “At that point,” says Bright, “they could’ve called the show Kevorkian if they wanted.”

“The whole experience has pretty much been a dream-boat ride,” says NBC’s Littlefield. “Friends is a bona fide hit and a water-cooler show every Friday morning. We wanted to be in business with Kauffman, Bright and Crane, and we were very interested in doing a show that looked at this age group. So we had confidence. But did we know it was a 30 share? No, we weren’t that cocky.

“I never felt uncomfortable with the Generation X label because we knew that would be the first audience to claim the show as their own,” says Littlefield. “But you look for storytelling and situations about the shared experiences of multiple generations. And that’s the genius of what they’ve done on Friends. My mother feels the same way about the show as my kids do.”

According to Crane, the show is partly based on all three executive producers’ experiences living in New York in their 20s, in a bygone era before the rise of grunge. “We were a little stunned with all the Generation X bullshit coming our way,” he says. “Because ultimately, this is just a show about six characters.”

“But when Reality Bites opened,” says Kauffman, “we walked out going, ‘Oh, fuck, I hope we’re not going to be seen as doing the TV version of that.’ “

“I think Friends represents a period in your life that everyone can relate to,” says Matt LeBlanc. “It’s when you’re starting on your journey, before you’ve made your choices. Everybody’s either going to go through that turnstile or has already been through it. Younger people are looking forward to it. Older people can look back and reflect. And people our age can watch for clues.”

Friends is on the verge of becoming a profitable growth industry. Look for T-shirts and Central Perk mugs, as well as a soundtrack album. And Kevin Bright – who proudly displays a vintage Dukes of Hazzard lunch box in his office – can’t wait for kids to start packing their sandwiches in the Friends box.

Recently, Julia Roberts called to get some tapes of the show. Comedy gods Woody Allen and Tom Hanks are both rumored to have enjoyed at least one episode. Even some initially suspicious critics have revisited the show to praise it. Meanwhile, cyberpunks are spending hours on the Internet chatting about the show and creating Friends drinking games. The tabloids have discovered the show with a vengeance. “Friends”! Not on TV’s Hot Comedy, They’re Not, blares a headline in the Star. “Matt is jealous of Matthew,” an informed source reports, “and Matthew is jealous of Matt.”

Clearly, the show has tapped into some universal – perhaps even primal – need. Most people have friends, and presumably even the disturbing ones who don’t could use a weekly TV substitute. In “The One With the Boobies,” Phoebe’s annoying but insightful shrink love interest, Roger (memorably played by Fisher Stevens), offered an expert diagnosis of the Friends’ “dysfunctional group dynamic … this sort of co-dependent, emotionally stunted, sitting in your stupid coffeehouse with your big cups, which, I’m sorry, might as well have nipples on them. And you’re all like ‘I need love! I need love! Define me!’ “

“I think it is a fantasy for a lot of people,” says Schwimmer, “having a group of friends who replace the family, which is unfortunately so screwed up these days.”

It could be argued that all those slightly older pal-coms like Seinfeld or Ellen serve the same semipitiful purpose. “Except I don’t think Friends is as pessimistic,” Schwimmer answers. “The people on our show all have a heart and are vulnerable. Unlike those shows, I think if our characters split up, they’d really be hurting.”

“We’re not a show about nothing,” David Crane says. “At the core of every episode is an emotional relationship. I once read Jerry Seinfeld or Larry David say that on their show, nobody hugs. On Friends, people definitely do hug.” But if Friends offers its audience some artificial and twisted sense of community and family, not everyone wants to get cozy with them by the electronic hearth.

Tom Shales of the Washington Post has been the show’s harshest critic since its beginning. He’s described it as coming across “like a 30-minute commercial for Dockers or Ikea or light beer, except it’s smuttier.” For Shales, “the show deals with a crowd of subyuppies who get together for long and boring chat sessions mostly about sex or the lack of it.” Of the cast, Shales writes a tad more generously: “They all look nice, and it’s sad to see them degrading themselves.” (Perhaps Friends could win over Shales by offering him that coveted Ugly Naked Guy role?)

Of course, Shales hated Friends long before it became a full-blown cultural phenomenon. Now the real backlash can begin. With slightly pained expressions, Kauffman, Crane and Bright report that their show was recently mocked on UPN’s poorly rated, pandering slack-com Pig Sty. “Someone on the show asked if you could go back in history and kill anyone, would it be Hitler, Mussolini or the cast of Friends,” Kauffman reports with a grimace.

“To which the others go, ‘Friends,’ ” says Bright.

“I mean, you think we’d at least come in third,” Crane adds with a small laugh.

“Fortunately,” Bright says, “we can take comfort in the fact that only 10 people actually heard that joke.”

“Urkel, where are you?”

It’s Tuesday – show day – and the extremely Chandleresqüe Matthew Perry is taking a break on Second Street, a tiny strip of cement outside Stage 5 that serves as a sort of outdoor smoking bathroom for the Friends cast members, who, with the exception of nonsmoker Schwimmer, come out here often to light up and schmooze.

“It’s hard to believe we’re this close to Urkel every single day of our lives, and yet I’ve never seen him,” says Perry, pointing wistfully toward the building that houses Family Matters. “Hey, man, I believe one of the reasons we’re able to be so darn funny on Friends is that Urkel is so near.”

The studios where Friends is filmed are a true hotbed of tubular activity. By walking just a few yards, the cast of Friends could be making news with Murphy Brown or hangin’ with Mr. Cooper. But in fact, the only neighbors with whom they’ve fully bonded are the cast of ER. Anthony Edwards makes regular house calls here, while the good doctors George Clooney and Noah Wyle have personally defaced the signs on the doors of the Friends’ minuscule, windowless dressing rooms. “It’s nice to be right next door to a group going through the same thing that we are,” says Schwimmer, “if not a bigger thing.”

“I’ve known George for a while,” says Perry, “and between us we have like 30 failed TV shows. We always thought, ‘Hey, maybe we should be on a good show.’ “

Hands-on experience with TV failure – and plenty of it – unites virtually everyone on Friends. Despite the cast members’ relative youth (they range from baby-faced Perry, 25, to the barely X-ish Kudrow, 31), chances are you have already seen them all before. The problem is, you were likely turning the channel, fast.

Easily the most familiar Friend is Courteney Cox, a former model who had her first brush with fame as the girl Bruce Springsteen pulls onstage in the 1984 “Dancing in the Dark” video. Cox spent the late ’80s as Michael J. Fox’s main squeeze on Family Ties. A proud survivor of the forgotten Misfits of Science, Cox only last season found herself misfitting in on a misguided Bronson Pinchot vehicle, The Trouble With Larry. “We had lots of trouble with Larry,” she says. In addition to Ace Ventura, Cox – long romantically linked with Michael Keaton – could be seen in features like Cocoon: The Return and Masters of the Universe. Originally approached to play Rachel on Friends, Cox seems well cast as the relatively stable Monica. “I’m not a quirky person,” she says, “although I’d like to be, because it looks like fun. I’m working toward being a kook.”

David Schwimmer – a Northwestern University theater major who co-founded Chicago’s adventurous Lookingglass Theater Company – spent some decidedly unhappy days on Monty, a grating 1994 comeback attempt for Henry Winkler. “Somehow I was convinced this would be the All in the Family for the ’90s,” says Schwimmer, 28, the son of two lawyers, who first got into theater at Beverly Hills High. “The only thing I learned was that I was never going to do a situation comedy again. Or so I thought.” He has also appeared on Blossom, L.A. Law and, most memorably, NYPD Blue, as the friendless vigilante nebbish 4B.

The daughter of soap-opera actor John Aniston and the goddaughter of the late Telly Savalas, Jennifer Aniston, 26, helped keep the sketch-comedy show The Edge from becoming even duller. A 1987 graduate of New York’s High School of Performing Arts (the one in Fame, though she reports “there was no dancing on tables and taxis”), Aniston also played the sister on the brief TV version of Ferris Bueller and muddled through Muddling Through, a 1994 summer replacement series on CBS. And though you might be afraid to admit it, you could have spotted her in the 1993 Celtic slasher flick Leprechaun.

Matt LeBlanc, a 27-year-old native of Newton, Mass., had the unusual experience of starring in a dumb Married … With Children spinoff, Top of the Heap, and an even dumber Top of the Heap revamp, Vinnie and Bobby. Adult audiences saw LeBlanc having hot, albeit safe, sex on Showtime’s Red Shoe Diaries. Though actually of mixed heritage – Italian, French, English, Irish and Dutch – the actor has often been cast as Italian. “Go fuckin’figure, ” he says with a thick mock accent and a laugh.

Lisa Kudrow, a former member of the L.A. improv troupe the Groundlings, has actually spent a couple of seasons on another NBC hit, Mad About You, as ditsy waitress Ursula, the twin sister of Friends’ Phoebe. This season, Kudrow did double duty, even playing both characters in “The One With Two Parts.” “I wanted to be a regular on Mad About You, but it didn’t look like it was going to happen,” Kudrow says. “So I kept reading every pilot.” Just prior to getting cast on Mad About You, Kudrow – a Vassar grad who at one time dated talkshow host Conan O’Brien – had a notable brush with failure when she was fired as Roz on Frasier before filming on the pilot began. “I had trouble connecting with Frasier,” she says, “not Kelsey Grammer.”

And though he’s the baby of the bunch, former teen tennis star Matthew Perry has perhaps the longest list of miscues. The son of an actor, John Bennett Perry, who played the sailor in those Old Spice commercials, Perry fondly remembers his first TV role, working with the man he calls “TV’s Scott Baio” on Charles in Charge: “I’d like this whole interview to be about Charles in Charge.” Just before he was to start college at USC, Perry was cast in Fox’s Second Chance, an It’s a Wonderful Life-like purgatory comedy that was retooled as Boys Will Be Boys, a Happy Days for the ’90s. “Before they made the changes, we were 93rd in the ratings,” Perry says. “Afterward, we rocketed briefly to 92nd. You can imagine how proud we were.”

There were other guest spots and recurring roles (Beverly Hills, 90210; Growing Pains), films (A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon, with River Phoenix; the Tony Danza/Ami Dolenz teen hornfest She’s Out of Control) and development deals that went nowhere. One of Perry’s better experiences, he reports, was the 1990 series Sydney, in which he appeared as the cop brother of Valerie Bertinelli, who played a private investigator. “It’s a little-known fact,” Perry says, “that on the set of One Day at a Time, Valerie spent all her time solving crimes. Apparently she cracked a very important case regarding Schneider.”

“Most of us think of a series as something that lasts 13 episodes – maybe,” says LeBlanc, who reports he was in a real slump before Friends, having sold his truck and motorcycle and moved out of a house he was renting. “We’re happy to have someplace to come back to next season.”

This afternoon, with season’s end in sight, that cast happiness has started to manifest itself in bouts of depression. “Everyone’s pretty weepy,” says Marta Kauffman. “I think all the woman are walking around a little premenstrual.” Any minute, you expect the cast to start signing one another’s yearbooks.

“I’ve done five or six shows that never went beyond 20 episodes,” says Aniston. “To be a part of Friends makes me so happy and proud of my peers. Literally, there are times when the show feels like a family, and that stage feels like a home.”

As show time approaches, the Friends cast and crew have a hurried last supper of lobster and steak in the Warner commissary. Up until the last minute, the writers are tinkering with the script. Supervising producers Jeff Greenstein and Jeff Strauss – also Dream On vets – chat with Crane. “Writing for this show is a very democratic process,” says Greenstein. “Basically, it’s a matter of the best joke wins.” Occasionally, that best joke doesn’t even come from the writers. Just before filming begins, the producers decide to try an offhand O.J. quip that Perry tossed off during rehearsal, eventhough Crane worries it might date badly – “like a Haldeman joke.”

By now, the creative team at Friends knows what works and what doesn’t. “We figured out that whenever we’re doing stories among our Friends, we’re much better off,” says Kauffman. This helps explain the show’s most slackerlike aspect – the treatment of career as almost an afterthought. “The problem with work scenes is they isolate the characters,” says Bright. “And the strength of the show is them together.”

“We found people could care less about Chandler and his boss,” says Kauffman. “What they care about is what happens when you stick, say, Chandler and Phoebe in a room. Any combination of the six will do. They want to see the Friends.”

Finally, at 7 p.m., a studio audience of 230 – including 90210′s Gabrielle Carteris – is let into Stage 5 for just that purpose. The reaction is overwhelming. The crowd even claps with the characters during the fab, Monkee-ish theme song. Whoever these people are – and they look hipper than your average tour-bus types – they’ve taken Friends to heart. “I first knew the show was a hit when the studio audience started laughing even when there was nothing funny being said,” says Cox.

Tonight, as usual, the cast does every scene a few times, with slight but meaningful variations each time. Filming runs until nearly 1 a.m. Still, almost the entire crowd gleefully stays put, laughing hysterically at anything remotely guffawable, literally gasping at the moment when Rachel Finds Out. The cast members gaze with some wonderment at the crowd.

“They’re still here,” Perry says at one point after midnight “They like us. They really like us.”

When the crowd reluctantly leaves after a tearful, curtainless curtain call, there’s a brief pizza-and-hug break. Then producer Todd Stevens calls everyone back to work. After grabbing a last few pickup shots, the cast films a brief promotional spot for the NBA. By the time things wrap up and the cast begins to disperse, it’s 230 in the morning.

Even at this late hour, no one seems in a rush to go home. Why leave, after all, when you can celebrate the creation of Another One That Doesn’t Suck?

A week has passed, but that not-so-old gang of ours hasn’t had much time to miss one another just yet. Saturday night was spent at a wrap party where the Friends danced together, albeit not in the awkward group formation so familiar from the show’s opening credits. Now it’s early Wednesday, and the entire cast has assembled in Chicago to appear on Oprah. Initially, Cox was going to appear via satellite, but Schwimmer insisted that the cast appear together or not at all. Though he may be the actor most commonly singled out these days, Schwimmer seems to be the most emphatic defender of ensemble unity. “We have a teal, solid group voice,” he says. “All the singling people out can only cause tension if we let it.”

Indeed, there seems to be curiously little jealousy and no line counting going on around Friends. Aniston, for instance, says she’s thrilled – if far from surprised – to see Schwimmer emerge as a sex symbol and poster child for male sensitivity. “He’s one of the sexiest men alive,” she says.

On the way to Chicago, the cast members were somewhat taken aback by their growing fame. Schwimmer and Aniston, who traveled together, were stopped repeatedly at the airport, and a quiet late-night cast dinner was interrupted steadily by approaching fans. “People kept coming up to us trying to buy us drinks,” says Kudrow. “In Los Angeles no one can be bothered with us.”

The women of Friends gather in the lobby at 7 a.m., already looking improbably fetching. They’re leaving right away for the studio so they can get to makeup first. The men take another limo a few minutes later. Few of the cast members are going to have time to enjoy Chicago. Aniston is hurrying back to L.A. to screen-test for a movie role this afternoon. LeBlanc is rushing back to get ready for Ed, a baseball movie that will see him working with a chimpanzee. “The good news is this guy’s totally animatronic,” he says. Schwimmer – who’ll spend his hiatus filming a dark comedy called The Pallbearer in New York – will stick around Chicago the longest, meeting with his pals at the Lookingglass and doing an interview about his beloved theater company for Entertainment Tonight. Kudrow will also be busy during hiatus – she’ll be marrying her French adman boyfriend, Michel Stern. “Yes, the Friends are invited,” she says. “In fact, I’ve decided not to invite all my other friends.”

As they file into their limo, the men of Friends are asked if they, like every young man, grew up dreaming of being on Oprah.

“Yes … but not the show,” Matthew Perry says with a sly smile.

Arriving at Winfrey’s Harpo Productions fortress, everyone seems a little nervous. “So what’s the show’s subject today?” Schwimmer asks a producer sweetly.

“Well, you are,” she says with a quizzical look.

True to form, a few of the Friends sneak out to Oprah’s garage for a quick pre-show smoke. “Who are you folks, and who told you you could smoke here?” a guard asks immediately, proving once again that not everyone is a Friends fan yet.

Before they take the stage, a few of the cast members gather quietly to discuss some sensitive potential questions, including the race issue. A few commentators have criticized Friends’ racial homogeneity. “Listen, the fact is that we could be more diverse,” says Schwimmer. “But it doesn’t necessarily bother me. You can’t do everything to please everybody, and I know that in casting, they did look at all sorts of different people. This just happens to be the group they ended up with.”

As it turns out, Winfrey doesn’t ask any questions about this subject. Instead, she casually tells them, “I’d like y’all to get a black Friend. Maybe I could stop by. In fact, I’m thinking about buying that apartment building next door.”

Other than that modestly pointed aside, the show turns out to be a veritable Friends love-in. Only when the host reveals that Marcel was not flown in with his cast mates can a discouraging word be heard.

In between some prime Friends clips, the cast answers some standard questions. “David, do you own and train the monkey?” one Marcel booster inquires, leading Perry to suggest that Oprah “show the clip of David beating up the monkey.” Yes, they’re a little like their characters. “I like to think maybe that I’m not quite as dim as Joey,” LeBlanc adds. Yes, they do have friends like the people on Friends. No, they haven’t had on-set relationships with one another, though Schwimmer jokes, “LeBlanc and I talked about it for a little bit.”

The crowd proves unstumpable when, at the producers’ request, the cast asks Friends trivia questions in exchange for T-shirts. Audience members name everything from the musical that got Joey his gig as Al Pacino’s butt double (Freud!) to the laundry detergent Ross and Rachel used at the Laundromat (Überweiss). They even know the awkward phrase Chandler uttered to Jill Goodacre at the ATM (“Gum would be perfection”).

As if that weren’t impressive enough, Oprah then rolls some footage of young Friends fans at the Mudpie, a cafe in Chattanooga, Tenn., who seem to have made the show the cornerstone of their lives. One woman recalls the trauma of watching Perry’s character die on Growing Pains. Another pal proclaims, “Our parents grew up, and they had Ozzie and Harriet, and we have Rachel and Ross.”

“Who were those people?” an amazed Perry says in the greenroom afterward.

Back at the hotel, two women claiming to be from The Jerry Springer Show attempt to woo the Friends guys to their show. Passing on that attractive offer, the cast gathers upstairs one more time at a hotel restaurant to toast one another with orange juice before heading off to hiatus.

Nearby, a 7-year-old boy – a fine young fellow who in no way resembles a slacker – pulls on his mother’s sleeve as he spots Courteney Cox. “Look, Mommy,” he says excitedly. “I think I see a Friend.”

From Rolling Stone US