BACKSTAGE AT WARNER BROS. studios, the cast of NBC's hit sitcom Friends is hard at work. Sort of. Well, okay, they're goofing off. In the hallway, David Schwimmer and Jennifer Aniston
are on the floor wrestling before heading out for a frozen yogurt. Lisa Kudrow is cutting a cookie with a knife and fork. Matthew Perry is explaining how, unfortunately, his own romantic life provides material for his lovelorn Friends character, Chandler. "One of the producers came up and asked me one Monday how a date had gone over the weekend," he says. "I said, 'It went great. We went out for dinner, then for a nice walk on Melrose and back to her place, where we shared a nice kiss good night. And I'm pretty confident that I'm going to die alone.' "
On the air, the same blend of silliness and self-deprecating humor—Chandler's "die alone" line later turned up in the script—has made Friends into a palpable hit. In its first season out, it's the only new sitcom still in the Nielsen 10, and it has risen as high as No. 2, partly thanks to its new spot between Seinfeld and ER. The secret can't be the plots (there aren't any) or even the dramatic car chase scenes (ditto). It might have something to do with good writing and a strong concept: six mildly neurotic single twentysomethings in search of a life, with punch lines.
"The producers of the show had done Dream On for HBO, which is about people who have already made their choices in life and have to figure out how to live with them," says Perry, 25. "They pitched this show to the network as being about people who are just about to make those choices." As such, Friends appeals both to people in their 20s and people who have been there and haven't forgotten. "What makes the show so successful is you see a little piece of your own life up there," says executive producer Kevin Bright. Also, unlike ER, the season's other notable hit, Friends never causes viewers to worry that someone's chest is going to be sliced open with a scalpel.
Friends' biggest asset by far, though, is an ensemble cast that clicks: Schwimmer (the nerdy-but-nice Ross); Aniston (Rachel, the spoiled rich girl getting her first jolt of reality waitressing at the Friends coffee-bar hangout, Central Perk); Courteney Cox Arquette
(compulsively neat, overachieving Monica, the girl you hated in seventh grade); Matt LeBlanc (Joey, a hunka hunka aspiring actor); Perry (Chandler, stuck in an office job he loathes but won't leave); and Lisa Kudrow (Phoebe, a wifty free spirit given to non sequiturs.)
Someday, as Cox jokes, they may develop big egos and big rivalries, and "we'll all go to our big trailers and never speak." Or perhaps Aniston will spill all to Hard Copy about Schwimmer's wild nights out with Marcel the monkey. But not now. Six months into a hit, this is one happy, mutually supportive crew, and when they talk about being friends off the set, it's believable. Says LeBlanc: "Even if we weren't working together and just met each other at a party, we'd absolutely still hang out together." As it is, in odd groups of two and three, they breakfast together, shop or take the occasional group field trip. (On one recent outing, to Color Me Mine, a paint-it-yourself pottery store, Kudrow couldn't decide what to call the abstract design she had created on a plate: "Grapevine in the Wind? Or Cyclone of Beauty? Maybe Big Ball of Hate is better?") "We all bonded instantly," says Aniston, 26, who was born in L.A. but raised in New York City, the daughter of actor John Aniston (Victor Kiriakis on Days of Our Lives). "It's rare."
The director, Jim Burrows, eager to foster that collegiality, helped move things along with an all-expenses-paid trip to Las Vegas last spring after NBC announced it was picking up the show. All six cast members got gussied up and spent 10 hours gambling and chowing down before flying back to L.A. "We all lost money," says Schwimmer, 28, raised in L.A. by his attorney parents, Arthur and Arlene (she handled Roseanne's first divorce). "But it was fun. Courteney was screaming so loudly, she was hoarse by the end."
They had come a long way from the first day they showed up for work on the pilot episode a year ago. "That day was really strange," says Perry. "I was kind of like, 'Hi, I don't know who you are, but hopefully we'll be working together for the next 12,000 years.' " They all knew there were no guarantees. Perry had been briefly on Growing Pains and Home Free. LeBlanc survived TV 101 and Vinnie and Bobby. Schwimmer was seeking refuge from Monty. Aniston muddled through Muddling Through. Even Cox, a semiregular on Family Ties (as Michael J. Fox's girlfriend), had been through the misfortune of Misfits of Science.
Still, Cox was the one who made everybody else nervous, because, says Schwimmer, "she was the one big name in the cast." As it turns out, the 30-year-old Alabama native has evolved into a kind of den mother, both on and off the set. "She was actually the first person to speak up about us being a team," says Perry. "It was our second day of work, and we went outside on a break together. She said, 'This is an ensemble show. I think we should really all try to help each other out.' Everybody just jumped on that." Cox remembers the moment well. "I had been on a show before where there wasn't that much camaraderie," she says, "so I figured it was important to let them know I was just there to make the show better. I let them know this wasn't a competition."
Some cast members were also nervous about LeBlanc, 27, who hails from Newton, Mass. (his father is a mechanic and his mother makes circuit boards), and whose résumé includes a stint looking studly as a Levi's model. "I was scared of that type of guy," says Aniston, who assumed he'd be muy macho. "He thinks it's very funny now. And actually, he can sit down and comfort me just like Courteney or Lisa could."
After the pilot was picked up and they knew they would be seeing each other every workday, they began letting their guards down. "I think what really made me realize how close we were was when we started doing interviews and reporters would ask us questions about each other, like 'What do you really think of so-and-so?' " says Kudrow, 31, a Vassar graduate who majored in biology and who got her big break as the ditzy waitress Ursula on Mad About You. "Those questions felt really personal to me, and I knew these people had become part of my life. I was deliberately vague with my answers."
Cast members say Perry is at the center of many gags. "He keeps us all in a good mood," Schwimmer says, "by coming up with that one-liner that makes us smile." Schwimmer, a Northwestern graduate, pegs himself as the father figure. "I feel a little older than the others, with a little more perspective on things," he says. LeBlanc considers himself "the brother type," and Aniston is like the little sister. Then there's Kudrow. "She's like an island," says LeBlanc. "She's sort of standing off on her own, totally secure."
"These characters are slightly exaggerated, slightly more entertaining versions of ourselves," says Perry, who grew up in Ottawa, the son of John Bennett Perry, an actor best known for Old Spice commercials. "I know Chandler is similar to me. But if you watched my life for a week, there would be many more boring parts." In one show the writers took one of Perry's quirky habits and gave it to Chandler. "He has this way of speaking, using questions like 'Could this be any more this or that?' " says Aniston. "So they wrote an entire episode about how everybody at his office makes fun of him because of the way he talks."
The friendships on Friends are all strictly platonic. The closest they get to romance is Ross's secret crush on Rachel. There's no pairing up in real life, either. Perry, LeBlanc and Aniston are unattached. Schwimmer has a girlfriend in New Orleans. Cox has been seeing Batman star Michael Keaton for several years. Kudrow is engaged to French adman Michel Stern. Cox doesn't think keeping everyone out of bed on the show is unrealistic. "I've got some great guy friends," she says. "They can start out as crushes. But when you realize something isn't going to happen, you make a choice whether or not the friendship is worth it. And it usually is. Then you can laugh about the fact that you used to have a crush on him or he had one on you."
"Either that happens, or the stalking starts," interrupts Perry, deadpan. "The police get involved. It gets messy."
"Yeah, remember that?" chimes in LeBlanc.
They may be providing each other's punch lines now, but will success leave them taking swipes at each other? No breakout star has emerged from the cast yet, but Schwimmer is certainly an early favorite. It could be his character's unusual family situation—his pregnant wife left him for her lesbian lover—or the gawky, slightly embarrassed way he delivers some of the show's best lines. A true sign of new status: He recently started appearing in AT&T commercials. "You know that a Ted Danson or a Shelley Long tends to emerge from a show," says producer Bright. But he says he works hard to see that all six of his actors "feel very satisfied that they've been looked after" and that "there is no counting lines of dialogue to see who has more to say." And, he says, esprit de corps prevails: "These people are always feeding each other bits, fighting to make each other's parts better."
During a recent rehearsal, the cast was working on a scene on the coffeehouse set that begins with LeBlanc, Perry and Schwimmer sitting around talking. Perry suddenly puts his hands down by his feet and starts humming the theme from My Three Sons. Without missing a beat, Schwimmer and LeBlanc join in. Everyone cracks up. But the director, Gail Mancuso, decides the idea doesn't work, since they're supposed to be talking about the fate of Ross's pet, Marcel, who may have to be sent to a zoo.
So the actors come up with another idea. Since they are talking about the monkey, why not have one of them cover his eyes, another his mouth and the third his ears—as in See no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil? This time it works, and the scene stays in.
"A lot of actors look at sitcoms as the stepping-stone to a movie deal," says Perry. "But the attitude here is that this show is something we can go home and be proud of every day. Everyone is open to everyone else's ideas. The deal here is, the funniest joke wins, no matter what."
Spoken like a true friend.
CRAIG TOMASHOFF in Los Angeles