The story of “one of the most beloved series on television.”
Austerlitz (Just a Shot Away: Peace, Love, and Tragedy With the Rolling Stones at Altamont, 2014, etc.) returns to a subject he’s quite adept at analyzing, the TV sitcom, which he comprehensively covered in his 2014 book, Sitcom. With 236 episodes, Friends ran from 1994 to 2004, garnering one Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy Series. The author conducted numerous interviews with writers, directors, crew members, and actors to tell this story of a show in which “comic minimalism was conjoined to a soap-opera maximalism.” Austerlitz begins with the writers who created it, Marta Kauffman and David Crane, who were there to the end. Their initial pitch to the executives was a show like Cheers but set in a coffee shop, Central Perk. After it received the go-ahead, the casting director’s initial list had African American and Asian American actors, but the producers went with an all-white cast of three men and three women. David Schwimmer’s Ross was selected right away, with Matthew Perry’s Chandler last. James Burrows, of Taxi and Cheers fame, directed. NBC execs were worried it wouldn’t reach a wide enough audience, but they eventually slotted it for Thursdays before Seinfeld. Austerlitz chronicles how Friends evolved: adding additional sets, fine-tuning Courteney Cox’s Monica, and the key decision to include the characters’ past so “stories were often retold instead of depicted.” The lack of diversity was brought up when the cast appeared on Oprah. Ross’ ex-wife was a lesbian, and there was “The One With the Lesbian Wedding,” while other episodes added black and Asian American actors; but Austerlitz calls the show with Chandler’s transgender father (played by Kathleen Turner) “inept.” Friends weathered a hostile work environment lawsuit and Perry’s drug-and-alcohol addiction, and guest actors were common, from Elliott Gould and Charlton Heston to Julia Roberts and George Clooney, helping “provide a jolt to the ratings.”
On its 25th anniversary, the show’s die-hard fans will love Austerlitz’s detailed, discerning, and sumptuous history.