It may be hard to imagine a television world where Friends doesn’t rank among the most frenzied shows of all time, but there was a time when Friends almost wasn’t there for you. Yep. Thanks to casting conundrums, poor test-audience ratings for the pilot, and flack from NBC, Friends came within inches of being a passed-over property, which meant we might not have ever gotten to join in on Monica Geller’s annual Thanksgiving feasts or watched the lobster saga of Ross and Rachel unfold.
Here’s what almost stopped Friends from happening.
The one where Monica was almost very different
There’s no doubt about it that Friends was a success thanks to the comedic chemistry of its central (perk) cast members Courteney Cox, David Schwimmer, Jennifer Aniston, Matthew Perry, Lisa Kudrow and Matt LeBlanc. But, as with any sitcom, it was a total case of Hollywood sliding doors that these six ultimately landed their roles. Each and every one of them had their own potential hang-up that might have prevented them from joining, changing the nature of the series altogether.
In an oral history of the show with Vanity Fair, co-creator Marta Kauffman revealed that she and David Crane originally envisioned the role of Monica going to another actress altogether (and, no, it wasn’t Ellen Degeneres as many might believe). “We originally offered [the part of] Rachel to Courteney Cox, but she said she wanted to do Monica, not Rachel. When we originally wrote the role, we had Janeane Garofalo’s voice in our head. Darker and edgier and snarkier, and Courteney brought a whole bunch of other colors to it.” Other actresses also read for the role, but eventually they agreed Cox would be right for the part. Said Crane, “We decided that, week after week, that would be a lovelier place to go.”
As Monica might say, ta-ha!
The one where Matthew Perry was almost working for aliens
Kauffman also revealed to Vanity Fair that while Perry was high on their initial list for the role of Chandler Bing, he’d already signed up for a series called LAX 2194, so they read with other actors, like Craig Bierko, before Perry was released from his LAX contract.
As Perry himself would later explain on Late Night with Seth Meyers, “I was off the market because I had taken a job on a pilot called LAX 2194 that was about baggage handlers at the L.A. airport in the year 2194. So, I was wearing a futuristic shirt, and little people played the aliens in which I had to sort out the aliens’ luggage, and that was basically the show. And so a script came out, and it was called Friends Like Us. And it was great, and it was hilarious, and the part was just perfect for me, and it was making me crazy that I couldn’t go up for it because of the baggage handler show…I was losing my mind, and then finally somebody at Fox was like, ‘We’ve seen this. It’s the worst show we’ve ever seen in our lives, so he’s available, so you can hire him.'”
Imagining anyone else as Chandler is so not cool.
The one where Jennifer Aniston was almost not Rachel
The career-making role of Rachel almost didn’t go to Aniston. As Crane told Vanity Fair, the network went above their heads and offered the part to actress Jami Gertz, who the co-creators did not believe was right for the role. “We held our breath for 24 hours until she passed,” he said. The co-creators had previously established a relationship with Aniston, thanks to a failed launch of a small screen Ferris Bueller series, but she was still contractually bound to another un-aired show with CBS. NBC exec Warren Littlefield called the program, titled Muddling Through, “this horrible show” that he believed the rival network might air just to spite their casting efforts with Aniston (despite its awful reception).
As Aniston remembered in 2015 (via People), “There was a period where I had to stand out of the photographs for the group shots, and I had phone calls from girlfriends saying, ‘I’m auditioning for your part in Friends.’ Ultimately, Muddling Through was cancelled after three months, freeing up Aniston to take the soon-to-be-iconic role of Rachel Green and earn the overnight A-list status it won her.
The one where the rest of the cast nearly fell on their own swords
The role of Joey Tribbiani wasn’t originally written to be so dense, but once LeBlanc busted his face on a drinking bender the night before his audition, coming in with a bandaged nose, they figured that he was “good at playing dumb.” Kudrow was a no-brainer for the co-creators due to their fandemonium of her Ursula role in Mad About You. But she’d had a tough history with director David Burrows — since he’d previously fired her from the pilot rehearsals for Frasier — and was concerned he might block her from nabbing the part as a result of the friction (spoiler: he didn’t).
Last but certainly not least, Schwimmer was a shoo-in for Ross and wasn’t required to do any auditions or screen tests to land the role, but he didn’t want it. He’d given up on testing for television by then and was focused on starting a theater company in Chicago. Ultimately, it was the involvement of Burrows that drew Schwimmer in. He told Vanity Fair, “It was hugely flattering, and I thought, ‘Well, it’s quite disrespectful with all this talent asking to meet and just consider it. I’d be an idiot not to go.”
The one with the abysmal test scores
Much like the love lives underscored in the show’s earworm theme song, the test pilot for Friends (which was originally titled Six of One) didn’t go over so well with audiences. In May, 1994, five months before the show would eventually premiere, the pilot was screened and given a “poor” performance rating.
Chief among the complaints was the likability of the characters. The report claimed that while Monica was moderately favored by test audiences, characters like Rachel and Joey were unappealing. “Most viewers felt the show was not very entertaining, clever, or original,” the report concluded.
The one where the network didn’t like it either
Following the show’s initial notes, NBC suggested that a major change be made to the spinal structure of the series. Kauffman told Huffington Post, “We were told by the network, ‘No one’s going to watch a show about people in their 20s.’ [They said], ‘You have to have an older person.'” That character would’ve been a policeman named Pat or “Coffee Joe” who’d sort of supervise the romantic affairs of the Friends and provide a “mature” voice to their goings on.
Kauffman rejected the idea, however, saying, “We kept saying, ‘If the stories are universal enough, you don’t need it.'” In some ways, though, she did cave by adding a few parental characters to the regular mix, including Rachel’s parents as well as Jack and Judy Geller, that satisfied the network’s need for an older voice.