On September 22 1994, NBC aired the first episode of its brand new sitcom Friends, about six friends living in Manhattan. The project, titled Insomnia Cafe, was pitched to the network just nine months prior. It would end up being a pop-culture sensation, catapulting the careers of its ensemble cast.
As creators David Crane and Marta Kauffman described it, “it’s about sex, love, relationships, careers, a time in your life when everything’s possible. And it’s about friendship because when you’re single and in the city, your friends are your family.”
NBC decided to buy the idea, and Kauffman and Crane wrote a pilot script over 3 days, in the process changing the show’s title to Friends Like These. NBC liked the script, but the name changed again, this time to Six of One to avoid confusion with the ABC sitcom These Friends of Mine.
As buzz began to build within the television industry, the showrunners were getting bombarded with phone calls from agents hoping to cast their clients in the pilot. The casting director went through 1,000 actors for each role before narrowing it down to 75.
The first cast was David Schwimmer, who was known to Crane and Kauffman after having auditioned for an earlier project of theirs. They wrote the part of Ross specifically with Schwimmer in mind. The producers wanted Courtney Cox for the role of Rachel, while Cox thought she was better suited to the role of Monica. After her audition, they all agreed, and she signed on to play Monica. Jennifer Aniston was almost cast in a different show, but after it failed to be picked up, she landed the part of Rachel.
Matt LeBlanc audition for the part of Joey using a similar character to the one he played on a show called Vinnie and Bobby. The showrunners didn’t want to cast LeBlanc, but the network insisted. Lisa Kudrow was cast as Phoebe based on her performance as a waitress in Mad About You. Matthew Perry was helping his friend audition for the part of Chandler, before auditioning himself and earning the role.
The pilot changed names one more time, and Friends aired on NBC in the Thursday 8:30 p.m. time slot. It was viewed by almost 22 million viewers, making it the fifteenth-most-watched show that week. Many critics were harsh in their reviews, describing it as a less funny rip-off of Ellen or Seinfeld, but many thought the show had potential.
Friends would soon become one of the most successful shows of its era, lasting ten seasons, earning 62 Emmy nominations, and influencing everything from women’s hairstyles to the English language. Its series finale was viewed by 52.5 million people, making it the fifth most watched finale in television history.