By Hillary Busis
April 06, 2012 at 03:46 PM EDT
  • TV Show

Imagine, for a moment, that it’s September of 1994 and you’ve just left work. After grooving to Ace of Base’s “I Saw the Sign” on the drive home, you check your beeper, then settle in to watch something on your brand-new satellite TV. You surf over to NBC and notice that a new show is playing — it looks like it’s about a group of six attractive people just sitting around at a coffeehouse. Weird premise. Then you notice a few familiar faces. Hey, is that Doogie Howser? And your sister’s favorite actress from Knots Landing? And the chick from Speed?

When the title sequence — set to R.E.M.’s “Shiny Happy People” — plays, you finally learn what you’ve been looking at: a sitcom called Six of One, brought to you by Marta Kauffman and David Crane. It’s funny — the jokes land, and the pacing is crisp. But somehow, things seem… off. Especially that too-clever title. Wouldn’t Crane and Kauffman have been better off with something simpler? Something like, say, Friends?

Thankfully, we don’t live in that alternate universe. But according to this oral history of Friends — an excerpt from Warren Littlefield’s upcoming book Top of the Rock: Inside the Rise and Fall of Must See TV, published in this month’s Vanity Fair — everyone’s favorite ’90s sitcom (that isn’t Seinfeld) could have been a very, very different show. The full article isn’t online yet — but we’ve gone through and picked out eight of the best tidbits. Cue up The Rembrandts, pat your Smelly Cat, and get ready: It’s time to go back to Central Perk.

1. Title trivia

It’s no secret that before Kauffman and Crane settled on Friends, they called their pals-hanging-out pilot Six of One (as in “half a dozen of the other.”) But before that, the duo had a third possible title for their pitch: Insomnia Cafe. Sounds more like a horror series than a sitcom.

2. Jane Krakowski could have played Phoebe and Nicollette Sheridan could have played Monica

The article includes a list of actors Kauffman and Crane considered for their pilot. They also thought about casting Téa Leoni as Rachel and eventual Rent star Anthony Rapp as Ross. Bradley Whitford, Neil Patrick Harris, Sandra Bullock, and Molly Ringwald appear on the list of possible principals as well, though their potential parts aren’t noted. (NPH could only have been Chandler, though, right?)

3. At first, Matthew Perry wasn’t available for Friends because he was shooting a pilot set in the year 2194

It was called LAX 2194, and it was about the baggage handlers of the future. (Whose Line Is It Anyway? comedian Ryan Stiles was in it too!) The show did not get picked up.

4. Lisa Kudrow was Frasier‘s original Roz

The future Phoebe was cast in the Cheers spinoff, but got fired during rehearsals for its pilot. The director of that pilot — a.k.a. one of the guys who fired Kudrow — also directed 15 episodes of Friends, including its first.

5. NBC’s West Coast president thought Monica was a “trollop”

He was so opposed to her sleeping with “Paul the Wine Guy” that he insisted on handing out the following questionnaire to the show’s studio audience: Do you think Monica sleeping with the wine guy makes her a) a slut, b) a whore, [or] c) a trollop? Even so, the subplot stayed.

6. Season 6 could have been the show’s last*

Due to contract negotiations — and the main cast’s insistence on receiving the same astronomical pay — NBC almost ended Friends with Monica and Chandler’s engagement. Harold Brook, NBC’s former executive vice president of business affairs, says the network made two possible promos that spring: one for a season finale, and one for a series finale.

7. The cast hated the idea of Rachel and Joey dating

According to Matt LeBlanc, the concept “felt wildly inappropriate.” He says he and his five costars approached Kauffman and Crane as a group to air their concerns. Would later seasons have been better if the show’s creators had listened?

8. Ross and Rachel almost didn’t end up together

As Crane says, “We talked about doing a qualified ending… They’re not together together, but there’s the hope they can be together. [Then] we said, “F— it. We’ve jerked these people off for 10 years. Who are we kidding?” Good call, Crane — good call.

Do these bits of Friends trivia tickle you as much as they tickled me, PopWatchers? What Friends what-if do you find most promising?

*This post originally stated that Season 5 could have been the show’s last. Though the oral history implies this — Warren Littlefield writes that the contract dispute came “after the fifth season” — an EW article from 2000 confirms that the renegotiation actually occurred at the end of Season 6. We regret the error.

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‘Friends’ with benefits: Study records how often the sitcom’s characters scored. (Sorry, Chandler.)

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