By Dan Snierson
April 16, 2014 at 11:10 PM EDT
NBC
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Ten years ago, more than 50 million people watched one of TV’s all-time biggest comedy sensations sign off the air with a final answer to Ross and Rachel’s “Will-they-or-won’t they?” saga (They will!) and a surprise twist to Monica and Chandler’s adoption journey (Twins!). In the April 11 issue of EW, we revisited the sextet’s sign-off — along with many other classic finales — in “The Art of Saying Goodbye,” a story in which the masterminds of 10 iconic series discussed the heady challenges of creating a lasting last episode. Below, in a bonus Q&A, creators/executive producers David Crane and Marta Kauffman chat about plotting the Friends finale as fans were lobbying for a rekindling of the Ross-and-Rachel romance, why there should never be a reunion show, and much more.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When did you begin plotting the finale in earnest?

MARTA KAUFFMAN: It was maybe a little different than other shows, only because we had several years where we thought this was going to be the last year.

DAVID CRANE: Because of the actors’ contract negotiations, and it seemed as though, “Oh, season 7 is the last season.” Or season 8. Or season 9. So each of those seasons we had an eye toward, “Okay, if this is the last year, what are we doing?” And then amazingly there was a rising from the ashes, last minute: “Oh my god, there is one more season…”

KAUFFMAN: At which point we said: “This is it. This is the last season.”

CRANE: Season 10, we said, “We can’t keep stopping and starting and rethinking everything.” And that also jived with what some of the cast was thinking. The only thing we absolutely knew from very early on was that we had to get Ross and Rachel together. We had dicked the audience around for 10 years with their “will they or won’t they,” and we didn’t see any advantage in frustrating them.

KAUFFMAN: And the trick was: “How do we do that, but still have it feel like you don’t expect it to go in the way you thought it would?”

CRANE: It became all about execution. It was going to be an hour show, so we knew we had an hour to get to a point — the end point isn’t going to surprise anybody, but the journey is the question. … Several of the characters had children and were married, so it was all about closure — not just of the 10 years, but of the journey they’d been on in their 20s and early 30s.

KAUFFMAN: There were symbols that became meaningful — the apartment — iconic things and settings that we could say goodbye to.

Were there endings in which Ross and Rachel didn’t wind up together that you talked about? Or was there a time where you were exploring more radical ideas with other characters?

CRANE: We did talk about, with Ross and Rachel, a gray area of where they aren’t together, but we hint there’s a sense that they might be down the road. But we thought, “No, if we’re going to do it, let’s do it.” It’s the nature of our show. It’s not a show about grays. Let’s deliver not just what the audience wants, but what we want, which was to see them finally together. But as for other things, we knew in our final season we wanted to give Chandler and Monica a baby, and then it was fun to give them two. But no, we weren’t looking for some crazy reversal.

KAUFFMAN: We all knew where it was going. How do we do it so it’s not just… boring?

CRANE: How do you create something expected in an unexpected way?

Did you feel like you had to tune out fan desires while writing the finale? Obviously everyone wanted to see Ross and Rachel together…

KAUFFMAN: My rabbi would stop me when I would drop my kids off at Hebrew school saying, “When are they going to get together?” It was everywhere. I don’t think this was about making people happy as much as, “What’s going to be satisfying?” For us as well.

CRANE: For the story that we’d been telling for 10 years. We were never plugged into social media and listening to fan sites. There were enough opinions among the dozen writers in the writer’s room, not to mention the cast, not to mention [executive producer/director] Kevin [Bright] — everybody had a strong opinion about this. We certainly didn’t need to go beyond that.

KAUFFMAN: It’s not just for the finale. In general, you look at your show, and there are things that people want, but then there are things that you just feel are the right thing to do for your show. The show tells you what to do — the fans don’t.

Did you watch a bunch of finales to see how other showrunners had handled it?

KAUFFMAN: We did spend some time talking about finales that we loved and ones that seemed incredibly well-suited to their shows. They actually ended up having no application to us, but we talked about Newhart and that brilliant, brilliant turn at the end with the dream, which was just incredible and funny. … For us, one of the things was: Everybody was growing up. This is part of why the show had to end. This was no longer that time in your life when your friends are your family. You’re starting your own family.

CRANE: You can’t beat the final episode of Newhart. I totally agree with Marta. That moment in Newhart when he wakes up in bed with Suzanne Pleshette — you don’t see it coming and it’s genius.

KAUFFMAN: I do watch finales with great interest, though. I love watching finales just to see, “Oh, what did they do? It’s so fun.”

So is Newhart the gold standard for comedy finales?

KAUFFMAN: I also also think M*A*S*H was an amazing finale. That was incredible. That just made me jealous. It was such a beautiful mixture of comedy and drama. It just straddled that line perfectly. And it was so moving. So moving. Oh my God, I love that finale.

CRANE: The finale for The Mary Tyler Moore Show, as they shuffle out of that newsroom, is just so fantastic. That they won’t leave that hug — that was brilliant.

Do you think the intense amount of pressure on finales these days is fair?

KAUFFMAN: I think it’s fair. You have spent 10 years with characters that you’ve invited in your home while naked and ironing. It’s a very intimate experience, the one you have with the characters on your TV set, and even more intimate now that people watch on computers and lie in bed with it. I feel like it’s fair for the audience to want to feel a sense of satisfaction. You don’t want them to feel like, “Thank God it’s over!” And leaving them wanting more is always a nice thing…

CRANE: If any showrunner is complaining that people care too much, they’re in the wrong business. [Laughter] “It’s unfair how much they care about my show!” Oh, that’s a high-class problem!

It sounds like you’re satisfied with the finale. But is there anything you would change if you could do it again?

CRANE: Probably if I watched it right now, I could find a dozen jokes that I would look at and go, “Really? We couldn’t beat that?” But in a larger sense, nothing comes to mind.

KAUFFMAN: Not story-wise. If I were to really, really think on it, I’m sure there would be things I’d wish I’d done better, but nothing pops into my head. Except maybe I wouldn’t put everyone I know in it, because I find it very distracting! [Laughs]

CRANE: It’s true. If it happens to be on and we turn it on, we’re like, “Oh, there’s Jeffrey [Klarik, Crane’s partner and co-creator of Episodes]! There’s our agent, Nancy! There’s Marta’s kids!”

Did it ever enter your mind to leave the door open at all for spin-offs or a reunion?

KAUFFMAN: Never. We never, ever from the beginning ever wanted to do a spin-off or Grown-Up Friends or Friends Kids or Baby Friends. We always knew and felt very strongly that not only would it never happen, we never wanted to be part of that, because it so rarely works. We just felt like this show is about a certain time in your life, and once you’re past that time in your life, the show is over.

CRANE: Also, it was enough of a job to put the right bow on this to not be worrying about, “Well, what are they going to do after this?” This is done. If anyone wants to … and they did, obviously: Scott [Silveri] and Shana [Goldberg-Meehan] and Matt [LeBlanc] and Kevin went off to do Joey, but at no point did anyone ask us to lay the groundwork for that or prepare for that.

KAUFFMAN: They hoped we would.

CRANE: That was its own thing. It had no bearing on what we were doing for the finale.

Looking back at Joey, what were your feelings at the time — and what are they now?

KAUFFMAN: You know, it’s hard to say. It wasn’t ours. We weren’t involved at all.

CRANE: We love everyone involved, so even eight years later, I want to wish them all the best! Everyone’s expectations were that it was a continuation of Friends, but you’ve taken away five of the other characters and you’ve taken away the essence of what that original show is about — I think it’s really difficult. There are very few examples in television history of a spin-off that works. It’s very difficult. As talented as everyone is, I think it’s a really tall order. And also, the audience expectations are unreasonable.

Is that why you didn’t want to be part of it?

CRANE: We were also exhausted.

KAUFFMAN: That was a lot of it. And a lot of it was just feeling like it wasn’t the right thing to do. We felt there is closure, and we’ll only disappoint people if we try to do some other version of it. And we hate disappointing people. We hate that.

NEXT: Crane and Kauffman on the possibility of a Friends reunion

As we approach the 20th anniversary of the show’s launch and 10th anniversary of the finale, people wonder if there’s  been any softening in your opposition to a reunion, and maybe a thought has popped into your head about doing a one-off —

KAUFFMAN: [Laughs] Honestly, I have to go back to: The show is over. What was at the heart of the show is done. And let’s be honest, it’s 20 years later. Nobody looks like they did then. And you’re going to spend the whole time going, “Wow, he’s aged. Or she’s…”

CRANE: If anyone wants Friends, turn on your TV! Amazingly, thank God, it’s there. And these are all great actors that you’re seeing all the time in other things. Marta and I’ve talked about this a lot: People say they want it, and the more that we say it’s a bad idea, people [disagree]. But I think if we actually gave it to people, there would be such backlash.

KAUFFMAN: This is about finales. It’s final.

But do you hear from NBC and Warner Bros. occasionally? Is this like a parole thing, where every 18 months they revisit it?

CRANE: [Laughs] That’s exactly what it is. … From both them and Warner Bros, there has been the periodic, “So what do you guys think?”

And you keep saying…?

CRANE: We don’t think it’s a very good idea. It’s like, we all worked hard to put the perfect bow on this. What are you doing?

KAUFFMAN: I was sitting in a bar one night with a friend — I don’t do that a lot, but we were going out before a premiere of something — and a bunch of 20-year-olds walked in and they just heard “It’s definite! Friends is coming back for another season!” And I’m sitting right there thinking, “Do I say something?”

CRANE: But be honest: Was there a little bit a part of you that goes, “Did they just not call me?”

KAUFFMAN: [Laughs] No, I was pretty sure it wasn’t.

CRANE: Really? Whenever I read something where it’s absolutely definitively happening, there’s a teeny part of my brain that goes, “Did they decide just to stop even bothering to ask us because they know we’re going to say no, so f— us?

KAUFFMAN: Could be. You could be right.

David, you’re working on Episodes, and Marta, you just signed a deal with Netflix for a comedy.

KAUFFMAN: I have big plans for the finale. [Laughs]

What lessons will you pull away from the Friends finale experience that you’ll apply to your new show?

KAUFFMAN: I guess the lesson I learned is: Let the show tell me. There comes a point where you’re no longer in the driver’s seat in a way, and your job is to strip away all the crap and get to what’s at the root of the last story and not to impose too much story on it.

CRANE: The essence of the show leads you to an organic conclusion. Friends started as the time in your life when your friends are your family, so what’s at the heart of the episode is six friends going off in different directions. And that feels very organic to where it started. … Jeffrey and I haven’t started looking at what’s going to be the finale of Episodes, but hopefully it would somehow speak to where the show started, in the same way.

KAUFFMAN: We were very lucky. We had a show in which the last episode could be the six people who were each other’s lives saying goodbye as the audience was saying goodbye to the show. It was kind of perfect. It gave it right to us.

Eric McCandless/ABC

For more on TV finales, pick up the April 11 issue of Entertainment Weekly.

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