Friends: How Joey evolved from scary creep to 'a better friend'
The new book 'I'll Be There for You' reveals the hit show's surprising behind-the-scenes evolution
Friends may have gone down as one of the most beloved ensembles in TV history, but there was some risk of things going in a very different direction.
In the upcoming book I’ll Be There for You, author Kelsey Miller combines interviews, history, and behind-the-scenes anecdotes to create a definitive retrospective on the NBC sitcom. The book traces its entire cultural history, from its rough beginnings and the significant retooling around it to its afterlife, as young viewers continue to discover the show 25 years after it premiered. Miller also relives the show’s most iconic moments and examines the many trends the show inspired, from the rise of coffee-shop culture to “Friendsgivings” to the ultimate ’90s haircut, The Rachel.
Naturally, Miller uncovers some intriguing tidbits about Friends’ evolution, and the conversations that happened outside the public eye. The author has shared an exclusive excerpt of her book with EW, and it includes some juicy details about the show’s first season — particularly, the way the writers realized they had to change their conception of Joey, since he started coming off like too much of a “creep.” Read about that and much more in the excerpt below, where you can also exclusively see the official cover.
I’ll Be There for You hits shelves Oct. 23. Pre-order it here.
Excerpt from I’ll Be There for You, by Kelsey Miller
The Friends stars had flown in to appear on The Oprah Winfrey Show, and David Wild, then a Senior Editor at Rolling Stone, had joined them. He’d known they were a hit before the cast did—even before viewers really understood that their new favorite series was everyone else’s, too.
Wild and his wife had watched Friends from the start. But the excitement around Friends seemed to suggest something bigger. It was too soon to start using words like “phenomenon,” but that’s what he was thinking. He’d told his bosses as much, early. “I had suggested to Rolling Stone that there should be a cover story. That I thought something was happening with this show,” Wild told me. They weren’t sold at first. The 1994-1995 television season was packed with good shows, and it was too early to pick a front-runner. Furthermore, there was a whole hell of a lot happening on TV besides TV series: Jurors had just been sworn in on the OJ Simpson trial. Princess Diana and Prince Charles were in the final act of what seemed to be the world’s longest divorce. Tonya Harding was Tonya Harding. Audiences were enthralled with the seedy and scandalous, and Friends was so clean you could eat off it.
Still, Wild thought, there was something equally compelling about these six fresh faces and their sweetie-pie show. In the spring of 1995, during the final week of shooting, Wild got a call from the higher-ups: “Yeah, you know what? You should go ahead and do something.”
Season One of Friends is a great one, for a sitcom. It’s not a great season for Friends, by a mile. The show would soon find its footing with more serialized storylines, and the cast would only get better with time. Even so, the early episodes did a great job of introducing us to the gang and making us want to hang out with them again.
The plot would thicken up nicely, but at first it was simple. Twentysomethings navigating the usual travails of young-ish adulthood, most of which can conceivably be worked out in 22-minutes: Rachel can’t do laundry, so Ross teaches her how. Joey and Chandler’s crappy kitchen table breaks, so they buy a new one—a foosball table! The girls have a moment of existential dread, realizing that youth is past and life is chaotic and they “don’t even have a pla,” let alone a plan. So, they get drunk, problem solved. As the eldest, Ross’ life is more complicated, with the divorce from his first love, Carol (who is both newly pregnant and just out of the closet), and the arrival of his first crush, Rachel. His is the only real through-line of the season, and its conclusion with the birth of his son is a perfect setup for things to the more grown-up concerns in Season Two.
The characters haven’t totally gelled at this point, which actually works in their favor: Phoebe is an oddball, but her extreme quirks are used for punchlines rather than plot. Monica is the grown-up of the group—a familiar figure in any real-life social circle: the friend who has at least some semblance of her life together, and always has milk in the fridge. We can easily recognize or relate to Season One Monica, and so when her neuroses get dialed up later (often to great comic effect), we’re already along for the ride.
It makes sense, too, that people in this age-range would not have fully formed identities. “The time in your life when your friends are your family,” as the initial pitch for the show described, could also be called “the time in your life when you have no idea what the hell you’re doing or why.” The entire series begins when Rachel realizes just that. “It’s like all my life everyone’s told me, ‘You’re a shoe! You’re a shoe! You’re a shoe!’” Rachel tells her father over the phone, hours after running out on the fiancé she doesn’t love and the life she doesn’t want. “Well, what if I don’t want to be a shoe? What if I wanna be a purse? Or a hat?! No, I don’t want you to buy me a hat, I’m saying I am a hat. It’s a metaphor Daddy!” With these few lines, Rachel gives us plenty of reasons to dislike her, and one reason to give her a chance: she wants to change.
Joey, on the other hand, is a little too recognizable, as a creep. Seven minutes into the pilot, he’s already hitting on Rachel—and not in a goofy way, because he’s not really a goof yet. He’s a letch, perpetually showing up in leather or slicked back hair, in a way that kind of reminds you of Fonzie, and then makes you wonder if Fonzie was actually a creep, too. The sweetness that somewhat tempers Joey’s behavior hasn’t emerged, and his occasional dimwittedness doesn’t make him seem like an innocent so much as a guy you can’t trust to keep his hands to himself.
It even made some of the actresses a little nervous around LeBlanc, initially. “I was scared of that type of guy,” Aniston told People magazine during the first season. LeBlanc knew better than anyone that it would be an issue. Not being That Guy himself, he wasn’t worried about his castmates; they soon came to see him as “the brother type,” he told People in the same interview. But if the show continued, he knew that Joey would wear out his welcome sooner rather than later. Audiences would tire of obvious gags, like the one where the girls are bent over during a game of Twister, and Joey can’t help but waggle his eyebrows and smirk at Ross (who responds by lowering his own eyebrows and tilting his head: Really?).
Phoebe may have been an oddball in the group, but Joey was the one who truly didn’t belong, and it was only a matter of time before the writers realized it. LeBlanc approached Kauffman and Crane with a proposition: “Could it be that Joey thinks of these three girls as little sisters, and wants to go to bed with every other girl but these three? Then I’d buy that they’re friends. Otherwise, I just don’t think they’d even talk to him if he hits on them every single time.” (LeBlanc did not add, “Because I’m afraid that you’re going to run out of stories for me. I’m gonna have to move out from across the hall.” He floated it as a creative suggestion, rather than, as he later put it, a desperate act of self-preservation.) Thankfully, Kauffman and Crane immediately got it. Joey began to evolve into a better friend, and a more dynamic character. He was still a womanizer, without a doubt. But from then on, when it came to his female counterparts, he became more of “the brother type” on screen as well as off.
That character shift killed another element of Friends, which Kauffman and Crane had initially planned to include: A Joey-Monica love story. While pitching the show, that had seemed the more natural pairing. “They just seemed like the most sexual of the characters,” explained Kauffman. But then they discovered Ross and Rachel.
Friends did not invent will-they-or-won’t-they as a sitcom storyline. That credit is typically given to Cheers, and the sparring, on again/off again lovers, Sam and Diane. As Esquire Culture Editor Tyler Coates says, “If it wasn’t for Sam and Diane, there wouldn’t be Ross and Rachel.” Indeed, Friends took crucial lessons from its predecessor when stepping into this territory. Sam and Diane were a compelling pair, but a polarizing one because of their fundamental differences. Opposites attracted, but once they got together, sexual tension was just tension. Friends took a different approach entirely. There was no conflict between Ross and Rachel, and no mystery. In the very first episode, he asks if he might ask her out sometime, and she says yes. There is zero question of “if,” only “when.”
Kauffman and Crane let the question linger in the air throughout the first season, but they were in no rush to answer it. Friends established itself as a true ensemble show, with everyone given equal amounts of screen-time (if not quite equal amounts of story). The show wasn’t about these two people and their relationship, but about six friends and their friendship. By necessity, the romance couldn’t dominate, because the point of Season One was to make us, the viewers, fall in love with all of them.