Why Debra Jo Rupp was 'horrified' during her first Friends episode — and how the show changed her life
As Friends hits 25 years on Sept. 22, the milestone anniversary is bringing out all kinds of revelations about the iconic sitcom. From reflections on its legacy to untold stories from the set, the past month has unlocked a treasure trove of goods for Friends superfans. But Debra Jo Rupp of That ’70s Show fame has maybe the most unique experience possible out of anyone who ever guest-starred on the long-running series.
Rupp played a brief-but-memorable arc in six episodes on Friends as Alice Knight-Buffay, the girlfriend-turned-wife of Phoebe’s (Lisa Kudrow) half-brother Frank (Giovanni Ribisi) — but their origin story is, well… unconventional to say the least. They met when she was Frank’s high school Home Ec teacher, which made Alice’s reappearance in Frank’s adult life all the more awkward for Phoebe when the new couple just wouldn’t stop making out in front of her.
“The first episode we did, all we did was make out,” Rupp deadpanned to EW before breaking out in her signature laugh, joking that “Giovanni was 12 and I was 85.” The age gap between Alice and Frank was a long-running joke on the show, and it’s one that definitely hit close to home for Rupp during filming. “I was horrified. I was absolutely horrified,” she says with another laugh. “Every time we got a rewrite in the script, there would be more making out! I would just go, ‘Oh my god. Oh my god! I just gotta close my eyes and do it. What else am I gonna do?’”
Despite how uncomfortable she was with those first few scenes, Rupp looks back at her time filming with fondness because of how Ribisi helped calm her nerves. “He was such a sweet guy. We’d get on set and rehearse and I just looked at him like, ‘I don’t know … ‘ and Giovanni went, ‘Well, we’re just gonna go for it.’ Boom, and he’s on me!” she says, laughing again. “And then, because I am a little bit of a comedy whore — I will do anything for a laugh — once I realized that it was really funny, I was fine. I’m so fine with this.”
Rupp knew that with a bit like Alice and Frank’s constant PDA, “you just have to go for it” to make it work. “It was just so weird doing ’70s Show and then knowing I’m going back to kiss this 12-year-old,” she says. “Kitty Forman, making out with the child!”
But like many story lines that were played for laughs during the days of Friends, the actress isn’t sure Alice and Frank’s “love story” has aged well. Rupp doesn’t remember if she was aware of the infamous Mary Kay Letourneau scandal — she was the teacher who went to prison after having an affair, which resulted in a child, with her sixth-grade student in 1997 — before or during her time on Friends. “When I look at it now, I think it’s just so weird that I never once thought about a teacher and a kid,” she says. “Not once. Thank god, because I don’t know if I would have done it [if I knew]!”
It’s an instance of weird, coincidental timing, Letourneau was arrested March 4, 1997, and the episode with Alice’s first appearance, “The One With the Hypnosis Tape,” aired March 13, 1997. Rupp filmed that episode months before Letourneau became headline news, but it aired only a week after her arrest. Rupp does remember that the Friends producers had a hard time casting the role of Alice even before the scandal rocked the nation. “They needed somebody who could make it believable,” she says. “Apparently I had no problem with it whatsoever and made it entirely believable.”
But aside from Ribisi and Kudrow, Rupp didn’t get to know many of the other Friends stars during her time on the show. “There was no socializing. There was no chit chat there,” she says. “They weren’t like mean or dismissive or condescending at all. I also remember I was shooting when Matthew [Perry] was having his problems [with alcohol and drug abuse], but I did not know it at the time. That might have colored things a little bit. I don’t know how it could not. [But] they were very professional.”
She does, however, have a vivid memory of being jealous of Jennifer Aniston and Courteney Cox‘s clothes when she saw what Alice’s costumes looked like. “I remember going to wardrobe and being in this room or trailer with all of these very beautiful clothes for Jennifer and Courteney, and then at the end of the row would be my clothes which were taken out of storage room, 20 years old, who knows how many people had worn them,” she says with another laugh. “Because that was my character! It was completely appropriate.”
And what was intended to be only a one-episode appearance turned out to be so much more after Kudrow’s real-life pregnancy needed to be written into the show. “They had to figure out what to do and they came up with this story line with me and Giovanni,” Rupp explains. Alice and Frank return to the show to ask a huge favor of Phoebe; because of their age difference, Alice is unable to get pregnant. Phoebe agrees to be their surrogate and ends up giving birth to triplets. As if one episode wasn’t a big thrill for Rupp, who was a “big fan” of Friends for years before she auditioned for the role of Alice, coming back for more was a dream-come-true.
“I knew the show. I loved the show. I thought it was really funny,” Rupp says. “This was in the ‘90s and I was probably on most every sitcom except for Murphy Brown that was on the air at the time — Murphy Brown, I auditioned like nine times and didn’t get it and finally said that I’m not going in anymore because they hate me!”
And when her one Friends appearance turned into a six-episode arc, Rupp was overjoyed. “It helped save my home because I was going through a really bad dry spell,” she remembers. “One of the great things about being an actor is that it can turn around overnight and it can turn around either way. So the money was helpful and the visibility helped because right after that, I got three pilots, so it was like boom, boom, boom, and one of them was That ’70s Show.”
Rupp would go on to star as the matriarch of that iconic Fox sitcom for eight seasons, hitting an incredible 200 episodes. And while she’s not sure if Friends is the reason why she landed that career-defining role, she knows “it didn’t hurt.” And she also owes a huge personal debt of gratitude to her Friends scene-partner Kudrow.
“Around this time, my mother was diagnosed with a very fast-moving Parkinson’s,” Rupp says. “She was living in Florida and it got to the point where I had move her in to stay with me. Lisa Kudrow’s brother is a neurologist in Santa Monica and she facilitated getting me into his office with my mom. Basically, they kept my mom alive. It was just pretty amazing. Lisa did it because Lisa is just who Lisa is — just a kind person.”
And now that Friends is celebrating its 25th anniversary — “I had a heart attack when I read that. Oh my god. Why am I not dead yet?” Rupp says with a laugh — she’s finally ready to air what she considers to be an embarrassing secret. “This was very exciting for me, it’s so shallow, but they had the 100th episode and I was in that,” Rupp says of her final appearance on the show. “They had this big, huge party and I got Brad Pitt’s autograph. Like an idiot. An idiot! I was like the geekiest, stupidest fan.”
With her work on Friends, That ’70s Show, and even a memorable appearance on Seinfeld, Rupp hit the comedy trifecta back in the ’90s and early ’00s. She’s getting back into TV with an upcoming comedy pilot (reuniting her with her ‘70s Show onscreen husband Kurtwood Smith), as well as a short arc on Grey’s Anatomy this season, and while she’s had many career-defining roles, she’s accepted that there’s one thing that she’ll always be known for.
“I don’t get recognized, it’s my voice that gets recognized,” she says wryly. “If I’m standing in a line at a grocery store, if I talk, I see people turn around and look. It’s probably a combination of Seinfeld and Friends and ‘70s Show, and they all came kind of in a row — I was on a bit of a roll — so people just know me from my voice, which I think is a totally normal voice but apparently it’s not. That laugh is just freaking obnoxious and I got stuck with it.”
She pauses, then adds seriously, “I’m very careful now with how I laugh.” It’s hard to take her statement in earnest, though, as she immediately bursts into her infectious cackle again.