'Friends' to the end
By Stephanie Snipes
(CNN) -- In 1994, O.J. Simpson fled, Nancy Kerrigan got whacked in the knee and a TV show called "Friends" hit the airwaves to become one of the most successful television comedies of all time.
The ensemble members -- Jennifer Aniston (Rachel); Courteney Cox Arquette (Monica); Matthew Perry (Chandler); Matt LeBlanc (Joey); Lisa Kudrow (Phoebe); and David Schwimmer (Ross) -- skyrocketed from pop-culture obscurity to sitcom superstardom in a show centered on heart, with comedy thrown in for good measure.
Executive producer and creator David Crane admits the show's huge success was surprising. He thinks "Friends," which began with the trials and tribulations of six 20-somethings facing life after college, flourished because of the characters' chemistry.
"There's an emotional component to the show that we can never lose sight of because I think the shows you get tired of the fastest are the ones where you don't really invest on some level," Crane said.
Crane and creating partner Marta Kauffman faced some resistance pitching the show to the networks. NBC, home to the show since Day One, was concerned that the characters were in the same demographic.
"We kept insisting that so long as you cared about the characters and there was a universal aspect to the story you didn't have to service every demographic," said Crane.
After the initial hesitance blew over, "Friends" went on to make the names of its characters household words. It rose in the ratings from No. 7 in season one to No. 3 in season two -- and remained in the Nielson Top 10 every year it was on the air.
Despite the comedy's popularity, Kauffman and Crane hit another roadblock.
When "Seinfeld" aired an episode about condoms, up-in-arms network censors made changes to a "Friends" script. In the episode "The One Where Dr. Ramoray Dies," Rachel and Monica argue over who gets the last condom in the apartment. Executives claimed the segment was too controversial and instructed Kauffman not to show the wrapper on TV.
"We went through a very, very, difficult reactionary period where we couldn't say certain words or even make jokes about certain kinds of sex. We tried to fight it tooth-and-nail because we felt the show was responsible," said Kauffman.
Laughter is the best medicine
While controversies facing "Friends" paled in comparison with shows like "Ellen," one of the first primetime shows to touch on a main character's homosexuality, and "Murphy Brown," which dealt with backlash after Brown became a single mother, producers still felt a sting. But it didn't stop them from producing laughs.
Producers originally strived to stay away from the use of catchphrases, but bent the rules when the actors' delivery left them begging for more.
Now, when fans hear the seemingly neutral phrase "How you doin'?" they envision Joey, a womanizer with a heart of gold, going in for the score.
"There's something so sort of cheesy sitcom about [catchphrases] and yet the way like Phoebe said 'Oh no' made us laugh so hard that we kept coming back to it," said Crane.
Another favorite, Courteney Cox Arquette's "I know!" was written in so many times that at one point Cox requested something else to say.
According to Kauffman and Crane, the show's success boiled down to heartfelt characters and intriguing plotlines. Kauffman counts Phoebe and Rachel's birth episodes, and "the game" in which Rachel and Monica lost their apartment to the boys, among her favorites.
During flashback episodes, fans got a glimpse of the "Friends" in their teens.
Crane admits certain story arcs surprised them. In the original show pitch, there were no romantic considerations between Rachel and Ross. Monica and Chandler's marriage was another unplanned event.
"When we put them (Monica and Chandler) in bed together initially, I don't think we realized that this would be the loves of their lives. We went into it going 'Well, we'll see how many weeks this works,'" said Crane.
Matthew Felling, media director of the Center For Media and Public Affairs, credits weak competition, not storylines, with the show's success.
"I think 'Friends' ' success lies partly in the diversity of its characters but mostly 'Friends' enjoyed the benefits of a very weak decade in television entertainment. Were they on top? Were they champions? Sure, but the competition wasn't all that good to begin with," said Felling.
"I think it was nice, simple, fun TV over a period of time that was less than nice and simple," he said.
All's well that ends well
Aside from a few speed bumps in the beginning, "Friends" remained intact and untouchable. The show racked up 55 Emmy Award nominations.
Accolades aside, Kauffman and Crane said no matter whether the cast was willing to consider another year, the time had come for them to depart primetime and re-live their glory days in syndication.
"I'd like to hope that years from now people can look at the reruns...and say 'That is still a really funny show' or 'It's still really sweet.' And if that happens ... I'll be thrilled," said Crane.