Director James Burrows said the magic behind Friends came down to the cast, but also the fact that, at the time, the cast was relatively unknown.
Burrows reflected on the trajectory of Friends, but also some of his other hit series like Cheers and Will & Grace. While a strong, comedic script is a key reason for success, Burrows said casting is equally, if not more important.
James Burrows knew ‘Friends’ cast would be a hit because they were unknown actors
When Friends debuted in September 1994, the cast was an ensemble of relatively unknown actors. Courteney Cox may have had the highest visibility, previously appearing in Family Ties and Lisa Kudrow’s small spot in Cheers, but for the most part, viewers weren’t familiar with the actors.
The “unknown” factor was the magic behind Friends‘ smash success, Burrows said. “They were unknowns,” he explained on the Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend podcast. “Nobody knew these people. And all of a sudden, bang! That’s the kind of show I like. I like a show where you bring a cast to people nobody’s ever seen.”
‘Friends’ audience can build the fandom around the cast, he said
Burrows said having an unknown cast, with serious talent and comedic timing, allows the audience to get to know the character beyond the actor. “Then the audience feels like they’ve created a hit by liking these people and they’ve created stars,” he said. “You bring in these people, you’ve never seen them before. So you have the sense of surprise when they say, ‘Oh my God, that person’s funny.’”
“You know, with somebody like Bill Cosby who’s real funny, but you cut to Cosby, you know, something funny is going to come out of his mouth,” Burrows pointed out. “When you cut to these six on Cheers, you cut to the people on Friends or Taxi, you have no history with them.”
“They open their mouths and it’s like, ‘Oh my God,” Burrows said of the element of surprise associated with an unknown cast like Friends.
Unknown casts offer a journey of discovery for the audience too
Burrows pointed out that most of his hit sitcoms featured previously unknown actors, which offered a bigger canvas for him to create and build the characters.
“In almost all the shows I’ve ever done I tend not to want to work if you’ve got a star in the show,” Burrows said. “Just because you have to serve the star and you know, it’s just it throws off stuff for me. I like the unknowns and having an audience discover the show.”
Burrows’ gut feeling about Friends, and other shows proved to be literally on the money. He knew long before that the cast of Friends would soon be unable to roam freely without fans and photographers in tow so he booked a special trip for the unknown cast.
In his book, “Directed by James Burrows,” he told the cast of Friends (via Page Six), “’This is your last shot at anonymity. Once the show airs, you guys will never be able to go anywhere without being hounded.’ None of them believed me. None of them had any money at that point either, so I gave each of them a couple of hundred bucks to go gamble.”
“I laid out fourteen hundred dollars. If the math doesn’t seem right, it’s because LeBlanc had no idea how to play craps and he lost his two hundred dollars in seconds, so I gave him another two hundred. They went back to Los Angeles, the show premiered, they’ve never had a shot at anonymity since, and they each wrote me reimbursement checks for the money I gave them.”
All 10 seasons of Friends are currently available on HBO Max.