Friends is one of the most popular sitcoms to ever air on television. It perfectly captures a generation, as its longtime fans continue to watch reruns and talk about the show’s funniest or most relatable moments. However, an NBC executive initially had some serious concerns about the sitcom and how audiences would perceive it. In particular, there was a sense of unease that Friends ensemble character Monica and her “erotic pursuits” would make viewers despise the show.
Internal ‘Friends’ NBC screenings didn’t go very well
According to Saul Austerlitz’s Generation Friends, NBC initially had a list of issues with the sitcom when they initially saw the pilot episode. Every notable department at the network was asked for ways to improve upon the show, and the overall feeling was that it was “too cute” with “overly-processed” characters. They didn’t feel that the Friends characters of Monica (Courteney Cox), Rachel (Jennifer Aniston), Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow), Ross (David Schwimmer), Chandler (Matthew Perry), and Joey (Matt LeBlanc) were different enough.
An internal memo called Friends “not very entertaining, clever, or original” and specifically called Ross unsympathetic. Audience test screenings found that viewers over 35 years old hated the show and thought that they couldn’t connect with any of the characters. NBC’s Eric Cardinal, the head of program research, especially despised the show.
NBC thought Friends would fail due to Monica and her ‘erotic pursuits’
Austerlitz wrote that NBC West Coast president Don Ohlmeyer was concerned about how Friends explored the “erotic pursuits” of Monica. The episode showed her sleeping with a stranger on their first date. However, Ohlmeyer thought that this would turn viewers off of the show. He wondered, “Would they continue wanting to spend time with her after glimpsing her in so compromising a position?”
As a result, he decided to perform further audience research to discover the answer to this question about extramarital sex. However, Friends co-creator Marta Kauffman was “breathing fire out of her nose” at the “obnoxiousness of his questionnaire” that was misogynistic toward Monica.
The questionnaire asked Friends viewers if they believed Monica “was A) a w****, B) a s***, or C) easy,” but he misunderstood the importance of this scene. Ohlmeyer thought the character would alienate audiences but didn’t consider that the show’s demographic would actually identify with her.
The network decided not to make any substantial changes
Despite the drama behind-the-scenes, NBC still decided to pick up Friends. The show was originally called Six of One before the network asked to change the title. NBC knew that the show would perform well with younger-skewing audiences but had doubts that it would expand beyond that.
Television executive Warren Littlefield had a concern that some audiences had that Friends didn’t show Monica and the rest of the ensemble in their professional lives. They spent all of their time in their apartments and the coffee shop, but didn’t establish a life outside of that.
Nevertheless, NBC’s Jamie Tarses and Warner Bros.’ David Janollari were insistent that they wanted to “preserve” creators Kauffman and David Crane’s vision. As a result, they didn’t make any major changes, although later episodes would show glimpses of the characters’ lives in their professional workplaces.