“Oh My God”: ‘Friends’ Actress Maggie Wheeler On Playing The Unforgettable Janice Litman

Friends Maggie Wheeler
Getty Image / NBC

As a 2015 New York Times article noted, for some strange reason, New York City teens can’t get enough of Friends. Ever since the series was added to Netflix, Millennials in general have taken a liking to it as if it were a brand new show. For them it technically is new, of course, because they weren’t tuned in to NBC’s Must See TV in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s. A sizable portion of the digital generation is obsessed with a show that ended around the time that social networks became a massive part of our lives. (You can close your eyes and hear the laugh track roaring along with “The One Where Ross Subtweets Rachel.”)

New life for the series has also meant new attention for the stars of Friends. And while we can only imagine how that has affected David Schwimmer’s personal life over the years, Maggie Wheeler still loves being recognized for her iconic three-word catchphrase and unmistakable voice. Like Courteney Cox, Wheeler appeared on Seinfeld before making the move to NBC’s other hit series, on which she played Janice Litman, a supporting character so memorable that she might be as recognizable as the six stars. And as luck (and possibly fate) would have it, the little things that she brought to the character were the reason she stuck around until the end.

Had you auditioned for other roles prior to Janice?

Wikipedia and other sources say I auditioned for the role of Monica, but I did not. I only went in on that show on the day I auditioned for Janice. In the interim, I had done the first season of Ellen DeGeneres’s show when it was called These Friends of Mine. That came to an abrupt end. I was one of the first of many people to get fired as they re-tooled that show and then the Friends episode came across my desk — in those days across my fax machine — and I looked at that part and I knew exactly what I wanted to do with it. I went to that audition and I brought them the Janice that now people have come to know and love. There was a moment where I opened my mouth and I started talking like Janice and I saw the folks on the couch kind of sit back. I thought, oh dear, I’m probably not who they were after. But then they called me back and the rest is history.

When you first got that fax, how was that character initially defined? How did they describe her?

All it said at the top of the page in the stage directions was “Fast-talking New Yorker” and the rest I ran with because having grown up in New York City and having encountered so many people like Janice I could just read her on the page. As everyone knows, the writers who brought Friends to the world did such a great job and the audition sides for Janice were no exception. It was the scene where she gives Chandler the Bullwinkle sock and the material was so much fun to play with. Where she says, “Here are the socks, mix and match, lose the squirrel, whatever you want,” she told him how he could wear them and it was gold. It was so much fun to play with.

Did you realize she had the potential to be a recurring character or did that happen because of what you brought to her?