“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?

There was no indication whatsoever that it would ever be more than a single episode. There was this watershed moment where Matthew Perry was so funny, and we were rehearsing the scene where he had his 99th espresso and he brings me a cappuccino in one of those bowls, and he hands it to me. And before I even got it to my lips he asked me if I wanted another one. His timing was so funny and it was my first time on that set, and for all I knew my only time on that set, and I didn’t want to break character to laugh at Matthew, so I invented Janice’s laugh so I would be able to laugh at him.

Oh wow! So it was a way for you to break in the scene.

Absolutely. I needed a safety net because he was hilarious and he’s likely to do things in the middle of the scene that will crack you up so I thought, oh my God, I need somewhere to go if Matthew is going to make me laugh. That’s how that was born. It was so profoundly annoying they had to bring me back.

How did you evolve her other mannerisms, like saying, “Oh my God”?

The first time he breaks up with her, I remember I was crying, fanning my face trying not to cry, and that sort of became a signature of Janice’s. Just sort of holding back all of her emotion and then, God bless the writers who wrote me my first “Oh my God.” I can’t remember when it happened and it was just a fantastic little piece of writing that I was able to run with, and every time they gave it to me it was a thrill to find a slightly different way to say it.

When you look at her from an objective standpoint, how would you describe her? Is her heart in the right place? Is she well-meaning?

Janice was always well-meaning. I think she has a big heart and she’s a romantic, although I think her practical side came out after marriage. But I don’t think there was ever a moment where she was trying to manipulate the circumstances. She was in love with Chandler. The beautiful thing about Janice is that in spite of how other people see her in the context of a room, she does not see herself that way. She sees only possibility, which is what makes the comedy so rich and so funny is that everybody who is recoiling from her, she doesn’t see that, she’s not aware of it. Perspective is everything.

She was with Chandler first and then very briefly with Ross. Was there ever a possibility that she would end up with Joey?

Janice considered Joey the stone unturned. I don’t think Joey ever considered it for a moment and I’m not sure Janice was even that interested. Although, I will say that when they did the spinoff for Joey I did reach out to them and said, “Let’s bring Janice on!” It never happened but I think it would have been a riot. I don’t think Joey was ever going to go there.

What do you think it is about Friends that makes it a show that’s never going to go away?

It’s exciting. I run into kids now of all ages who are watching Friends because of Netflix. I have a whole new crop of people who are stopping me on the street and recognizing me and loving the show. It just happened with a mother and daughter. The daughter is 20 and is watching it for the first time but I’ve run into now 12-year-olds who are watching it. And I’ve also run into 60-year-olds who are watching it. Netflix has really brought it a whole new audience, which is really, really fun.

Do you ever get tired of fans saying, “Oh my God!” to you? Or do you embrace that?

I love that. To have been on a show that has brought so much joy and laughter to people all over the world is just unbelievable. So no, I don’t ever get tired of people asking me about it. It makes me happy that I was able to bring so much joy and laughter to people. And I hear so many nice things about how people love the character and why they love her. People come up and tell me that stuff all the time. It’s a nice way to punctuate my day. Just yesterday somebody texted me three GIFs: Two “Oh my God”s and one where I’m saying, “15 Yemen Road, Yemen,” which was one of my all-time favorite lines. I’m glad the character made such a mark. That is an incredible thing to celebrate.

With the internet there is a bigger conversation about those characters. Specifically, what do you think about Ross, who seems to be a very debatable character, in terms of him being likable or unlikable? Where do you stand on Ross?

That’s an interesting question. It’s hard for me to separate the person from the character. The thing I will say about David Schwimmer is that he’s really smart and he’s really intensely creative. He directed an episode I was in and I had a chance to work with him as an actor in the episode where he and I actually hook up. I worked with him other times as well, but that was a particularly fun opportunity for the two of us and I just really appreciate the level of creativity and thought that he brings to his work so it’s hard for me to separate that from how the world sees Ross because I just kind of love him. And I was rooting for them, as a viewer I was rooting for Ross and Rachel.

Do you see him more as misunderstood then, as someone brought down by his relationship failures?

He was misunderstood on certain levels, and one of the things that made him such a wonderful character to watch was how much growing he had left to do. How much evolution was needed in order for him to find his happiness. I loved watching him struggle to kind of figure all of that stuff out, whether it was jealousy or longing or rejection, just trying to find his self-awareness. Because unlike Janice, who could sort of fly in and out of that circumstance and never be held accountable to change in relationship to those people, Ross’ character was held accountable by his friends, and when you’re in a circumstance like that with that level of consistent intimacy, you’re forced to take a deeper look at yourself. The show provided us a great opportunity to watch a character go through that.

What is it about the show that has made it appeal to a new generation?

First of all, I have to start with the writers who I think worked so hard and stayed up till the wee hours just finding that universal human thread of awkwardness and romance and success and failure and universal themes that touch a lot of people and make a lot of people laugh and feel recognized. That’s a fantastic ingredient to throw in. Then you add the incredible casting and the fact that they put together an ensemble of actors who just worked together so incredibly well. That was the magic of Marta [Kaufman] and David [Crane] and Kevin [Bright] who just cast that show so brilliantly, and that’s something that a lot of people try for and don’t succeed at. But Friends was lightning in a bottle and that cast is just an undeniably brilliant ensemble and I think that that appeals to all ages over time.