One of my favorite episodes of Seinfeld was “The Butter Shave,” which featured, among many other ideas, Jerry Seinfeld’s stand-up comic peer Kenny Banya finding success by constantly riding Jerry’s coattails. Aside from the obviously wonderful story of Kramer using butter to shave and Newman eventually trying to eat him, as well as George Costanza pretending to be handicapped so he can drive a Rascal around and make his Play Now co-workers carry him around the office, this episode’s main premise – Jerry growing tired of Kenny being a feeder fish on his success – sort of serves as an analogy for the connection between Seinfeld and Friends, which were the two most important series of NBC’s Thursday night Must See TV block for four seasons.
When Friends debuted on September 22, 1994, it aired in the 8:30 PM spot right before Seinfeld, and it immediately drew criticism for trying too hard to be a Seinfeld knock-off, despite the fact that it was far less clever and way more formulaic than Seinfeld ever was. In the spring of 1995, the show was even moved to the 9:30 PM spot, which really made it the Kenny Banya of TV series before Friends finally found its home and true identity as the lead-off series in the 8 PM spot. Seinfeld comparisons and general criticisms aside, Friends went on to be championed as one of the greatest TV shows of all-time, and people today love watching it in heavy syndication, despite the fact that its humor (arguably) does not age well at all, and Ross Geller becomes more punchable with each syllable that escapes his whiny mouth.
Seriously, record your pulse and then watch this scene and record your pulse again.
My blood pressure spikes to levels that I didn’t even know existed every time I hear him scream, “PIVOT!”
So on the 20th anniversary of this celebrated and beloved show about six friends, who showed us that life in New York City is super easy, even if you’re a dirt poor actor or grew up living on the streets, I thought that in lieu of asking stupid questions like, “Hey, remember ‘How you doin’’?” or dissecting the argument of “WE WERE ON A BREAK!” (Rachel was right, FYI), or especially writing 10,000+ words on how Phoebe Buffay was a terrible friend to the rest of the gang, and they should have never humored her “quirky” ways, I’d instead imagine a world in which Friends didn’t become a pop culture staple. What if Friends had never debuted on this day 20 years ago? What if Courteney Cox had never finally been forced into stardom by NBC as Monica Geller, and what if Jennifer Aniston never forgot her bra while introducing millions of American women to “The Rachel”? Well friends, I think it might have looked a little something like this…
By the fall of 1994, Seinfeld was quickly becoming one of the most popular sitcoms on television, and paired with Mad About You as the Must See TV kick-off show, NBC was seeing strong, consistent ratings despite being one year removed from the desperation of airing Cheers reruns in the 8 PM spot (seriously, that’s something that happened). What the network needed now was to fill the coveted Thursday night comedy block, which was famously followed by network tent poles like L.A. Law and ER, and the options for the 8:30 spot were down to two – the Dabney Coleman comedy Madman of the People (a real show that you forgot about) and the very simply-titled Friends, a comedy from partners David Crane and Marta Kauffman, who had previous success with the wonderful but underrated HBO series Dream On.
Ultimately, NBC chose to go with Madman of the People, sending Friends to the Island of Rejected Pilots, and the series propelled Craig Bierko to acting superstardom. Today, you can catch him on the hit NBC series, Craig!, on which he plays L.A.’s most eligible bachelor, who – RECORD SCRATCH! – has his life turned upside down when the precocious daughter he never knew he had shows up at his door. Needless to say, it’s a laugh a minute. As for the little-known actors who made up the cast of Friends, their lives and careers ended up being significantly different.
Prior to the debut of Friends, which never happened in this scenario, Aniston’s career was highlighted by a supporting role in the Ferris Bueller sitcom and the lead role in the iconic horror film, Leprechaun. However, if you ask me, she really deserves more credit for being one of the dancing girls in the McDonald’s parking lot in Mac and Me, because that movie is nothing if not a national treasure. Immediately before Friends, which was never made in case you’re having a hard time following this, Aniston had a role in the very-short-lived CBS sitcom Muddling Through, and despite that show’s failure, CBS would take a gamble on Aniston as a leading lady in the 1995 series Something Old, in which Aniston’s mother (Cloris Leachman) would move in with her and her new husband (John Stamos) and hilarity would ensue for a season and a half.
With her sitcom career struggling, Aniston agreed in 1994 to return for Leprechaun 2, and with the critical indifference toward Something Old, she’d again sign on for Leprechaun 3 in ’95. Because they’d grown so close in filming the Leprechaun trilogy, Aniston and Warwick Davis ended up having an affair, and he left his wife of four years, Samantha Davis, to elope with Aniston. Because of the scandal, Aniston was blacklisted by networks and most studios, and after she filmed Leprechaun 4: In Space, Leprechaun in the Hood and Leprechaun: Back 2 tha Hood, she turned to straight-to-DVD softcore thrillers. Next year, she’s set to star alongside French Stewart in SyFy’s Centaurpocalypse.
After playing arguably Jerry’s worst girlfriend in the history of Seinfeld – the whole “I love you” thing was nonsense, since they’d been together, what, a week? – NBC decided that there was no point in trying to make Cox a star. Amazingly, despite her best efforts to lock down any roles that she could find, she’d still end up meeting and marrying David Arquette. Because of his inexplicable mild fame, she’d find more luck landing supporting roles in his films, including the 2000 WCW propaganda flic, Ready to Rumble, in which she would be cast as Sasha in lieu of Rose McGowan.
Eventually, Cox-Arquette would find her way back to television, playing Candice Cadabra, a magician’s assistant turned magician who falls in love with a rival, played by Sean Astin, on the CW series Making Magic. The show would only last four episodes, though, as viewers found the talking CGI dragon quite distracting. A year later, Courteney and David would sign on for their own E! reality series entitled, Get Your Cox Off, and this Christmas they’ll star in the animated musical, Lap Dances for Santa.
By 1994, Kudrow’s career wasn’t much to brag about, save for a few roles on shows like Cheers, Newhart, Coach and Life Goes On. Hell, in 1994, she reprised her role as the teller in the movie In the Heat of Passion II: Unfaithful, which has this amazing synopsis:
When a wheelchair-bound wife dies from an apparent accident, her husband and his adult stepdaughter turn out to be lovers, who conspired to murder her. However, tensions surface when complications arise regarding her inheritance, and soon the husband and stepdaughter are distrusting and plotting against each other. Who is really behind everything?
Was it the teller? Because I probably wouldn’t have picked her. Regardless, without Friends, Kudrow never had much success at acting, and she’d never end up finding a role like Phoebe that would springboard her to success in show business. Ironically, by 2000 she’d find success as a director of porn parodies of NBC sitcoms. She’d win several AVN awards over the next decade for her work on movies like Just Shoot on Me and Suddenly Anal.
Despite his natural charisma and ability to deliver laughs, Matthew Perry never made it as a leading man in show business. However, he would go on to become a familiar face as the best bro friend on a variety of sitcoms, including ABC’s late-90s hit Bros Before Hoes, which starred Perry and Scott Baio as best friends who inherited their fathers’ rival landscaping businesses, and Down Under, which starred Elle MacPherson as a big city chiropractor who deals with a variety of zany clients, as well as her male assistant (Perry), who pretends he’s gay to get the job so he can be closer to her.
Amazingly, Perry would still end up getting the starring role in Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and because he never played Chandler Bing, the show would be a massive hit and last way beyond the 22 episodes that nobody watched between 2006 and 2007. Perry would earn the Emmy for Outstanding Actor in a Drama Series each year that Studio 60 remained on the air, until he finally convinced Sorkin that they’d taken the series as far as they could. In the end, the series finale would be called the greatest ever aired. Perry would then go on to star in NBC’s Go On, and it, too, would become wildly popular, thus earning praise for Perry as the greatest and most complete actor in TV history.
Prior to 1994, LeBlanc had a small role on the popular Fox series Married… with Children, and the network seemed hellbent on spinning his character off into his own series. In fact, Fox tried two times to make Vinnie Verducci a beloved character on both Top of the Heap and Vinnie & Bobby. Both series only aired for seven episodes, presumably because the gimmick was as stale and insulting in 1992 as it was in 1991. Thus, LeBlanc found success in the next most logical series – Red Shoe Diaries. Without Friends, he’d never even star in the hilariously terrible Ed, which featured LeBlanc playing second fiddle to a baseball-playing monkey, and by 2000, LeBlanc would have been a full blown porn star, pun very much intended.
Oddly enough, his path would eventually cross with Lisa Kudrow, as he’d star in her porn parodies, Good Boning, Miami, 30 Cocks and Parks and Recreational Intercourse.
One of the more interesting tidbits about Friends is that people often consider Courteney Cox as the original star of the series, but Schwimmer had arguably the most impressive résumé of the actors that he’d never star on Friends with. Schwimmer had recurring roles on The Wonder Years, L.A. Law, NYPD Blue and Blossom before 1994, so TV fans would have tuned into Friends and looked at his doofy face and wondered, “Hey, where do I know that guy from?” Instead, on September 22, 1994, Schwimmer was eaten by a shark.