Surprising Secrets of Friends' Final Season Revealed: Lots of Tears, Personal Drama and the One Storyline the Cast Hated

The iconic NBC sitcom ended its 10-year run on May 6, 2004, with a lot of tears, divorce rumors and record-shattering ratings

By Tierney Bricker 10 May, 2019 10:00 AMTags

Fifteen years later and we've never gone on a break with this TV show. 

Friends wrapped its historic 10-year run on NBC on May 6, 2004, proving to be the final outing of TV's most infamous and coffee-obsessed group of friends. 

Launched in 1994, the series' six main stars—Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, David Schwimmer, Matthew Perry and Matt LeBlanc—were virtual unknowns. But by 2004, they were the highest-paid stars on TV about to say goodbye to their beloved characters that have become pop culture icons.

But behind the scenes of the final season, things weren't always as cheerful and comedic as they appeared on-screen, as the cast was dealing with divorces, fertility issues and figuring out the next chapter of their lives after being part of one of TV's most successful series of all-time, which is still just as popular and relevant as ever thanks to its after-life on Netflix.

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Surprising Secrets of Friends' Final Season Revealed

Heading into its final (shortened) 18-episode run, Friends co-creators David Crane and Marta Kauffman knew exactly how they wanted to say goodbye to their creations and, more importantly, ready to move on. (They've repeatedly and definitively shot down any hopes of a reunion or revival over the years.)

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"Everybody was growing up," Kauffman explained of Entertainment Weekly of bringing Friends to a natural end. "This is part of why the show had to end. This was no longer that time in your life when your friends are your family. You're starting your own family.

She continued, "You don't want them to feel like, "Thank God it's over!" And leaving them wanting more is always a nice thing."

But the 10th and final season of Friends almost didn't even happen, with one star debating whether or not they wanted to return for one last coffee chat at Central Perk, while another lead was getting ready to star in their own spinoff. So get ready for the one with the behind-the-scenes of the final season of TV's most popular comedy...

Knowing Their Worth

When Friends first premiered in 1994 with a cast of six unknown actors, they were each netting around $20,000 per episode. By the final season, all six of the superstars were making $1 million per episode--each. It was unprecedented, especially because the cast banded together each time to renegotiate, a practice sitcom casts like Modern Family and The Big Bang Theory have adopted since. 

"We wanted to be paid the same because we thought that was fair," Aniston said in an ET interview at the time, but it also spoke to the close tight-knit bond of the cast, which never really really experienced rumors of rifts or tension during their 10-year run together, a rarity in Hollywood. 

For all 236 episodes, the cast members huddled together backstage just before taping kicked off, with Bright saying, "That's one thing that has stayed consistent for 10 years, is that nobody knows what goes on in that huddle. Nobody gets near it—I don't think you're allowed to be within eyesight." 

Since the renegotiation talks were being reported on in great detail in the press, the Friends cast received some backlash for demanding such large paychecks, with Aniston once saying in an ET interview, "They gave us all a hard time and aren't we bratty little spoiled actors to go in and do whatever it is we did."

But just look at how much freakin' money the show was pulling in: 30-second commercials during final season were going for $1 million, with the series finale's coveted spots netting $2 million, the largest advertising rate for a sitcom ever. 

And the series finale was watched by 52.5 million viewers, making it the fourth most-watched episode of television in history, with the retrospective special that aired before it even earning 35 million viewers.

Still, LeBlanc once again defended their big paydays in a 2015 interview. 

Were we worth $1 million? To me, that's such a strange question. It's like, well, that's irrelevant. Are you worth it? How do you put a price on how funny something is?" he told Huffington Post. "We were in a position to get it. If you're in a position in any job, no matter what the job is—if you're driving a milk truck or installing TVs or an upholsterer for a couch—if you're in a position to get a raise and you don't get it, you're stupid. You know what I mean? We were in a position and we were able to pull it off. ‘Worth it' has nothing to do with it."

Short But Sweet

While most seasons of the show were 22-24 episodes, the final season ran just 18 episodes.

Reports back in 2003 tried to blame the six-episode cut on Aniston wanting to start a family with then-husband Brad Pitt, with the New York Post reporting at the time that a source had told them, "Brad was really angry when she went back for another year. It's not like they or anyone else on Friends needs the money...the rest of the cast wanted one more year and she felt a lot of pressure. But she also wants to keep Brad happy. So Jennifer said she would do one more year, but insisted on only 18 shows and that filming would be done by January."

Aniston's rep at the time vehemently denied this claim, releasing a statement that the main cast members all agreed to the filming schedule: "It was to everybody's advantage to be done filming by January."

Ready to End

In an interview with EW, the show's creators revealed they were more than ready to say goodbye and knew heading into season 10 it was the end of Friends after a few seasons of uncertainty. 

"Because of the actors' contract negotiations, and it seemed as though, 'Oh, season 7 is the last season,'" Crane explained, "or season 8. Or season 9. So each of those seasons we had an eye toward, 'Okay, if this is the last year, what are we doing?' And then amazingly there was a rising from the ashes, last minute: 'Oh my god, there is one more season…'"

He continued, "Season 10, we said, 'We can't keep stopping and starting and rethinking everything.' And that also jived with what some of the cast was thinking."

R + R = Always Endgame

The very first thing Crane and Kauffman knew about the series' ending was that Ross and Rachel had to end up together, no questions asked. 

"The only thing we absolutely knew from very early on was that we had to get Ross and Rachel together," Crane told EW. "We had dicked the audience around for 10 years with their 'will they or won't they,' and we didn't see any advantage in frustrating them."

However, they did initially consider having the couple end on a slightly more ambiguous note, with Crane admitting, "We did talk about, with Ross and Rachel, a gray area of where they aren't together, but we hint there's a sense that they might be down the road. But we thought, 'No, if we're going to do it, let's do it.'"

So they did and Rachel got off that plane, with viewers briefly believing Rachel really did chose Paris over Ross, with the co-creators acknowledging they had to try and make the inevitable ending a bit surprising for viewers. "We all knew where it was going," Kauffman said. "How do we do it so it's not just… boring?"

Especially when the pressure was on.

"My rabbi would stop me when I would drop my kids off at Hebrew school saying, 'When are they going to get together?' Kauffman said. "It was everywhere. I don't think this was about making people happy as much as, 'What's going to be satisfying?' For us as well."

No Tears Left to Cry

As you can imagine, the taping of the series finale featured a whole lot of waterworks, mostly from the cast, long before their final bow. 

"The tears were flowing and the entire cast had to go back and have their makeup redone before starting," Maggie Wheeler (aka Chandler's infamous ex, Janice) told People

"I don't think we've ever taken more time in hair and makeup in between scenes," Aniston said during the cast's group interview with Oprah Winfrey. "Also, that fact that we kept crying all our makeup off, over and over again." She went on to say it was "instant hysterics" when they talked out to a standing ovation from the audience of 250 of their family and friends. 

For Schwimmer, he was able to keep it together until their pre-show ritual huddle, saying, "I started to lose it. That was the moment I was dreading."

In a 2018 appearance on the Scandinavian talk show Skavlan, LeBlanc admitted, "I had quit smoking and the last episode I started smoking again. It was very sad." 

The one friend who didn't actually shed a tear? "I didn't cry, but I felt like I was about to for like seven hours," Perry told the New York Daily News.

MIA at the Final Taping

Some of the special guests who were on set for the taping of the series finale on Jan. 23, 2004? Cox's then-husband, David Arquette, who was documenting everything with his own camera, and Hank Azaria, who had once played Phoebe's love interest, and Maggie Wheeler.

"The energy in the place was just incredible," she told People of the vibe on set. 

Noticeably absent at the final taping was Brad Pitt, who memorably guest-starred in season eight, playing the co-founder of the I Hate Rachel Green Club, who told one of the show's co-creators that he wasn't attending because he didn't want to be spoiled when he tuned in to watch the episode in May. "He said, 'Don't tell me anything!'" co-creator Crane revealed to People.

Pitt also happened to be filming a movie at the time they were taping the gang's final hang: Mr & Mrs. Smith, where he met future wife Angelina Jolie, igniting one of Hollywood's most infamous love triangles. (Aniston would later sort-of defend his absence, telling Vanity Fair, "He was working," while her unnamed friends admitted they were amazed he wouldn't show up.)

Ironically enough, Aniston revealed she had only met Jolie once...and it was on the Friends lot. "I pulled over and introduced myself," Aniston recalled in her Vanity Fair cover story following  the divorce. "I said, 'Brad is so excited about working with you. I hope you guys have a really good time.'"

In the infamous profile, one of Aniston's friends said Pitt had emotionally checked out of the marriage soon after meeting Jolie, saying, "He was gone." 

One Friend Almost Didn't Make It

Though she and her co-stars became the highest paid TV stars in history, Aniston actually considered not returning for Friends' final season, admitting to in a 2004 Farewell to Friends special that she had hesitations. (Obviously, we all know she returned and (spoiler alert!) Rachel didn't get on the plane!)

"I had a couple issues that I was dealing with," Aniston, who earned an Emmy and a Golden Globe during the show's run, explained. "I wanted it to end when people still loved us and we were on a high. And then I also was feeling like, 'How much more of Rachel do I have in me?'"

The issues Aniston was referring to? Likely her split from Pitt, though the couple didn't announce their separation until January 2005 before she filed for divorce that March. Later, Aniston would admit she was privately struggling with the loss of her marriage as well as a major chapter of her life.

"That was really painful. It was a family, and I don't do great with families splitting up," Aniston told Vanity Fair. "It was hard to have such a wonderful constant in your life, a place to go every day, and then all of a sudden it's not there."

And she wasn't getting the support she needed from her then-husband, saying, "He just wasn't there for me."

Party at the Pitts

While he wasn't present at the taping, Pitt did make up for his absence in one way when he and Aniston hosted an intimate dinner at their Beverly Hills mansion for the cast and executive producers four days before the series finale. 

Served at the gathering were vintage bottles of Haut-Brion wine that held sentimental value for the Friends gang as producer Kevin S. Bright had bought them at the start of season one a decade prior. "It was closure for all of us," Bright told People of finally popping the bottles.

Of the affair, held in the couple's $13.5 million home, Crane said it "was a great evening," though he made sure to note, with a laugh, that Aniston "did not cook." 

Wrap Party Fun

Aside from the pre-wrap dinner at Aniston's pad, the cast also celebrated the end of an era at two other events.

Two days before the series final taping, they had a more casual sitdown at West Hollywood hot spot Il Sole, one of their favorite hangouts, before having an all-out party after the finale finished taping, joining 1,000 guests at the Park Plaza Hotel. 

Sheryl Crow performed, as well as The Rembrandts, who obviously played the show's iconic theme song, "I'll Be There For You." But in a moment we wish was captured on film, the six stars had secretly decided to reenact the pilot's first scene.

"Nobody knew they were going to do it, and it blew everyone away," Crane said of the cast's tribute. 

Some of the cocktails served at the event had names such as "Smelly Cat" and "Ugly Naked Guy," all nods to iconic moments from the show.

So who was the last to leave the last-ever Friends wrap party?  

"Me and Jennifer stayed quite late that night," LeBlanc recalled on Skavlan. "It turned into the best party in town. Nobody wanted to leave. It was sad. A lot of people were crying."

Gifts Galore

Much like a high school graduation, the cast and crew passed around custom-made Friends yearbooks on their final day on set, with everyone signing each other's during breaks in filming. 

Along with the sentimental gifts were lavish tokens of appreciation and gratitude: According to People, the six stars banded together to present their producers with inscribed Cartier watches, with their bosses returning the favor with Neil Lane diamond earrings for Aniston, Cox and Kudrow, and cuff links for Schwimmer, Perry and LeBlanc. 

Once Friends was finally finished, with Stage 24 being remained the Friends Stage, and the sets were torn down, each member of the cast and crew received a chunk of the fake NYC street outside of Central Perk as a keepsake. Most of the props went into storage, including the real Central Perk couch, which fans can sit on during the Warner Bros. Studio tour that offers a visit to a production soundstage featuring the real coffee shop set.

Art Imitating Life

Toward the end of the final season, Cox had become pregnant with her and then-husband David Arquette's first child, Coco, who was born just one month after the series finale aired. 

On the show, Monica and Chandler were in the process of adopting twins as an infertility storyline played out, so the show hid her burgeoning baby bump by dressing Cox in baggier clothes. 

 "You can't help that I've become Monica a little, and Monica has become me a little," Cox told People at the time. "I think we'll both be pretty damn good moms."

In real-life, Cox revealed she was experiencing her own fertility issues, suffering several miscarriages during her time on Friends, eventually turning to IVF treatments after learning she had a rare anti-body in her blood. 

"That was hard. Sometimes, like I remember one time I just had a miscarriage and Rachel was giving birth," she said in an interview. "It was like that same time. Oh my God, it was terrible having to be funny."

The Storyline the Cast Hated

The late season nine coupling of Joey and Rachel is one that still divides fans to this day. And it turns out the cast had very strong opinions on Ross' love and best friend getting together, a storyline that wrapped in season 10. 

"In the beginning, Matt LeBlanc did not want to do that story," Bright said in a Digital Spy interview. "He was very firmly against it, saying that he's Ross' friend, and that the type of friend that Joey is would never go and take someone else's girlfriend."

LeBlanc confirmed this during the Friends Final Thoughts special, explaining, "Everyone knows that Ross and Rachel are supposed to be together, and we've spent 10 years keeping them apart."

In an interview with Elle in 2017, Aniston also addressed the controversial coupling. 

"I think there was a moment when Joey and Rachel got together that maybe it could happened, but it didn't. It was Ross and Rachel all the way," she said. "I just don't think Joey and Rachel could have made it. I think it was more physical than emotional with them. They were friends with benefits, and they left it at that."

Oh, Joey

During the final season, NBC announced it had picked up a Friends spinoff...minus five of the friends. LeBlanc had signed on to star in Joey, which would follow his beloved character's move from NYC to LA and feature members of the Tribbiani family. 

Created by Friends' executive producers Scott Silveri and Shana Goldberg-Meehan, the show's co-creators were not involved in the spinoff that premiered four months after Friends finished. (Schwimmer directed two episodes in the first season, but none of his co-stars made onscreen appearances.)

Joey, which initially snagged Friends' coveted Thursday at 8 p.m. timeslot, premiered to 18.6 million viewers. But critics were not impressed and neither were fans, with the series finale, which aired in 2006, attracting just over 4 million viewers. 

So what went wrong? "Everyone's expectations were that it was a continuation of Friends, but you've taken away five of the other characters and you've taken away the essence of what that original show is about — I think it's really difficult," Crane said in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. "There are very few examples in television history of a spin-off that works. It's very difficult. As talented as everyone is, I think it's a really tall order. And also, the audience expectations are unreasonable."

For LeBlanc, it was simple: the expectations were just too much pressure for one friend to bear the weight of alone: "The pressure was huge," he said on Today. "I can't lift the weight that six people were lifting. Those were big shoes to fill."

Tune into E! News on Friday, May 10, at 7 p.m. ET/PT for even more secrets about the Friends series finale, as well as more scoop on some of you other '90s favorites.