Getting Out of Second Gear: Lessons From The Friends Pilot
Ever thought about how the Friends theme song applies so readily to the life of a screenwriter? So no one told you life was gonna be this way Your job's a joke, you're broke, your love life's D.O.A. It's like you're always stuck in second gear When it hasn't been your day, your week Your month or even your year… Well, we might not be there for you when the rain starts to pour, but we can share some writing tips found in the original Friends pilot. In honor of the show's 6 main characters, here are the top 6 tips that you can apply to your own pilot.
KNOW WHAT YOUR SHOW IS ABOUT
This is the most crucial lesson. Friends has six main characters and the choices of what can be done are limitless. Having so many story options can often lead to a script that meanders. Friends is about the time in your 20s when your friends become like your family; you want to be independent but you still need someone to depend on.
So how did Friends keep focused on that theme? Well, in the script they almost didn’t. This is most evident in the way Monica and Rachel’s relationship was established. Unlike in what aired, in the script Monica is a lot more resistant to letting Rachel stay with her and shows more resentment for not being invited to Rachel’s wedding. This might be a more realistic reaction and it even supplies sharp conflict, but it’s not what the show is about. Hence it was cut down. In fact, every aired scene in the pilot goes back to the show’s main theme. It’s a helpful technique to go back to your own pilot and make sure all of the major scenes are germane to what your show is trying to say.
HAVE VARIETY IN YOUR CHARACTERS
A hook or a high-concept can only take you so far and if you’re after longevity, you need good characters. With Friends, the concept actually was the characters, so it’s a great reference. The pilot even provided a cheat sheet with brief character descriptions. And in its ten years, the characters stayed true to these descriptions. Here’s how: Since the show dealt with coping with life in your 20s, the characters were given different coping skills: delusional optimism (Phoebe), sarcasm (Chandler), sex appeal (Joey), brooding (Ross), pampering (Rachel), and diligence (Monica).
Of course they were so much more than these characteristics, but this is the root of two vital components that kept the show going—conflict and bonding. In essence, Ross wants to mope about his divorce but Joey won’t let him and instead tells him to get out there and date again. At the same time, these variants also bring them together and by the end of the episode Ross has Joey to thank when he asks Rachel out. Secondly, remember that, true to life, the way characters are raised defines who they are when we meet them.
Whether your characters are best friends or aliens fighting to save a galaxy, they all come with a past. While Friends doesn’t deal with the principals' childhoods, it does take them into consideration. To avoid having it look like your characters were born the day you thought of them, take a moment to think of what their upbringings were like. Were they coddled like Ross, Rachel, and Joey or left to fend for themselves like Monica, Chandler and Phoebe?
DON’T EXPLAIN YOUR JOKES
A lot of the cuts that were made from the script to what aired were joke setups. A staple of Friends is starting a joke at the punchline and then seeing it through from there. It’s an effective method for two reasons: 1) Even though we are meeting the gang for the first time, they all have a history with each other. So, if they were to stop to explain their behavior it wouldn’t feel authentic to their dynamic. 2) It’s funnier and faster that way. Here is a brief example from the script: In what made it to air, when Phoebe starts doing her thing, Ross simply says, “No, no don't! Stop cleansing my aura! No, just leave my aura alone, okay?” This is not only funnier but also shows their level of comfort with each other.
KEEP IT SIMPLE
Here’s how the pilot describes the what-would-become-iconic coffee house: INT. COFFEE HOUSE. That’s it. It’s understandable the desire to describe what a main location looks like down to the famous couch everyone sits on, but it’s unnecessary. Write a good show and you’ll get a good set designer.
KEEP IT CHEAP
The less locations you have the better. In the pilot script, there were scenes in Chandler’s office, Bloomingdales, and the subway. None made the cut. For one thing, they would have cost extra money and two, they kept the cast apart. So, before you write that scene in a new location, make sure it’s absolutely worth the extra money and time. If it can happen in an already established location, keep it there.
HAVE INSIDE JOKES
This is a great way to include your audience and it's something Friends nails. David Crane and Marta Kauffman do it myriad times in the series and at least twice in the aired pilot: 1) When Monica finds Paul the wine guy’s watch and stomps on it. This beat serves as a bookend to the plot line of Monica getting played by Paul and also gives the audience some insight that even the other friends don’t know. 2) After asking Rachel out, Ross tells Monica “I just grabbed a spoon.” This is in reference to the advice Joey gave Ross: dating is like eating ice cream, grab a spoon. It doesn’t need to be explained to Monica, what’s important is that we get it and also feel like a Friend.