At 9:00 p.m. Eastern and Pacific times on May 6, 2004, that familiar theme song (“I’ll Be There For You” by the Rembrandts) announces the beginning of the end, as an estimated 51.1 million people tune in for the final original episode of NBC’s long-running comedy series Friends.
Created and executive-produced (with Kevin S. Bright) by Marta Kauffman and David Crane, Friends debuted 10 years and 236 episodes earlier, on September 22, 1994. Shot at the Warner Brothers studios in Burbank, California, the show was set in New York City’s Greenwich Village, where six friends struggled with the ups-and-downs of young adult life in the big city—albeit while living in an impossibly large, cushy apartment, apparently without the burden of having to spend much time working actual jobs. Almost from the beginning of its decade-long run, Friends was a cultural phenomenon, winning six Emmy Awards (including one for Outstanding Comedy Series), sparking hairstyle trends (“the Rachel”), spawning catch phrases (“How you doin?”) and turning its six principal cast members into household names.
Preceded by a maelstrom of hype and publicity, the hour-long Friends finale drew approximately two-thirds of the audience garnered by the finales of two other long-running sitcoms, Cheers (80.4 million) in 1993 and Seinfeld (76.2 million) in 1998, according to a Fox News report. The most-watched TV series finale ever, M*A*S*H, was viewed by some 105 million people when it aired in 1983. According to the New York Times, NBC charged advertisers an average of $2 million for every 30 seconds of ad time during the finale—a record amount for a sitcom and only $300,000 less than what CBS charged during that year’s Super Bowl.
In the finale, the long-running on-and-off relationship between Ross (David Schwimmer) and Rachel (Jennifer Aniston), which over the years included a drunken Las Vegas wedding and a baby, Emma, born in 2002, ended as most of the show’s fans hoped: They got back together, presumably for good. Meanwhile, Chandler (Matthew Perry) and Monica (Courtney Cox-Arquette) had become suburbanites and parents of twins, Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) was married, and Joey (Matt LeBlanc) was headed off to L.A. to pursue his acting career. (A spin-off sitcom, Joey, followed LeBlanc’s character to Hollywood; the show failed to attract a significant audience, and was canceled in 2006.)
Throughout the show’s run, its six stars maintained a famously unified front, ensuring that no one of them emerged as a dominating force onscreen and even negotiating their salaries together. In the spring of 2000, each member of the cast signed a two-year, $40 million contract that netted them each a staggering $1 million per episode. Broadcast in some 100 countries, Friends continues to earn good ratings for its syndicated rerun episodes. A reunion special aired on HBO Max in 2021.