It’s been 25 years since Friends first appeared on our screens, bringing with it a group of 20-something, New York-dwelling pals who made us feel part of the gang as they created countless jokes and quotable quips that would be dropped into conversation among real friends for decades to come.
Okay, so they were great, but what about the other nuanced characters that lasted 10 seasons on what is arguably the most popular sitcom of all time? They were just as instrumental in keeping us tuned in week after week. With that in mind, we sat down (on the orange Central Perk couch no less) with Margaret Emily Wheeler — who played Janice, the iconic on-and-off girlfriend of Matthew Perry‘s Chandler Bing — and James Michael Tyler — who played quirky coffee shop manager Gunther — during the Friends New York City Pop-Up to talk everything from favorite episodes and gold pants, to Gunther’s last name, and that catchphrase.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did each of you land your parts on the show?
MARGARET EMILY WHEELER: The audition for Friends came to me across my fax machine at the time. So there it was, it was just two pages: the scene in the coffee shop where she’s telling Chandler that she’s purchased these Bullwinkle socks for him, squirrel, squirrel, and moose. At the top of the page it said “fast-talking New Yorker.” I grew up in New York City, so I really fashioned this character out of many people that I’ve encountered in my life, not one specific one, but a conglomeration of many. What happened was, I auditioned for it one time and that first time the creators of the show sat back on the couch in the middle of my audition and I thought to myself, “Oh dear, I must have not chosen the right way to play this character.” But then they had me back and I did it again and then they gave me the job. Really it was just one episode; there was no promise of anything, nor was there any notion of having her recur. But they fell in love with Janice and she became a great foil and a great way to break up a script when they ran into a little problem in the middle of the night — let’s bring Janice in! So, it really worked.
JAMES MICHAEL TYLER: So the night before the first episode that I appeared on, a friend of mine decided to bleach my hair as an experiment. So I showed up the next day as an extra. They called me “coffee guy.” They put me behind the counter because I actually did have a job in a coffee shop — I was a barista with a Master of Fine Arts in Acting, but I was doing extra work just to help pay the bills and get a free meal. It was really cool; I walked in that first day and I could just tell, these people seem like they’ve known each other forever and they hadn’t — this was the first episode after the pilot. The producers liked the bleached-blonde hair so I had to keep it for 10 years, which is good and bad; that’s why there’s not a lot of hair left now— and heredity, but you know.
Did they give you any background on who your character was?
TYLER: They gave me no background on the character whatsoever. The first line that I had was “Yeah.” I think they’d just said, “Oh, your name is Gunther” a week prior, and that was a year and a half into it. I was just coffee guy for a year and a half — I’m not credited until I was Gunther and he spoke.
Did you ever learn Gunther’s last name? We all know it’s not Central Perk.
TYLER: No, they never established a last name.
Did you want to make one up for yourself?
TYLER: I thought about it. Maybe it would be something really simple like, Smith. Gunther Smith.
Maybe Gunther was his last name?
TYLER: Oh! Now that’s an interesting concept. I had never thought of that. That’s cool.
What were your first impressions of the cast when you got on set?
WHEELER: When you do a sitcom you sort of gather on the first day and you do a table read, everybody together. Then you take a break, then you come down and start rehearsing everybody together, so really it’s a big family. I think my first experience of being on that set was one of really great anticipation and happiness because I felt that the environment on the set was so wonderful. It was collaborative. So right from the beginning, I was thrilled to be there.
TYLER: That’s an interesting question because I’d worked on other shows where it’s like, “Oh, they’re the star, they’re obviously the focus and the one.” On this, every single one of them were that and I was like, “This is really special.” I could just tell. They all respected each other, they all got along for 10 years and even now — you always see them; they’re all hanging out together.
Maggie, where did the iconic laugh and Oh. My. God. catchphrase come from?
WHEELER: The writers gave me that “Oh. My. God.” line, so that was gold. I put my spin on it and that, of course, is history. The laugh I created in the first episode because Matthew Perry is very, very funny and he is likely to make you laugh in the middle of the scene. I was a little worried because I hadn’t been on the set yet and I wanted to be able to do a good job so I thought okay, this character needs to be able to laugh, he’s probably going to crack me up and I need to be able to cover, so I created the laugh. We laughed all the time. We cracked [during a scene] all the time.
What’s the weirdest place someone’s asked you to recreate the catchphrase?
WHEELER: I ran into a mother and daughter who were visiting Los Angeles at a Pier 1. When the mother saw me she said, “Oh my goodness, I’m going to a wedding, would you do a video with me?” There was no one else in the Pier 1 and I thought, why not? So she said, “Okay, here’s what’s going to happen. I’m going to come around…” She began to direct the video and say, “You’re going to stand here and I’m going to come around from behind this thing.” We did it and she said, “That was good, can we do one more time?” It was hysterical.
Do you both have a favorite episode, one that you particularly enjoyed shooting or loved seeing the fan reaction to later?
WHEELER: I loved every episode that I ever shot on that show and I have some that really stand out. For me, the Valentine’s episode was a real winner — just the unexpected blind date and then ending up in bed with him. Of course I loved “15 Yemen Road, Yemen” which is a classic, and I loved the labor and delivery room with Rachel, which is just unforgettable. I’m really, really fond of the episode where I hook up with Ross because of my entrance. I always was a surprise entrance; the audience never saw me before I made my first entrance so that they had the surprise effect when I would appear on set. In that particular episode, no one was expecting it, absolutely no one. They came to wonder if things were going a little south with Chandler that maybe I was going to make an appearance, but with Ross, it just never occurred to anybody. I made the entrance from behind the screen so they couldn’t see me, that door flew open and I said, [speaking like Janice] “You left your scarf in the cab!” The audience went wild. It was rock star moment.
TYLER: It varies, but I’m going to stick with “The One with the Prom Video” which establishes the whole Ross/Rachel thing. It’s tender and just such a brilliantly written episode.
Did you ever experience any backlash after the episode where Gunther tells Rachel that Ross had slept with someone else?
TYLER: Oh, let me tell you. I read that script and they had just established Gunther as a character. I’m a character on this amazing show! I’m a minor, minor character on this huge, amazing show! And then I thought, I’m going to be the most hated human being and character in television history because Gunther told and broke up Ross and Rachel and destroyed everything! But you know what, people actually kind of liked it.
Hey, it was the right thing to do! She needed to know.
TYLER: Absolutely. It was definitely the right thing to do. Yes, Gunther was the moral backbone of the show. [Laughs.]
Maggie, do you think Janice deserved better from Chandler?
WHEELER: I think Chandler just made a mistake. I think that she saw through his foibles and she said to him, “You know you love me, you just don’t know you love me.” I think she was willing to go through some of the hard knocks in hopes that he would finally choose her.
Well then, she kind of got a happy ending with Chandler pretending to be in love with her.
WHEELER: Yes, she’s without guile, Janice. She just accepts it. Very optimistic.
Do you guys have a standout behind-the-scenes story or moment?
WHEELER: On my very last episode I was down on the set and I came back to my dressing room and it was filled with peonies. The set [decorator] had gone and bought for me three really enormous glass, orange vases and they were full of peonies. It was such a surprise. I was too touched by that and, honestly, had no idea how I was going to get them in my car!
Did you take anything from set after you wrapped?
WHEELER: I have a pair of gold pants that Janice wore wrapped up in my closet. I have a few other cute items.
TYLER: They gave me some ties and I got a Central Perk coffee cup.
Where do you hope Gunther is now?
TYLER: Gunther better have moved on from Rachel. I hope he owns Central Perk now — that’d be nice. He bought it from Terry or something like that and he doesn’t sleep in the back of Central Perk. Maybe he has a decent apartment somewhere? Maybe he lives in the West Village and he doesn’t have to drive or commute all the way from Queens.
Why do you think the show has such lasting appeal?
WHEELER: I think that this show has such magic in it. It’s a combination of all of those factors: The incredible rapport between the cast, the amazing writing, the relatable themes about friendship and relationships, and heartbreak, and success and failure, and loyalty.
TYLER: Not only the nostalgia, but I think the chemistry of the cast and the story lines. Maybe the fashion’s a little bit out-of-date now, but the story lines are just funny and everybody goes through those sort of things; it’s timeless in that way. I think all the characters are archetypes so people who are watching can say, “I know someone who’s just like that!” Or, “I identify with Phoebe!”
TYLER: Or Gunther! The weirdos identify with Gunther.