Nothing makes you feel more than thankful than a Friends Thanksgiving episode — but for some of the folks behind the scenes, pulling off these shows weren’t always quite as smooth as a dollop of Monica’s creamy mashed potatoes.
Over its 10 seasons, Friends had an abundance of side-splitting, make-you-feel-warm inside stories, and the holiday-themed installments brought the warm and fuzzy funnies more than ever. Since most TV shows take a break over Christmas and New Year’s Eve, in the land of sitcoms the big festive feeling usually comes in the form of a Thanksgiving episode. When it comes to Friends, it’s difficult, nay, impossible to pick a favorite — Monica’s head in a turkey! Chandler in a box! Meat in the trifle! — but one that always scores a touchdown with fans is the season 3 episode “The One With the Football.”
For the uninitiated (what did you even do with your youth?), the gang gets together for a quick game of football while the turkey cooks. But a lifelong sibling rivalry between Monica and Ross threatens to outshine the fun. There’s also a distraction for Chandler and Joey in the form of a girl from Holland whose name is definitely not Dutch. Fans of the show will remember the game took place in a leaf-covered, city park — presumably near the friends’ Greenwich Village apartments. Of course, despite being set in New York City, Friends was actually shot in L.A. and that one outdoor setting presented quite the problem (or six) for production designer John Shaffner.
“My challenge as production designer is to read the script, envision the environment, and collaborate with the team to create that space,” Shaffner tells EW. “So of course I open the page of the script of the Thanksgiving episode that says, ‘Takes place in a park in New York City where they’re playing football,’ and go, ‘Oh dear, okay, this is a mess!’” Realizing their stage wasn’t big enough to recreate a park, Shaffner called director Kevin Bright to figure out how they would make a park space. Bright’s plan turned out to be not so bright (sorry): He believed it would be possible to shoot it all on the Warner Bros. lot in a small park area there, thinking they could dress it up and bring in some bleachers for the live audience. Initially, Shaffner was relieved, realizing that using the real outdoor park area was going to be challenge when shooting, but at least it was more or less ready to use, so out of his hands.
Then, one week before they were due to bring the actors in to shoot the episode, Shaffner received a call telling him they’d realized they couldn’t shoot it outside after all because of sound and light issues (“We shoot for four or five hours and the sun moves in the sky — we know that!”). With mere days until cameras rolled, Shaffner, knowing the stage they normally use was too small, was tasked with finding another, bigger one they could use. He ultimately located one that was empty and set up some temporary bleachers for the audience. But that was the easy part. What about the New York backdrop? The fall leaves on the ground? The passing traffic? “Usually I would present a little white model for rooms and stuff like that that we’re going to build,” says Shaffner. “But this was a big exterior. The hardest thing to do on any show, especially a multi-camera show is to do outside, inside.”
To tackle this task, Shaffner first presented the concept of a park with a fence in the background, adding that he would build the sides of two apartment buildings on either side. “I built this whole color model and showed them how we’d put trees in and we’d be shooting through them and they said, ‘Oh my God, but what about cars?’” shares the veteran production designer. “I said, ‘Well in New York on Thanksgiving there aren’t any cars! The streets are dead quiet – I lived there!” Nonetheless, Shaffner relented, adding some parked cars in front of the backdrop and explained there’d be trees and a metal fence and “all kinds of stuff” added in too. Still unsure of how it was going to look once built, the producers needed to see more, so “for the first time in the history of sitcoms,” Shaffner built a full color model showing how he and his team were going to present the park from the viewpoint of standing on the sidewalk, looking toward the back of apartment buildings. (Shaffner still has that color model in his office at Warner Bros., though it’s going into the studio’s archives shortly — “It needs a little repair work,” he adds.)
With barely a week to go, the construction team got real busy. “We pulled out every trick we know on how to make inside look outside,” says Shaffner. “We went through all the warehouses at Warner Bros. and got all the brick walls and windows and things that we could find so we could patch together some of it, and then built some more.” He then found a photographic backdrop he could use and had all the trees custom-made with autumn leaves wired on a few at a time. “Then came the big question of what’s the ground in the park made of?” says Shaffner. “We didn’t really want it to look like a field of fresh grass in November.” Luckily, the designer recalled a trick he had used years ago when he’d had to create a fake outdoor set and got to work using carpet padding put in upside down so it was just the right dirt-brown color. “Then there was anxiousness about what if the actors fell — would they hurt themselves?” he remembers. “So we put a little padding underneath. We did two layers of that stuff and then covered it with leaves. When you look at it, you have no idea what you’re looking at; it looks just like old ground!”
Despite the stress of pulling off the great NYC outdoors on a stage in L.A., Shaffner looks back at that episode and the whole experience of working on Friends with nothing but profound fondness and gratitude (how fitting!). “Every episode is an experience unto itself,” he says. “You get so engaged in it, and it becomes a real family project as you work with everybody, figuring it out. What always pulled it all together was a real deep affection for the story and for the characters, so no matter what happened we all knew where we were headed. It was a family where we could argue with each other and still be happy the next day, and I think that atmosphere comes through the screen to the audience; the affection is evident. That atmosphere you get watching an afternoon of Thanksgiving in New York? That was our goal and we were proud of that.”