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Hit Singles

NBC's newest hit sitcom -- We talk to Courtney Cox, Jennifer Aniston, Matthew Perry, and the rest of the "Friends" cast

''I hate the monkey,'' David Schwimmer says, sitting in his spartan dressing room backstage at NBC's first-year smash Friends. ''I wish it were dead.''

Schwimmer's hangdog character has adopted a pet monkey, Marcel, to keep him company in his postdivorce funk, but the actor and his simian costar, an eerie capuchin simply named Monkey, aren't exactly hitting it off.

''The trainers won't let me bond with it,'' Schwimmer explains. ''They're really, really possessive. It's like, 'Land on your marks, do your job, don't touch or bond with the monkey.' It's a bummer.''

That's just about the only bummer on Friends' Burbank soundstage these days. Hammocked between two other New York-set, no-kids-allowed sitcoms, Mad About You and Seinfeld, in NBC's boffo Thursday lineup, the show ranks 15th for the season, and recently hit a high note, placing seventh in the week's ratings.

Friends' charming ensemble and snappy scripts — many penned by executive producers David Crane and Marta Kauffman (Dream On) — have drawn the best reviews for any new sitcom this season. (The New York Times called it ''offbeat and seductive.'') The series revolves around a close-knit sextet of twentysomething singles: Monica (Family Ties' Courteney Cox), a neat-freak assistant chef; Ross (NYPD Blue's Schwimmer), her on-the-rebound older brother; Phoebe (Mad About You's Lisa Kudrow), her spaced-out blond college chum; Rachel (The Edge's Jennifer Aniston), Monica's rich-girl roomie; and their across-the-hall neighbors, Joey (Vinnie & Bobby's Matt LeBlanc), a himbo actor, and Chandler (Sydney's Matthew Perry), an acerbic office worker.

As on Seinfeld, most of Friends' plots concern mundane dilemmas of nmarried urbanites-dating woes, career crises, visits from parents — and most of the action takes place in an apartment and a restaurant (in this case, a shabby-chic coffee bar named Central Perk).

''What sold the show was six characters coming into a coffee shop, sitting for 25 minutes, and saying funny things,'' says Perry. ''All the best TV shows are that: Cheers is a bunch of people sitting in a room saying funny things. So are Taxi, Mary Tyler Moore, Seinfeld — all the shows I love.'' And all, save Seinfeld, were directed by James Burrows, who has helmed most of Friends' episodes.

The Friends cast is an intensely cheery group of people; ask the actors to describe any one of their costars and the first word out of their mouths is liable to be sweet. Their mutual admiration is tangible, but they didn't necessarily expect to get along at first. Schwimmer, Perry, and Kudrow were concerned that Cox, the biggest name of the group, might have a star attitude. ''I thought she'd be a little aloof and celebrity-ish,'' confesses Kudrow. ''And she wasn't at all. She's so great.''

Schwimmer and Perry are equally effusive about Cox now, but they were also initially skeptical about LeBlanc, a onetime Levi's 501 jeans model. ''I was like, 'This guy's kind of a d---,' '' recalls Schwimmer of meeting LeBlanc. ''I thought, 'Oh, great, here's this guy I'm going to work with for maybe five years, and he's f---ing Joe Cool stud.' Well, he's turned me around completely.'' Adds Perry: ''He's an unbelievably nice guy in the body of a tough, get-out-of-my-way guy.''

And so far, the other cast members don't seem jealous of Friends' standout star, Schwimmer. His character's plight — Ross' wife left him for a woman, then discovered she was carrying his child — and Schwimmer's wistfully neurotic line readings have delivered many of Friends' biggest laughs. ''It's always nice to have a vulnerable character — girls love that stuff — and that's Ross,'' says Cox.

''He's got this quality I admire and hate at the same time,'' says Perry. ''I admire it because nobody else has that hurt-guy style, and I hate it because every single woman on the face of the planet wants him.''

Schwimmer says he doesn't want the focus to shift to his (or any other) character. ''That would be the downfall of the show,'' he says. ''All of us signed up to do an ensemble show.'' The producers confirm that the story lines will continue to be parceled out in six equal portions. ''They're all our children,'' Kauffman says. ''We have great affection for all the characters, and we try to be as good parents as we can,'' offers fellow executive producer Kevin S. Bright.

Besides, Schwimmer isn't the only budding sex symbol. Friends may have the best-looking cast in sitcom history (there's no Norm here). ''People tend to be either funny or attractive,'' says Kauffman. ''We lucked out and got both.''

The actors uniformly reject the idea that comedy is not pretty. ''I've been hearing this my whole career,'' says Aniston. ''And I say, 'Oh, my God, Lucille Ball? I thought she was gorgeous! Mary Tyler Moore? Beautiful!' '' Not that Aniston — or anyone else in the cast — will admit to feeling pretty. ''I don't think, 'Oh, I'm Miss Outstanding-Looking Person,' '' she says. ''The last thing we think about is our looks, even though people think we do because our wardrobe and hair are so great.'' Says Cox: ''If one of us gained a lot of weight or something, we'd have the same personality that we do now.''

For such a toothsome group, Friends' characters certainly have a hard time sustaining relationships. None has a significant other, although Schwimmer's Ross has a severe crush on Aniston's semi-oblivious Rachel. ''They're going to play us like two ships passing,'' Schwimmer says. ''She'll realize, 'Oh, my God, Ross likes me!' and 'Ooh, he's cute. Why not?' and then it'll be too late because I'll be seeing someone else.'' But Crane promises the flirtation will come to fruition after ''a long and bumpy ride.''

Still, two Friends have shared an intimate moment: At the midnight climax of the New Year's Eve episode, Perry's Chandler begged someone to kiss him — so LeBlanc's Joey planted one on him as a gag. ''We were really not wanting to do it, and we leaned in, and our teeth hit each other,'' recalls Perry. ''We're hopefully not going to do that again.''

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