Photo courtesy of Andrew Reich
By Steve Sears
Andrew Reich just wouldn’t commit.
When asked which of the six stars of the popular sitcom, Friends, was most enjoyable to work with, he says with a slight laugh, “You are not going to get me to answer that question.”
He does, however, offer the following. “You did have that cast who could elevate anything you wrote. If they didn’t make it work, it was a bad line. And, chances are, they would make it even funnier than you thought it would be.”
The 52-year-old Reich would write 164 episodes over sevens seasons for the show, eventually becoming an Executive Producer and garnering himself an Emmy Award. “We had this incredible group of writers,” Reich explains of the Friends experience, “and a lot of us were around the same age as the characters. So, we were writing our lives on that show. We were coming in and talking about what we had done over the weekend or that night or whatever, and finding a way to turn that into stories. We were, for the most part, very close. We worked these 80-hour weeks, I mean – the hours were insane! There were many, many times where I would leave that writer’s room at five or six in the morning, get a couple hours of sleep, and come back in a few hours again.”
Reich was born on Homestead Air Force Base in Florida. His father, Martin, was a doctor in the Air Force. “We moved to Morristown when I was about one and a half, so really all my childhood memories are of Morristown. He (his dad) was a doctor; he worked at Morristown Memorial (Hospital) and had a practice in Basking Ridge. Both my parents are from Hackensack. My mother (Susan) was a school teacher at Pingry, teaching sixth grade science, and I have an older sister, Vicki.”
It all started in the Garden State for the 52-year-old Reich, who calls his younger days an “idyllic suburban childhood.” “Just riding bikes around the neighborhood,” he recalls, “lots of friends in the neighborhood, that kind of ‘70s childhood where it was just like, ‘Be home for dinner. We don’t really know where you are, what you’re doing, but be home before dark.’ And going to great public schools.”
There was also New York City. Reich’s parents were oft theatergoers, heading to Gotham for plays and dining. Their son embraced the big town as well, but in a slightly different way. “Starting in early high school, I was getting on the train to the PATH in Hoboken, and taking the PATH train into the city. I was a punk rock kid. I got really into punk rock, and so there was a lot of just taking the train in to go to record stores on St Mark’s Place, to go to CBGB, to go to Danceteria, the Peppermint Lounge – to go to all those clubs with some friends, and just having that kind of freedom even as a high school kid. New York was quite a bit more dangerous in those days, but we always managed to make it back home.”
While at Morristown High, drama teacher James Hogue inspired Reich, and his very good friend, Ira Ungerleider. “You could just as easily be writing this article about him,” Reich says of the latter, whose writing credits include Friends and How I Met Your Mother. The duo is also currently collaborating on a their first new project together since high school. “I think it was maybe sophomore year, we took this acting class – this drama class – with Mr. Hogue, who I had known actually before this: I was good friends with his stepson when I was in elementary school. He (Hogue) introduced us to improvisation, to the sort of classics or Viola Spolin improv games, and we really took to that more than to the sort of scripted acting stuff we were learning. It was the improv that we loved, and he recognized that when Ira and I would do these improv scenes together, we were really good. We had been best friends since sixth or seventh grade, and had this sort of telepathy that enabled us to really do these improv scenes well together.” It got to the point that, when Hogue would visit other schools and teach them the rudiments of improvisation, he would take Reich and Ungerleider with him, having them be part of the demonstration. “He would talk about these concepts and we would do these improv scenes for these kids.” Reich had acted in plays as a youngster, but he was now in a different realm. “It was this improv, and feeling like we’re good at it, that sort of lit this fire.”
Reich carried the torch to Yale University, auditioning for the school’s improv group and, becoming a member and utilizing his prior experience, took over directing the group halfway through his freshman year and directed and performed in it all through college.
The foundation was effectively cemented. “I will say that that was really the training for being a television comedy writer.” Reich says.
Reich graduated from Yale in May of 1990, and by September was living with some Morristown buddies in California. He lives now in the Windsor Square-Hancock Park area of Los Angeles. “We were all in the same apartment. There was this group of us, these Morristown kids, and three of us ended up writing on Friends. I think sort of moving out with this sort of built-in group was key. It’s a tough town, sometimes, to meet people and find your place, but we had that connection, and for a while there was a sort of separate group of slightly older guys who were also out here, so there was a good Morristown crew.”
As for Friends, Aniston, Cox, Kudrow, LeBlanc, Perry, and Schwimmer could, as Reich says, “take any good line, and they could make it work.” He then adds, “And that’s not always the case. You rarely get that with every member of a cast on a show. A lot of the times, you have this feeling of like, ‘God, that was a great joke, but it died because it wasn’t delivered right!’ And that’s always heartbreaking. You didn’t have that experience there (with Friends). What they would do sometimes is reveal, ‘Oh no, we’ve got to try harder, we’ve got to do better,’ because if they’re not making it work, it’s no good. So, that was just incredible to have. They were brilliant.”
Per Reich, there was a very healthy competitiveness among the writers, and a deep respect. “I was never thinking about, ‘Okay, I’ve got to make these 20 million people laugh.’ It was like, ‘I want to make that writer who’s sitting across the table from me laugh, and if I can get that laugh, then I know that it’s (the line or joke) good. That was the goal: to make the other writers laugh, and that’s what we were focused on. Our world was just this big conference table in this building, just off the Warner Brothers lot.” Reich also states emphatically, “We were all really determined that the show was not going to go downhill on our watch. We never felt like, ‘Okay, it’s season eight, we can coast. We can go home early.’ We cared so much about keeping the quality of the show high, to the point where it’s like, ‘Alright, we’ll spend two hours, three hours, on this one joke. We will sit here and we will keep pitching for hours trying to find the line that’s actually funny.’ We were sort of obsessive about that.”
Reich is married to the magazine writer and novelist, Christine Lennen, and they are parents to 14-year-old twins, Millie and Louis. “That’s the most important thing,” he says. “I think I’ve really organized my life since them, too. I would never work those hours I worked on Friends now, because the most important thing is for me to spend time with them.”
Reich also produces a podcast called Dead Pilots Society. “I’ve done 60 or so episodes at this point,” he says. “It’s comedy pilots from great, great writers whose pilots were sold to networks or streaming services but never shot, and then I cast them with great actors and we do table reads. And then I interview the writers. It’s a really rewarding thing, just to get to have these writers get to hear their work that was rejected, and here it allows us to do it in front of a live audience. I think that’s really fun.”
Reich, who also wrote for other shows such as Worst Week and Rules of Engagement, sums it up. “All you have is the feeling like you’re doing work that you’re proud of, and then the rest of it is out of your control. I spent many years sort of struggling with that. I truly have come to accept that you do the best you can, the rest is out of your hands. You’ll get some lucky breaks, you’ll get a lot of unlucky breaks, and you just keep doing it. All you can control is the work that you do and how you feel about it.”