The beauty of Friends is that it had a deceptively simple concept: six friends hanging out, navigating life and well, being there for each other. So it's fitting that its best episode, "The One with the Embryos," exemplifies all of that. "Embryos," which aired Jan. 15, 1998, is Friends at its peak, a lightning-in-a-bottle gem. It's a perfect blend of humor and heart that encapsulates everything fans loved about these pals and the series itself via two insta-classic storylines that dovetail by the end: Phoebe's (Lisa Kudrow) moving surrogacy arc; and the "Who knows who better?" trivia game created and hosted by Ross (David Schwimmer) between the guys, Joey (Matt LeBlanc) and Chandler (Matthew Perry), and the girls, Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) and Monica (Courteney Cox), that gave us the famous apartment swap and Miss Chanandler Bong.
The episode's genius lies not only in its exemplary use of the stellar, totally game (pun fully intended) ensemble and the balls to rattle status quo by going through with the apartment switch after the guys win, but also in the onion-peeling reveals about these characters. It deftly pulls fans in with arcane -- and most importantly, believable -- factoids that the audience was unaware of, but that they -- these friends who hang out all the time -- knew about each other. The hilariously tense Q&A deepens their relationships and fans' relationship with them. But the indelible episode takes its title from Phoebe's equally brilliant, watershed story. After having agreed to be a surrogate for her brother Frank (Giovanni Ribisi) and sister-in-law Alice (Debra Jo Rupp), she gets implanted with their embryos and then learns she's pregnant. Tender and heartfelt, the weight of Phoebe's plotline serves as the ideal complement to the high-stakes wackiness of the game. And it is in fact her news that unites these friends again by the end.
In honor of the 20th anniversary of "The One with the Embryos," TV Guide spoke to the creative behind-the-scenes forces, who, in their own words, reveal how their best episode came together -- which very well may not have happened without Kudrow's real-life pregnancy -- why they went all in on the apartment switch, and the never-before-told origin story of Miss Chanandler Bong.
While "The One with the Embryos" is perhaps best remembered for the contest, the genesis of the episode actually came from elsewhere. Shortly after production on Season 4 started in the summer of 1997, Lisa Kudrow announced she was pregnant. Rather than hide her pregnancy, Friends co-creators David Crane and Marta Kauffman decided to figure out a way to write it in, but without saddling Phoebe with baby in future seasons.
David Crane (co-creator/executive producer): [The germ of the episode] started when Lisa told us she was pregnant. We didn't want to do another TV show where you had a woman carrying packages in front of her for nine months and in big coats. We wanted to find a way to actually incorporate it into the story, which was obviously tricky considering Phoebe wasn't with anybody at that point. This seemed to be a really different and unexpected way to go, and it was a storyline we had never seen before. It seemed perfect -- the whole idea she was carrying her brother's kid and it turns out to be triplets.
Marta Kauffman (co-creator/executive producer): It felt like a great story for Phoebe without Phoebe becoming a parent herself.
Amy Toomin Straus (co-producer/co-writer, "The One with the Embryos"): Ross had a baby in the first season and [after that] nobody wanted a baby, but they felt like Phoebe could handle some unusual circumstances around a pregnancy.
Jill Condon (co-producer/co-writer, "The One with the Embryos"): One of the amazing things about working with Marta and David was how they arc-ed out the season and how they really thought about their characters. We knew this was going to happen as part of Phoebe's arc before [we were assigned to write the episode].
Toomin Straus: That's why it was called "The One with the Embryos," because that was the [main] story. The game was just this other fun story while she was having this very emotional story. And Jill had the idea that she should talk to the embryos and give them a pep talk.
Condon: I very specifically remember being in the shower and thinking about her speech. It's nice before you write to be able to go, "I know I'm going to have at least one moment that's going to be really good!" ... [Crane] recognized that it was going to be a really special speech for Phoebe to give. I love that he let me work it and that he respected his writers so much and when he recognized that something was special or important, he wanted you to feel good about it.
Crane: My first thought now, 20 years later, was, "Why on earth did we call it 'The One with the Embryos' and not 'The One with the Contest'?" But it's because Phoebe's story was [planned] first. And even though most people remember the contest part first, the emotional center is Phoebe's story. I don't think any one of us could've predicted how well the contest would turn out.
With the emotional core of the story in place, the writers had to bring the funny to go with the heartfelt. The idea for the trivia contest involving the other five characters was born in the writers' room as the rest of the episode was being broken. It also fulfilled one of the show's annual goals -- to save money by producing a bottle episode -- while giving the fans what they want: seeing all (or most of) their favorite friends together.
Kevin S. Bright (executive producer/director, "The One with the Embryos"): The first season of Friends, when we were really over budget by the middle of the season, we were trying to figure out a way to solve the [money] problem, and I said, "If we could do one show where they never leave the apartment or the coffeehouse, then we won't have to build any swing sets and we won't have any guest stars" -- [essentially] a bottle episode. I pitched it to Marta and David the first year and everybody was a little grumpy about having to figure out an episode where they have to stay in the basic sets, but [what] we figured out is, what the audience really loves about the show is these six actors.
Toomin Straus: This is what we were told when we got on staff: When you get the six of them together in a room, it's like magic. So we were always looking for those stories where you could just get the six of them together without other people. We got five of them, but as they move apartments, there's the six of them. [When we were pitching ideas] I think Seth Kurland said Shane Black, a screenwriter, used to play games. I think it was Seth's idea that they should play this game about who knows each other better. Then we sort of expanded it.
Seth Kurland (co-producer/writer): The story wasn't my idea, but I did know a group of friends who had held a quiz show in their living room, and it was one of the funniest things I've ever seen. If it's funny in real life, I have to believe there's a way to make it funny to a bunch of people in their living rooms.
There was a group of young screenwriters I knew called the Pad O' Guys who shared a house for several years after graduating college. Right before they all moved out and got their own places, they decided to have a last night game show called Pad O' Jeopardy to see who knew the most Pad O' Guys trivia. ... David Arnott was the emcee. The three Pad O' Guy contestants who competed against each other that night were Shane Black, Fred Dekker and Jay Cappe. Arnott wore a suit, played the Jeopardy! theme on the piano, and Greg Pruss created a huge Jeopardy!-style game board. In early drafts, Ross' questions were just being read off a pad. Again, I don't remember who came up with the idea for the quiz in the writers' room, but because of Pad O' Jeopardy, I lobbied that we use a real game board and we eventually did.
Crane: After we decided to do it, my vague recollection is it was one of those things where the whole group started riffing on: "What are the contest questions?" I don't know how the writers' assistant was able to keep up with the barrage. What a wonderful thing it was to unpack. It's character-revealing for four major characters.
Condon: Part of what made it stick was a lot of factoids are real. My dad would not eat food in odd numbers. If you give him three Tic Tacs, he'll either give you back one or take one more. These were real oddities having to do with us and our families, and I think that's part of why it was funny. And it was pitched on by really, really funny writers over and over again. It wasn't just us sitting in a room going, "And then, and then..." I have to give so much credit to that incredibly talented writing staff. There was nowhere better in town.
Kurland: The concept is just so relatable. I think every family and group of friends love the idea of testing "Who knows who better?" The quiz was a really fun, natural way to learn more about the characters.
Kauffman: Our feeling was that it's much more fun for the audience to learn new things [from the questions] otherwise it's just exposition. Sandwiches, we knew that was Joey's favorite food, but I think besides that, most of it was stuff we didn't know.
Crane: It's new info, but it all makes sense because it's all rooted in character. Yes, it's joke, joke, joke, but it's all character. I love whenever they get it wrong. That's the thing. It could've been just jokes, but in fact every one of those moments, it's a joke about the character who has a question being asked about them, and also how it comes out when they get it wrong -- Chandler being embarrassed about when he touched a girl's breast, Rachel lying about her favorite movie. It's all rooted in character.
As Monica later claims, the contest hinged on one question that Rachel got wrong: What name appears on the address label of the TV Guide that Chandler and Joey get every week? Instead of merely having Rachel give the incorrect answer and then moving on, the writers turned it into an escalating gag that produced one of the show's greatest jokes: Miss Chanandler Bong.
Kauffman: One thing I do remember is there is a joke I was the only human being to laugh at. Ross says the category is literature and the first thing he opens is, "Every week the TV Guide..." And it made me laugh so hard that the TV Guide was considered literature. It's a subtle one. And then the real answer was Miss Chanandler Bong.
Kurland: There's an unwritten law in a writers' room where you never say who came up with a certain joke. I'm gonna violate that law. But only because this is one of the few jokes whose genesis I remember with almost total recall. Everything else is pretty much a blur.
When I was a little kid, one day in the Sunday comics there was this tiny application to join something called the Dodger/Pepsi Fan Club. If you joined, you'd get tickets to a game, a T-shirt and some postcards with pictures of the Dodgers. I filled it out in my 8-year-old scrawl, and to my horror, all my Fan Club mail came addressed to "Seth Kugland" instead of "Kurland." My family was genetically bred to pounce on the weakest member of the herd and humiliate them as much as possible. Once my brothers saw that address label, they were in heaven; they mockingly called me "Kugland" for years.
A couple decades later, I was in a small rewrite room for [this episode] -- the other half of the writing staff had stayed very late the night before and hadn't come in yet -- and I pitched that one of the quiz questions might be: "Chandler subscribes to TV Guide. Every week when the TV Guide comes, what is the name on the address label?" The girls miss it. "Sorry, no. The correct answer is 'Chandler Bong.'" David Crane liked the joke, but wanted something bigger and added, "Miss Chanandler Bong," which made it much funnier. Then, we split up the joke so that Chandler adds the "Miss" part, which made Ross' joke funnier. And then on top of that, another writer added Monica's joke about stealing Chandler's TV Guide every week, which both increased the girls' frustration for having missed a question they should've gotten while also adding to Friends history this whole new rich, weird yet believable layer of Monica's thievery. And now by describing it with this level of incredible detail, I've managed to completely suck out all possible comedy.
One plot point that stirred debate in the writers' room was whether to go through with the apartment swap after Monica and Rachel lose the lightning round on an ostensibly easy question: What is Chandler Bing's job?
Kauffman: One of the things I really enjoy is the last question about Chandler's job because we had no idea. We had no idea what his job was or what we called it. That wasn't new information, but that was what we all felt, including the audience.
Crane: It was a running joke from the beginning -- the WENUS and ANUS reports. We didn't know what he did. And transponster is not a real job. I don't know who came up with transponster, but it was perfect.
Kauffman: That felt very real that the girls would lose on that one. It can't be something that's so silly. "Michael Flatley, Lord of the Dance" is really funny, but it couldn't be that and have that moment work because you really feel like you're invested in that moment. This is something they should know. We didn't decide until Season 9 when he quit [what his job was -- statistical analysis and data reconfiguration]. Most people who work in companies, I couldn't tell you what they do.
Crane: What's really fun about that episode is when that game starts, you don't think they're actually going to go through with the switch if the girls lose. It feels like fake stakes or [what] we used to call schmuck bait. You create some sort of storyline where you know so-and-so is never going to leave the show and all those things that they do on shows where you go, "It's bullsh-- stakes." In this case, we went with, "What if this is what's on the table and it actually happens?" And then they're in different apartments for almost the rest of the season. The discussion was if we do it, we have to stick to it. We can't just go, "Oh, next week, they switch back." If we're doing it, we're doing it. It felt crazy because that was Monica's apartment and yet, let's own it.
Condon: It's anti-schmuck bait. You expect us to undo the bet somehow, but we're going to pull the rug out from under you again because the guys are going to stay in the apartment for a while. When you can pull that kind of thing off, I really do think you connect with the viewer at home, like, haha, look, we surprised you!
Toomin Straus: On a typical sitcom, the idea is to go on a journey that takes you back to your starting point. That's in some ways what was fresh about Friends. We were allowed to do all kinds of crazy stuff. That's ultimately what's satisfying for the viewer. You're going, "They're going to buy out of this." [But] no, the fact that they switched apartments and it stayed that way for many episodes is exciting. And for the writers, it was like, yay! New stories! That is one of the most satisfying parts of writing on Friends: You could just go for it.
Kauffman: Why would we pull our punches? I was very, very strongly on that side [of them switching apartments]. After watching it recently, I felt so bad for them losing the apartment and I was even incensed that the audience clapped when the guys won. I found myself so upset with the audience and yet I do believe it was the absolute right thing to do.
Bright: The fun of it was that they were in spaces they "shouldn't" be in. We did talk about how we didn't want to change the apartments.
Greg J. Grande (set decorator): The purple was a big deal. I remember painting a couple of walls [for the pilot] and having Marta and David and Kevin walk through and look at it. The casings and moldings were also the same color as the walls. You were layering in a way no other shows got to layer. There weren't a lot of shows doing layering like that with detail, and with the purple, it made it stand out.
John Shaffner (production designer): Todd [Stevens, the line producer] sent the script to me. I'll never forget when I read the script for the first time. I'm very fortunate as a production designer to get the script before anyone else does, even before the director, because we have to start working on what we need. This was essentially a very simple episode because it was all taking place inside the basic sets and we only had to do the doctor's office. But when I saw that they were going to have to end up changing apartments, the first thing that went into my head was, "Oh my god! I don't want to repaint the apartment! I don't want to change the color! We'll lose our product identification."
Grande: [Repainting Monica and Rachel's apartment] would've ruined the entire joke. That was the smart call. This was about making this place what you can by swapping furniture. ... The most important note from Marta and David was, "Don't make it look nicer. Don't make it look different." Some pieces didn't get swapped if you look really closely. Some pieces did, which were the most recognizable ones. My goal was to embrace the pathetic nature of the guys' furniture in this space. The great part was that when you placed their furniture in the girls' apartment, it turned out to be not so bad. I embraced the architecture and the layout of the guys' apartment with all of the girls' stuff, which became quite the cozy, quaint little space. There weren't purple walls, but at the end of the day it looked nice. Ironically, they both worked really well.
Todd Stevens (producer): I thought the switch was amazing. Usually stuff does not change to that extent on shows. How many shows go down a highway like this after the show becomes what it is and they just kind of service it? That pressure was there. It could've been another show set in its ways.
Shaffner: It played better with the guys moving into the girls' apartment. You have that masculine playing off the feminine attention inside that space. You never lost the sense that they were trespassing, that they had crossed over and were not in their normal place.
Tape night went off without a hitch -- and while the contest got huge laughs, it was Kudrow's performance and Phoebe's pregnancy announcement that stole the show, much to the delight of the studio audience.
Stevens: From a production standpoint, that was a relatively seamless episode. There were no pre-shoots to do without the audience, there were no effects things. It was almost like an amazing Friends play. It was a little more contained than some other big episodes, like the Super Bowl or finales. No other producers I've worked for were as amazing or on it and could turn a bottle episode into something like this.
Bright: The guys coming in on Pat the Dog was something that was a little hard to control, but fortunately in front of the audience it worked perfectly. Every time you pushed it, the wheels weren't locked, so you never knew where it was going to go. So sometimes in rehearsal it went right off the set into the cameras. That was fun. I think actually during the show the coin toss also landed perfectly the first time on the table, but in rehearsal it went off. We were afraid it was going to be one of those things that held us up, but luck was with us. It was a pretty easy show to shoot; it was only made complicated by the number of people in the scene who were talking.
Shaffner: I really appreciated the way Kevin shot this episode because it wasn't too big. He brought the cameras into it. Whenever they shot an episode entirely on one of the basic sets, it just brought your arms around the characters in a way that felt like you were at home with them. I love the episodes of them in the apartments.
Crane: The actors get so many kudos. Doing the contest over and over and that level of investment and the fever pitch because the words are flying, especially when you get to the lightning round. I just remember them being flawless. You'll do a take and if a joke doesn't get enough of a response, the writers would huddle and try to beat it. I'll be honest, I only know because I read about it online today -- 20 years! -- we did apparently pitch like 20 variations on Chandler's dad's show, which ended up being Viva Las Gaygas. Which, by the way, as a gay person, is not my proudest moment looking back on it! I had no idea what didn't get the laugh, but clearly that was the winner and that was always the determining factor. You hear the laugh and that answers it.
Toomin Straus: The audience was having fun. The [cast] enjoyed taping every episode and they gave it their all, always, but there are always episodes that were more fun, and this was one. They were really tight-knit and from a professional standpoint, they had a really good time playing off of each other. And on the other end of it, you had Phoebe's lovely story.
Crane: [Kudrow's] obviously a brilliant comedic actress, but she's also an amazing dramatic actress. When the show gave us an opportunity to really serve that, those were always great moments.
Bright: Phoebe's speech to the embryos is my favorite part of the show for several reasons. It plays in one shot. I think it's just the sweetest monologue, talking to a petri dish. That's my favorite scene. I didn't want a cut. If we had a cut, it would've kind of spoiled it and I think it's the type of speech where she as an actor wants to show, "I know this whole speech. You don't have to cut it up." It probably took two takes.
The [biggest] reason is my kids were born at the beginning of Friends, like right after the pilot. They were in vitro, so I had a connection to this episode as far as Phoebe's brother and his wife not being able to conceive. I think our best episodes are the ones where we do stories about things that are happening in the world that really affect people's lives, and sometimes be really tender about how they affect people's lives. And the ability to take a step back and have a laugh about it is a really incredible thing.
Kurland: I remember the audience's huge reaction to Phoebe announcing she was pregnant. We loved going from the funny to the feelings. That moment worked great.
Kauffman: [I loved] Phoebe talking to the embryos [and] the beauty of the last moment when she comes out with the pregnancy test. Giovanni Ribisi doing that move at the end -- "My sister's gonna have my baby!" It's the pose. Gets me every time.
Toomin Straus: I wrote a joke that I just loved, to be honest with you. It's when Frank screams, "My sister's gonna have my baby!" I didn't ever expect that performance. That was the magic of Friends. You'd write things and you'd imagine it one way and often what the cast would bring was so different that it elevated it. I didn't expect that triumphant declaration he did.
Bright: What you're hearing [in the audience reaction] is discovery -- discovery of something happening on the show you didn't know about that gets you really excited. I remember once people figured out what the show was, there was a lot of excitement and anticipation in the audience. Everybody was on the edge of their seats. You wanted to know if Phoebe gets pregnant. You didn't know who to root for in the game, but you were dying to find out who wins and if they'll switch or if Joey and Chandler will have to give up the chick and the duck.
Kauffman: David and I had this thing where we said to each other every Friday night after the [tapings], "Another one that didn't suck." There were some episodes that you just felt that were going to be special, that are just meant to be, that just work. This one, I don't think we felt until the night we shot it how special it was. I remember feeling the energy -- that's one of the great things about being with a live audience, you feel the energy of the room -- during the contest and knowing at that point this was going to be a unique, special episode.
The final shot of the episode is what captured the studio audience's -- and later America's -- heart. After the girls reluctantly switch apartments, a shouting match breaks out over the trivia contest before Phoebe bounds out of the bathroom and announces she's pregnant. The episode ends with the gang enveloping her in a warm group hug, proving that the most important test was not the one Ross made, but the one Phoebe took.
Toomin Straus: I never realized [Ross] calls the game "the test." That was a happy accident.
Crane: It should've been called "The One with the Two Tests." Not as subtle, but I love that. Sure, that was definitely on purpose!
Condon: The only thing that would really stop this [fight] is Phoebe coming out and announcing that the implantation did indeed take. I do remember when I wrote "group hug" in the back of my mind going, "I hope this doesn't look hokey. I hope it looks real." And of course it does. [When] they did it, [the studio audience was] like, "Awww!"
Kauffman: It's the thing about having friends. You can be in the middle of a fight and something is dropped in the conversation that completely overshadows any hostility or anger. There is no other thing they could do [that wouldn't make] us still love them and still appreciate them as friends and want them as friends. We were always about the warmth and the love between the six of them and it always had to come back to that. This was their family. No matter how much they're fighting, they always come back to that.
The episode pulled in 27.1 million viewers and a 17.3 rating, making it the season's third most-watched episode behind the season finale and the season premiere. It instantly became a fan favorite whose enduring popularity has surprised some of the masterminds behind it.
Condon: Over the years, people always seem to go, "Oh, the apartment switch! Oh, Phoebe gets pregnant! Yeah, I love that episode!" But I just thought it was a Friends thing. ... It wasn't until this past year when I worked with a bunch of millennials on a digital show who were trying to explain to me, "No, you don't understand. This was the episode." "What?" I Googled and it was on TV Guide's list of top 100 episodes ever with the really awesome episodes of TV I knew all about. This is all new to both Amy and me, that the episode had some bigger significance. This is news. I've been living my life. It took 19 years for me to catch up!
Toomin Straus: At the time, it was just another really fun episode. It's not like it was put up for Emmy consideration. [But it's] a deep look into these beloved characters and it's also the beginning of a beautiful experience for Phoebe. Those two things together bring the magic.
Kurland: When I was 8 years old and struggling not to cry when my brothers were calling me "Kugland," I never imagined that the typo on my Dodger/Pepsi Fan Club address label would one day be partially responsible for making millions of TV viewers in China laugh. I recently hosted a couple of foreign exchange students from China at my Thanksgiving dinner. They were both fans and one of them almost immediately mentioned the Chanandler Bong joke. And again, "Chanandler" was all David Crane. Like so many of our stories and jokes, it was a team effort.
Crane: The show was always funny, but from the beginning, what was important to us was that it was a show where you care. You cared about what they cared about. You're invested in them and they're friends of yours at this point. And you get caught up in the game and with Phoebe's story. ... In 10 years, admittedly, you do some kind of forgettable episodes, but this [one] was clearly not one of them.
Bright: I wouldn't have thought over the test of time that this would become one of our most popular episodes because it's such a simple episode. But it goes back to the very basic premise about Friends: The audience loves this cast and the more that you can put the six of them together, those are the best [episodes]. This, Thanksgiving shows and the season finales, I think they've all registered that because they focus so much on the cast and the cast interacting with each other. The cast also cares about each other. That also connects with people. You care because you know everybody that's in that scene does. That's what makes it a special episode: those six actors and great writing. I could've phoned it in, I think!
Kauffman: My hope is that the episode's legacy is what people would say about the series, which is it's really funny and real and sweet. That would be my hope. I don't know what people actually say about it. I would wish for that. It embodies the series. Maybe that's what it is about the episode. It does have the warmth, it does have the humor, it does have the real moment, and maybe that's what makes it so successful in that it balanced all those things. It's maybe one of the handful of episodes that we did that we balanced it really well and gets all those pieces. It's a good one. I like it.