In bowing out, sitcom characters can shed tears but they can't stint on laughs. Chandler Bing's banter last week suggests that Friends will say goodbye tonight with appropriate wackiness.

Chandler (Matthew Perry) summed up his pain at seeing Rachel Green (Jennifer Aniston) leave for Paris.

"It feels like when Melrose Place got canceled," Chandler said, surprising his male buddies. "Aw, forget it," he added, refusing to apologize. "I miss Melrose Place."

Chandler was prepping the country for a far bigger loss in prime time. The finale of Friends culminates a potent, 10-year run; shakes NBC's no-longer-must-see Thursday lineup; and robs the enfeebled sitcom format of its highest-rated show.

A big sendoff is mandatory, and that's what NBC is providing: an hour retrospective at 8, the hourlong finale at 9. The actors will appear on The Tonight Show at 11:35, all on WESH-Channel 2.

This sitcom's unique nature makes the farewell especially difficult. In sitcom history, nearly every classic show centers on one star, from Lucille Ball and Jackie Gleason to Kelsey Grammer and Sarah Jessica Parker.

Friends spread the good dialogue and funny situations among six gifted actors. Creators Marta Kauffman and David Crane wanted it that way from the start.

"No one had ever done a true ensemble, where all the characters are absolutely equal," Crane says.

The series never played favorites, which bolstered its long-term health. Everybody doesn't love Raymond, but it was nearly impossible not to like at least one friend. The little-known actors seized the roles in 1994 and blossomed into television favorites.

Emmy-winner Aniston took Rachel from air-headed, runaway bride to capable career woman. David Schwimmer made infatuation with her a national pastime as Ross Geller, the neurotic paleontologist.

As Monica, Ross' elegant sister, Courteney Cox Arquette proved that control freaks can be lovable. Monica's surprising affair with Chandler, played by the irrepressible Perry, jolted the show to a new level of joy. Was there a lovelier moment than Chandler's declaration of love for Monica?

Friends fielded two of the greatest goofballs in sitcom history: Lisa Kudrow as flaky guitarist Phoebe Buffay and Matt LeBlanc as dense actor Joey Tribbiani. She won an Emmy. He graduates to his own NBC show, Joey, in the fall.

All for 1, 1 for all

The sitcom was a miracle of casting, and then something more remarkable happened in ego-crazed Hollywood. The six actors saw themselves as equals and negotiated their contracts as a team. Their on-screen chemistry reflected their off-screen camaraderie. The beauty of Friends was that the friendship came naturally.

"We just liked each other from the beginning," Schwimmer says. "Sometimes you have jobs where you don't get along with everyone. We were just lucky."

The creators were lucky to have them. The stars carried the show over uneven seasons and over recent complaints that Friends has lasted too long. The actors also elevated racy material that would have been merely lewd on other sitcoms.

Kauffman and Crane came to Friends from the more risque world of HBO's Dream On. On Friends, they tackled sex with openness from the start. In the pilot, Ross whined that his wife had left him for a woman, and Monica spent the night with a cad.

Although the network's censors raised objections, the series' tone remained unusually frisky over the 10-year run. Because the actors played the characters so sweetly, Friends could get away with adult content in the old family hour.

For a deceptively simple show, Friends was surprisingly sturdy. It survived merchandising crazes and inept knockoffs. The sitcom launched new hairstyles and ways of speaking.