In the frightening weeks after the terrorist attacks of 2001, viewers turned to the reassuring sitcom, making it the No. 1 show that season.

People simply wanted to see the gang of six interact or hang out in the Central Perk coffeehouse. The creators learned that they didn't necessarily have to write situations that were dramatic.

"In this show, it was always better when you put the six of them together and they talked about something than if you saw it," Kauffman says. "It had to do with the chemistry."

The show drew such big-name guest stars as Bruce Willis, Julia Roberts, Aniston spouse Brad Pitt and Tom Selleck, who appeared as Monica's boyfriend Richard Burke. Selleck offers his own theory about why Friends remained popular so long.

"Any time you do a show that not only can make people laugh but can make them cry, you hit a home run," he says. "That's very rare. It's the investment in the characters that the audience has."

Chance to say goodbye

Tonight, the creators hope to make good on that investment with the farewell. Kauffman and Crane have studied other finales and say they aim to leave their characters in a good place.

"You want to tell a satisfying story," Crane says. "You want to tell a surprising story. Balancing those two things was really difficult."

The biggest piece of unfinished business seems to be the Ross-Rachel relationship and whether she goes to work in Paris. Monica and Chandler will head to the suburbs with the adopted child that is to be born. Phoebe is content in a new marriage to Mike (Paul Rudd). Joey will move to Los Angeles and star in his own adventures.

Kauffman and Crane have been stunned by the finale hoopla and coverage of the show's cultural significance, but they're flattered that people are making a fuss over a beloved show. Kauffman says she felt the same way when M*A*S*H and The Mary Tyler Moore Show ended their runs.

"I wanted the opportunity to say goodbye, and to watch them go away, and to be part of it rather than them just disappearing off the landscape," she says. "It's just giving people a chance to say goodbye."

But they won't ever disappear. Thanks to reruns and DVDs, this beautiful friendship never has to end.

Hal Boedeker can be reached at hboedeker@orlandosentinel.com or

407-420-5756.