by Jess Cagle

Careful what you say to a woman dating Brad Pitt.

The cast of Friends has gathered in Matt LeBlanc's dressing room between rehearsals, and Jennifer Aniston is asked what she thinks of "this marriage." Her eyes grow wide. "What marriage?" she asks. The reporter says he's not referring to her much-speculated-on real-life relationship, but to the show's doozy of a season finale (being shot today) in which Aniston's Rachel and David Schwimmer's Ross appear to tie the knot in an impromptu Las Vegas wedding. Aniston laughs, relieved, and her Friends laugh with her. "Oh," she says. "Well, I think it's a great cliff-hanger." She's careful not to say too much more, even though the reporter says he won't reveal the details before the episode airs. "Did you sign something?" demands LeBlanc. Ah, our Friends are wary of those bearing tape recorders and notepads. Since the show began five years ago, they've been stalked by photographers and jeered in print for their movies. They've been called greedy for demanding $100,000 an episode in 1996. The poor things can't get a haircut without the world weighing in on it. Well, then, on behalf of all media, we apologize. We apologize because we know that Mad About You's Helen Hunt and Paul Reiser were making $1 million an episode--and in fact, we think that the Friends should ask for another raise. We apologize for making fun of the movies (except maybe Ed, but only because it had a monkey in it), since we've seen Lisa Kudrow in The Opposite of Sex and have been reminded what a remarkable reservoir of comic talent the series has wrought. But most of all, we apologize simply because we enjoyed this past season so damn much. A shining half hour in an otherwise dim season for comedy, Friends seemed re-reborn in--of all things--its fifth season, a time when most shows begin looking for cemetery plots (or worse, getting bad face-lifts). The cast and 12 writers made the show pop like a minefield of creativity: Boom! Phoebe gives birth to triplets. Bang! The secret affair between Monica and Chandler goes public. Kablooey! Ross and Rachel stumble drunk from a Vegas wedding chapel. Friends is the best, and that's official: With the passing of Seinfeld, NBC's sitcom is now the nation's top-rated. Most delightful to fans, critics, and cast members alike has been the rocky affair of Chandler and Monica, which allowed Matthew Perry and Courteney Cox to plumb new depths of their characters' neuroses. And while Ross and Rachel's surprise trip to the altar gave the season ender its oomph, the waffling of Chandler and Monica at the brink of the altar is a sure and encouraging sign that their affair will continue into the fall. Friends of Friends should know, however, that the relationship was almost very different. The show's producers planted the seeds for the Ross-Rachel romance in the pilot, but had always planned for another affair to blossom among the characters. This "dark horse" romance (as David Crane, one of the show's creators, calls it) originally involved not Monica and Chandler, but Monica and Joey (LeBlanc). "This was before we cast the show," says Crane, who had conceived of Monica as the group's caretaker--a slightly cynical young woman whose good sense would prove combustible with Joey, originally designed as a heartless womanizer. But the producers quickly realized that a slightly wacky Monica was a much funnier Monica, and shortly into the first season Cox revealed a generous talent for playing obsessive cleanliness for laughs. Meanwhile, LeBlanc had some ideas for Joey. "I just didn't believe that the women would be friends with this guy who was so crass, self-centered, and hitting on them all the time," he says. "In having respect for them, he could grow as a character." Says Marta Kauffman, who created Friends with Crane: "I think the character we conceived was a little more two-dimensional than what Matt has brought to it--great heart, incredible humor." Ultimately, the producers decided Monica and Chandler would make the most strangely entertaining bedfellows. "We've gone out of our way to make it feel different than Ross and Rachel," says Crane. "We didn't do anything to lead up to it. We thought it could be one episode or three, but they have so many problems built into their characters that it's yielded a ton of wonderful stories." "For the first three years, I was just kinda saying the funny lines," says Perry. "Now I can play some emotional stuff." Cox, who chose the part of Monica instead of Rachel at the outset of the show regretted her decision for awhile. "But now I'm in a relationship with Chandler," she says, "and that's really fun." The Friends are smiling, which means that NBC and Warner Brothers can unfurrow their brows--just a bit. While the cast is contractually committed to a sixth season, they've yet to sign on for a seventh or more (given the show's blockbuster performance in syndication--reruns of the first five seasons alone could generate $1 billion in revenue--the studio wants to keep the series going as long as possible), and the cast isn't expected to stay unless all of them agree to do so. "It's our goal to have this all wrapped up by the time the sixth season starts," says Kevin Bright, one of the hopeful executive producers. "I would do it if the entire cast did and the writing could stay at the same standard it has been," says Schwimmer, perhaps the most serious-minded cast member and presumably the most likely holdout when it comes time to renew. ("I don't care how much money is thrown at me," he says. "I need to be excited.") Yet even Schwimmer seems fairly happy these days: "There was a cynicism that crept into Ross over the last couple of years. Then this year led to a midlife crisis. He wigged out at work. I liked him being out of control, trying to grasp on to anything or anyone. I find that really endearing." The question is, how long can a show about feckless twentysomethings remain endearing--or even believable--given that the average age of the characters is now hovering around 30? The producers aren't worried. "The characters are dealing with stuff that I think are grown-up issues," says Crane, who's been tossing around ideas for a "turning 30" episode. "We had one we were working on where it was a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards, where we see all six of them turn 30 in the same show," he says, "but the stories themselves weren't interesting enough." In the meantime, says Kauffman, "the situations change, their lives change. They can get married, and they can have children. They can do all of that as long as the six of them remain together as a unit." And what a unit--an ensemble in the truest sense of the word, as fine and coherent and mutually supportive as any cast in TV history. Still, while the Friends seem to have endless disposable hours to hang out in Rachel and Monica's apartment, the actors go their separate ways during their downtime. There are movies to make, offers to field, lovers to tend to, and in the case of Kudrow, a child to raise. Yet gathered here in LeBlanc's dressing room, they seem like old, well, friends. "The bond that we all have," says LeBlanc, "is this life-changing [show]. That keeps us together through it all." The Friends nod in agreement. By "through it all," he means the media backlash and spotlight, though Perry says that the glare has dimmed somewhat. "The cameras, the people taking pictures from my neighbor's roof," he says, "that's calmed down. I don't know if it's because I'm older or what, but it's great." And they've learned a few lessons along the way. To wit: "You don't want to be dating two people simultaneously," jokes Perry, "so that one girl's holding up People magazine and the other girl's holding up Us. You can't lie, you can't get out of it." "Then you have your publicist sending over the Enquirer to your agents and everybody in your life," says Cox, who denies reports of her eating disorders and insists that her fiance, Scream costar David Arquette, is now drug free. "You call and say, 'You don't have to send everyone the Enquirer!'" "All you have to learn is how to maneuver yourself, which is not that hard," says Aniston. The show's cliff-hanger, though, could make maneuvering a bit more difficult; it coincides with rumors that Aniston is pregnant (Could a wedding with Ross be the producers' answer to the dilemma?). But Aniston's publicist says the pregnancy rumors are "totally fabricated." Aniston herself says that she and Pitt are dating, not engaged, and that "the speculation has been hilarious." Speaking of speculation--and since the Friends seem to have warmed to the interview--the reporter pushes his luck: How much money will they ask for during negotiations? An awkward silence follows until Perry, the group's most reliable wisecracker, pipes up. "Finally!" he jokes. "Our chance to say it!" There is laughter and then another nervous hush falls over the dressing room. There are some secrets not even your best Friends will share.