LOS ANGELES – If you think security is tight around the plot of the “Friends” finale, try visiting the set.

More than 100 U.S. TV critics and a handful of foreign press had to queue up and show photo IDs before even boarding the tour bus for the Warner Bros. lot Tuesday. Special “Friends” laminated passes were distributed en route.

On the lot, a swarm of publicists from NBC and Warners schmoozed with the journalists as they waited 20 minutes while the cast finished rehearsing the final chapter in the show’s extraordinary 10-year, 236-episode run. The hourlong episode will air May 6.

Finally, it was on to Stage 24, which has been home to such big-screen films as, appropriately, 1958’s “Damn Yankees.” TV’s equivalent of the Yankees, “Friends” has been the top-rated sitcom for six years and remains No. 1 on network, cable and syndication.

After flowery tributes from Warners boss Peter Roth and Jeff Zucker, president of just about everything at NBC, executive producers David Crane, Marta Kauffman, and Kevin Bright walked onto the set of Monica and Chandler’s way-too-big-for-New York apartment.

Then the cast joined them for their final news conference. Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox Arquette, Lisa Kudrow, Matthew Perry, David Schwimmer and Matt LeBlanc said they were dreading the end.

“This is gutting us,” Aniston said, fighting back tears. “We’re like very delicate china speeding toward a brick wall of inevitable pain. That sounds like fun, huh?”

“It’s going to be brutal,” Schwimmer said. Added Perry: “It’s terrifying, in a way.” To Kudrow, “It’s a deeper loss than I was expecting.”

The finale will be shot in two parts, Friday and Jan. 23. It will be filmed, as usual, in front of a studio audience, “except for key scenes,” Crane said in an earlier interview.

Unlike the swan song of “Seinfeld,” the farewell will not bring back guest stars.

“We wanted it to feel like a really good episode, not some high-concept, weird anomaly,” Crane said. “This show has always been about the six friends, and in the finale, that’s more important than ever.” The cast had the first read-through of the script Monday.

“We’re still adjusting, tweaking,” Crane said. “Hopefully, viewers will feel what we’re feeling – a bittersweet, but satisfying, emotional experience.” As for shooting multiple endings, a la HBO’s “Sex and the City,” it doesn’t look likely.

“It’s more work,” Crane said. “You have to be willing to put in the time. Is it really accomplishing what you want? Is it fooling people?”

Still, “Friends” is breaking its usual script routine for the finale. Instead of distributing copies to NBC and Warners, the producers explained plotlines to executives orally, “so there’s nothing in writing floating around,” Crane said.

After “Friends” wraps, Crane plans to take a year off and travel with his life partner, writer Jeffrey Klarik. The actors wouldn’t disclose how each of their characters ends up (Kudrow’s Phoebe marries Mike, played by Paul Rudd, on Feb. 12), but at least one’s future is set. LeBlanc’s Joey will be spun off to his own Thursday sitcom in the fall, to be produced by Bright.

The Friends all said they would guest-star on the show, but denied buzz that they’re taping a reunion special for Thanksgiving.

Despite getting his big shot, LeBlanc appeared crestfallen about his pals. “We took for granted how much time we spent together,” he said. “Now, we’ll have to make appointments and plans. That kind of stinks.”



Shed no tears for “Average Joe’s” Adam Mesh.

Spurned by the beauty queen for a loser ringer with six-pack abs, “Average Joe” runner-up Mesh will get his revenge in a sequel, Zucker told TV critics in L.A. on Wednesday. The four-part “Average Joe: Adam Returns” will debut March 15, after the finale of “Average Joe: Hawaii.”

Single women looking to participate can download an application from NBC.com.



Donald Trump vs. Les Moonves, Round 2.

In a media session for NBC’s new “reality” show, “The Apprentice,” co-executive producer Trump on Wednesday labeled CBS czar Moonves “the most highly overrated person in television.” If Moonves were a contestant on his show, “I’d fire him by the third episode,” Trump said. “And unlike most people, I like Les Moonves.”

Trump is furious at Moonves for CBS’ dropping Trump’s Miss Universe pageant. It was picked up by NBC’s Zucker, who was grinning like a Cheshire cat at the back of the ballroom.

The Donald, who never met a headline he didn’t like, blasted Moonves last week on NBC’s “Access Hollywood,” saying that if Trump were Sumner Redstone, chief of CBS-owner Viacom, Moonves “wouldn’t be running CBS.”

Did we mention that CBS is the top-rated network this season, and that Entertainment Weekly named Moonves the most powerful entertainment executive?

“I just don’t think he’s a great businessperson,” Trump said in an interview. “I’ve made deals with him, and I don’t think he’s very good at what he does. He’s not terrible, but I think for the money they pay him, they could get better.”

As for Miss Universe, CBS “made a major tactical mistake during the course of the negotiation,” Trump said, refusing to elaborate. “They could have come out much better than they did.”

“Apprentice” co-exec producer Mark Burnett, seated next to Trump, didn’t join the Moonves-bashing. Not surprising – Burnett executive-produces “Survivor,” about to launch its eighth edition on CBS.

Moonves had no response to the taunts. Responding to Trump’s “Access Hollywood” comments, a CBS rep said last week: “Les Moonves is running the No. 1 network in television and we’re somehow managing to limp along without the Miss Universe pageant.”

One more thing. Can Trump explain why the media give him such a hard time about his helmet hair? “I guess it’s because it’s not the greatest asset I have.”



In other NBC news announced Wednesday:

-The Peacock will counterprogram CBS’ Super Bowl Feb. 1 with three episodes of Bravo’s “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” from 8 to 11 p.m. (A genius move.)

-Tennis great John McEnroe will join CNBC as lead host and co-exec producer of a talk show to launch in the spring. It will run weeknights at 10, after Dennis Miller’s new talkie.

-“Frasier’s” 11-season run will conclude with an hourlong episode May 13.

-On “Ed,” the title character (Tom Cavanaugh) and Carol (Julie Bowen) will finally tie the knot on the season finale, Feb. 6.

-Fresh from Fox’s “The Simple Life,” hotel heiress Paris Hilton will pop up on “Las Vegas” Feb. 2 as “the pampered fiancee of a high roller.” What a stretch.



(c) 2004, The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Visit Philadelphia Online, the Inquirer’s World Wide Web site, at http://www.philly.com/

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-01-14-04 1947EST



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