I’ve watched every single episode of Friends at least, ooh, 20 times – but I never noticed this Scientology reference until now…
If there’s one thing you can say about me, it’s that I wear my status as a die-hard Friends fan well and truly on my sleeve. I’m quote-perfect on every single episode (which is unsurprising, considering that I regularly binge-watch them on Netflix), and I still chuckle along to jokes I know the punchline to. I’m so invested in the lives of Monica (Courteney Cox), Rachel (Jennifer Aniston), Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow), Chandler (Matthew Perry), Ross (David Schwimmer) and Joey (Matt LeBlanc) that I’ll spend hours reading about their salaries, their interior design choices and the dark conspiracy theories that surround them.
And, of course, defending Friends from millennials who say that its storylines are deeply, deeply problematic is the hill I’ve chosen to die on.
However, even I was caught off-guard when – during a recent re-watch of The One With The Soap Opera Party – I found myself confronted by a pretty blatant (and hilarious) reference to Scientology.
First, though, some context.
Hollywood and Scientology have long been linked, with Tom Cruise the church’s most famous spokesperson: indeed, Scientology has had a written program governing celebrity recruitment since at least 1955, when L. Ron Hubbard created ‘Project Celebrity’, offering rewards to Scientologists who recruited targeted celebrities.
And it is no secret that Los Angeles is awash with Scientology centres that specifically target performers and offer acting classes (Jerry Seinfeld recommends the “communication” course) – which means that actors are often recruited into the ranks during the early flush of their careers.
Actors like, say, Joey Tribbiani.
During the course of the show, we saw Joey slog it out as a barista, an extra (remember when he played a corpse in Jean-Claude Van Damme’s movie?), a medical guinea-pig and an embarrassing poster boy for sexually transmitted diseases.
Eventually, though, all his hard work paid off, and – with a little help from his agent, Estelle – he secured a starring role as Dr Drake Ramoray in popular daytime TV show, Days of Our Lives.
As if that weren’t testament enough to his success, Joey also winds up earning a solid $130,000 when he lands a role opposite Richard Crosby (Gary Oldman) in a film about World War I – meaning that he isn’t just a familiar face to daytime TV fans, but he’s also an influential mover-and-shaker in Hollywood, too.
Naturally, then, it makes sense that he’s the sort of person the Church of Scientology might be interested in. As Hubbard famously put it: “Celebrities are very Special people and have a very distinct line of dissemination. They have comm[unication] lines that others do not have and many medias [sic] to get their dissemination through”.
And, in The One With The Soap Opera Party, Joey basically confirms that he’s been taking Scientology courses when he’s attempting to help Rachel sort through all the phone numbers she’s received from his celebrity colleagues.
“Let me see if I approve any of these clowns,” says Joey, reading the names scrawled on tissues.
Then, dismissing each one in turn, he continues: “This guy wears a rug. This guy’s Canadian. And this guy is in a cult, ok, and it costs you $5,000 to get to level three and I don’t feel any different.”
It’s worth remembering that all Scientologists, regardless of rank, work their way through Dianetics studies and courses to ascend the Bridge to Total Freedom. The “bridge” consists of multiple steps and positions that a Scientologist must complete before they can move on to the next stage.
As Leah Remini explained in her recent documentary, Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath, you’re expected to consistently take courses (beginner courses cost around £458.41, escalating into the thousands as you get higher) to reach the “OT Levels” (Operating Thetan levels).
Not only that, but you’re concurrently shelling out big dough for “audits” (approx. £564.20 per hour) and Dianetics books (a package of books costs, on average, £2,821) along the way. Scientology consistently updates the course material, so even if you reach the top, chances are you’re looking at additional courses and more spending.
“There is no other religion that I know of that requires two-and-a-half hours of your day, a quarter of a million dollars minimum, and at least 40 years of your life,” said Remini.
Rumours of a rigid culture of fear and suppression, meanwhile, have long swirled around the Church of Scientology. The religion has been accused of homophobia thanks to the writings of its founder, and it has been claimed that Church leaders attempt to brainwash and control the lives of some worshippers.
The Church is also notorious for retaliating against people who speak out publicly against Scientology – whether they are former members of the Church or journalists who have investigated the religion. Hubbard, who died in 1986, introduced a formal policy called “attack the attacker”, resulting in multiple lawsuits against those who criticise Scientology in the press. Many critics of the religion also say that they have been subjected to threats and harassment in their private lives.
However, while it’s all too easy to suggest that Joey (wherever he is now) ought to ditch Scientology and get back to frittering his money away on large ceramic animals, others have claimed that there’s more to the religion than the public or media is aware.
Indeed, Elisabeth Moss famously spoke out to defend her Scientologist beliefs recently, saying that the church has been “grossly misunderstood” – and has granted her a newfound clarity to her life, too.
“I feel it has given me a sanity and a stability that I’m not sure I would necessarily have had,” she told the press.
“But now, it’s private – off-limits.”