Why 'Friends' was and still is a TV phenomenon

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Two decades after six NY 20-somethings first sat on the sofa at Central Perk, Dr Lauren Thompson explains why Friends turned out to be such a phenomenon...

Twenty years. Two decades. A whole generation. Children have been born and become adults. Countries have been destroyed and created. Westlife – heartbreakingly – have been and gone.

It’s a considerable amount of time. So it’s quite astounding that 20 years after its first episode and 10 years after the finale, we are still enraptured by a group of six 20-somethings who made up the cast of Friends. But perhaps there should be little surprise that the series is seared into our psyche. Tens of millions of us tuned into the final episode in May 2004 (52.5million in the US alone) making it the fourth most watched series finale of all time (M*A*S*H takes the top spot). Up to 18 episodes are shown on Comedy Central every day. It was reported just last year that 77,000 DVDs were sold in that year in the UK alone. Friends the phenomenon is going nowhere.

Yet, all the facts and figures in the world still don’t explain exactly why we have such an emotional bond with a show that first aired to a lukewarm critical reception that declared it “very weak” and a “Seinfeld wannabe”.

Sitcoms, critics have argued, have an intrinsic circularity. At the end of each episode, the reset button is pressed, and everything reverts back to how it was 22 minutes ago, ready to start the next episode afresh. The characters never learn. They never grow. They never move on.

Father Ted Crilly accepts a job in Los Angeles, but will end up back on Craggy Island before the end of the episode. Del Boy’s latest money-making scheme in Only Fools And Horses will never bring him the riches he desires.

Right from the start, Friends did things differently. It joined a growing number of sitcoms that had started to incorporate long-running narrative threads: marriages, children growing up, characters changing jobs. And it took this one stage further. It chose to make these story elements (with the Ross and Rachel on-off relationship as, arguably, the central hook) just as important as its comedic ones.

Friends blurred melodramas that were straight out of soap opera – lesbian wives, triplet surrogacy, secrets that “theydon’t- know-that-we-know-theyknow” – with more traditional sitcom plots. This was what kept us all hooked. It meant that viewers dipping in for a one-off watch were rewarded with a neatly concluded set of sitcom sub-plots (impromptu American football games, quests to hide lost monkeys from Animal Control, and even a whole episode based on six characters failing to leave the apartment for a museum awards dinner) but we loyal viewers would tune in week after week to follow the unfolding love stories, career dramas and quarter-life crises.

Mirror image

Of course, these storylines would hold no interest at all for us if we didn’t care about the characters. Comedy so often works with stereotypes, and Friends offered these up too: the professor, the ditzy blonde, the Italian lothario. But it also sought to make its characters rounded and believable. Chandler is impossibly quick-witted, but he does the most boring job imaginable (so boring nobody can even name it). Phoebe seems naïve, but has struggled in her past.

Before shooting the pilot episode, Friends producers spent time with each actor, “in order to steal from our lives”, (half) joked Matthew Perry. As well as cementing the link between actor and character, this also enhanced the degree to which each character became recognisable as a human being. As television reporter Kay McFadden noted, our attraction to the Friends characters wasn’t to do with how nice they were. It was to do with “who reminded you most of the people you knew”. An almost universal reaction to Friends was the desire to pick which “type” we were. My mum, with her borderline neurotic cleaning, was definitely a Monica, who even vacuums her own vacuum. If I was going to get a boyfriend, he had to be funny, like Chandler.

"It's like all my life everybody keeps telling that I'm a shoe. You're a shoe, you're a shoe, you're a shoe! But what if I don't want to be a shoe anymore? Maybe I'm a purse, or a hat," says Rachel Green played by Jennifer Aniston

Having six main characters amounted to the perfect circle. It was large enough to reflect a variety of different character types, but small enough to feel close-knit. They formed a snug group – around the dining table in the girls’ apartment, or on the sofas in Central Perk – with the position of the camera on the “fourth-wall” warmly inviting the audience to join the group. Friends was quite famously the show that “wasn’t afraid of hugs” and the warm colour palette, enormous coffee mugs and intimate camera placement always seemed to be asking us to join in too.

The show also benefitted from the chemistry between the actors, who genuinely got on. Their professional courtesy is well documented – they campaigned together for pay increases and always praised each other in interviews – and they only agreed to take part in the Emmys if they were all entered into the leading actor category. But they also spent a great deal of time together off-set. David Schwimmer later said of the show’s early years: “We’d go out to dinner after work, or we’d go to lunch together, or play poker, or just play games. I think we were genuinely having the time of our lives, and also there was something very bonding about how scary the whole experience was. We had the other five, like a very protective cocoon.”

"Right hand, blue" - the Friends characters play a game of Twister

The tears of goodbye shed in the final episode are not just those of six fictional characters saying goodbye to each other. They are the tears of six friends who realise that a huge part of their lives are changing for good.

The characters, however, were only so recognisable because of their oh-too-familiar situation. The surrogate family presented by Friends seemed to provide a comfort to its target audience, who were going through similar struggles as the six leads: dead-end jobs, tiffs with housemates, finding a partner who isn’t completely maladjusted.

Unlike so many sitcoms before it, which had presented their viewers with the finished ideal of the nuclear family, Friends focused on the mid-20s’ “homebuilding” stage, allowing its audience to share in the anxieties and struggles that come before 2point4 Children or The Brady Bunch. This chimed strongly with a generation leaving weddings and children until later and muddling their way through an unstable job market. And it resonated with a large audience of teenagers, who saw this in their future. “It was an explanation and exploration of what it meant to come of age in the Nineties,” explains Rebecca Ryan, futurist and founder of Next Generation Consulting. We weren’t quite as attractive as they were, but our problems were mostly the same.

Channel 4 had this young, aspirational audience in its sights, so it made sure that our own invite to Central Perk came at 9pm every Friday night. This slot was perfect to reach a young crowd “staying in” for the night – teenagers, couples, young parents. This is not to say that the audience was narrow – far from it. My parents joined me every Friday night on that couch and laughed harder than I did.

Repeat viewing

They say familiarity breeds contempt, but somehow Friends has managed to escape it. Is it because this repetition has been fundamental to its form? We were encouraged to join the gang weekly (while always remaining “outside” the group). But Friends also invested particular importance in its three key sets: the coffee house, with its iconic orange couch and Phoebe’s Smelly Cat performances; the girls’ apartment and the boys’ digs, complete with garden furniture and various species of fowl. While we sat and watched in our own living rooms, we saw these spaces reflected week after week. They started to feel like home too. We started to look for the drawing on the Magna Doodle (which the crew members would take turns to do), or the ever-changing “guest beers” stacked on the boys’ fridge. The attention to detail showed a love in the crafting of the show and rewarded loyal viewers.

The theme tune, too, was everywhere. All theme tunes are designed as a trigger to memory. We’re supposed to hear their faint strains, and drop everything to go and watch. The Rembrandts were asked to record the song written by the show’s musical director after artists such as REM had turned the opportunity down. “We thought, ‘Why not?’” says frontman Danny Wilde, “Nobody will even know it was us, anyway”. The single spent 11 weeks at the top of the US charts, and the band still receives performance royalties every time an episode of Friends is aired (Virgin Media estimates the song earned them £3m). “I’ll be there for you”, it promised, and, of course, Friends always was, not just in its weekly broadcast slot but as the background to our daily lives.

Ross, Phoebe, Monica and Chandler in the iconic cafe Central Perk in Friends

Close friends

In my late teens and 20s, Friends functioned as a sort of wallpaper, and that’s not to do the series down. Rather, it’s this quality of familiarity that made the show so successful, and has kept it special for those growing up (or trying not to) in the Nineties.

Off-screen, the actors might be mega-stars earning $1m per episode, but on screen they were quite literally the boys and girls next door. They worked as waitresses, out-of-work actors and chefs. Their lives seemed achievable, and we all wanted to be like them. In fact, Friends’ status was never more obvious than in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Airing just two days later, that week’s episode of Friends attracted an unusually high number of viewers, over 31 million. The executive of a rival network likened Friends to “comfort food in troubled times”.

But none of this tells us why Friends is still watched today, even by the teenagers I teach, who weren’t born in 1994.

When it comes to TV, quality is a word that we’d more readily associate with drama, in those long and serious serials like The West Wing. But Friends has a quality of its own kind. Watching re-runs now, I’m struck by the fact that, while the fashions might have dated, the jokes have not. The scripts were sharp and funny, perhaps not clever in niche ways like 30 Rock, but full of smart wit, proving comedy with mass appeal doesn’t have to be dumbed down. This is in no small part down to the friendship between creators and executive producers David Crane and Marta Kauffman. Even the original pitch, said Kathy Burke, then the prime-time executive at NBC, was like “two old friends telling you a story”.

There’s a YouTube video that takes an episode of Friends and cuts out all the jokes. You’re left with two minutes and 40 seconds of show. That’s how finely crafted the series’ comic aspects were. And in what is now a dying tradition, the show was filmed in front of a live studio audience. Kauffman has emphasised the huge influence of their presence: “We knew we had to listen to the audience. Their silence tells you a lot. Laughing in good and bad ways. Laughing at setups instead of jokes.” This constant testing meant the quality barrier was impressively high.

Famous logo and exterior of teh Central Perk coffee shop

Humour is never merely about the quantity of jokes, of course. It also relied on the actors’ comic timing. You only have to see how out of depth the otherwise talented Brad Pitt is against Jennifer Aniston in The One With The Rumor to appreciate the skill of the Friends cast.

The show was also influential in more subtle ways. We all know that Friends is endlessly quotable (“How YOU doing?”) but it’s also had an effect on language. In fact, Friends has become a go-to text for linguists looking to understand changes in the speech patterns of American English.

University of Toronto professors Sali Tagliamonte and Chris Roberts found that Friends had an effect on the use of ‘intensifier’ words such as “really” or “very”, which add emphasis. They found that in Friends, “so” was the most commonly used intensifier, and found a link between the popularity of “so” as an intensifier in everyday conversation and annual ratings for Friends. Another study by Theresa Heyd at the University of Pennsylvania used Friends to track the use of “you guys” as a plural form of address. Her study showed that, even though we might think of “guy” in the singular as a male form of address, the term “you guys” was used equally by male and female speakers, and to refer to groups of either gender. Friends is just so useful, you guys.

So, today’s fashion pages might be full of chokers and flatforms, but for me there’s one Nineties trend that never went away. The story of six New Yorkers who hang out in impossibly large apartments and drink copious amounts of coffee at ridiculous times of the day, Friends was, and still is, a cultural phenomenon. Every time I watch it, I’m taken back to my first viewing, as an 11-year-old at a sleepover. We watched The One With The Thumb on VHS. I decided I was a Phoebe.

I wonder what Friends would be like if it was made today, 20 years on. Would we all be tweeting along with their exploits? How many of the plotlines would be absurd in an era of smartphones and Google? Just the thought makes me shudder. I’m glad it is as it is – my little haven of Nineties nostalgia – still available to watch almost any time I turn on the TV.

Images: Rex Features, Friends/ Facebook

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