Six Elon University seniors recreated the recognizable theme song and fun intro to the ten-year incredibly successful sitcom Friends at the time of their graduation in the spring of 2013. The video, which was featured on Good Morning America, has 341,081 views on YouTube and nearly entirely ‘thumbs up’ votes. Comments from YouTube viewers say things like, “This…this was amazing,” and “This makes me so ridiculously happy”. These college grads were not the first to make a parody on friends, and certainly won’t be the last. What is it about Friends that made it so successful, so timeless, and ultimately so iconic?
On Thursday September 22nd 1994, the first episode of Friends was shown at 8:30 on NBC (Keck). Series creators Marta Kauffman and David Crane pitched the show and immediately NBC President Warren Littlefield was hooked (Keck). In a 2014 interview commencing the twenty-year anniversary from the Friends premiere and a ten-year anniversary from the final episode, Littlefield recounts with excitement the pitch, “They were so in sync. They were writing what they knew and what they lived in New York. It was a wonderful pitch and we just said, ‘That’s it!’”(Keck).
The show which was almost titled ‘Insomnia Café’, ‘Six of One’, ‘Friends like us’, and ‘Across The Hall’ is still popular in 2015 with more than a dozen reruns being shown each day and over 77,000 DVD sales each year in the UK (Davies). The show gradually gained support over time with the finale being the fourth most watched finale of its time at the time, behind M*A*S*H, Cheers, and Seinfeld (Carter). It is important to note that hit shows’ ratings have generally decreased over time with the addition of new cable channels (Carter).
Littlefield recounts that things started off shaky, “It was not an instant hit. Not an automatic. There was this slow, wonderful build. The more people who saw it, the more they fell in love with it,” to which Crane adds, “I don’t think it was until midway through the first season that we realized this was something that was going to be bigger than we ever imagined, and 20 years later we’d be talking about it” (Keck). Today, people love-to-love Friends; Buzzfeed’s “Which ‘Friends’ Character Are you?” quiz has over four million views. One of the more popular questions asked is if the ‘friends’ were really friends. From what is known, the answer is yes. Die-hard Friends fans have chosen to believe and continue the off screen friendship narrative, so whether true or not it has helped the show become bigger than itself, as fans grasp for the real in the fiction. Michelle Davies remembers her time on set as an extra in one episode, and echoes the stars’ claims that the friendships were real. She says, “The six leads would drift off into a huddle between takes, spontaneously hugging and petting each other’s hair” (Davies).
A story that is very popular with fans of the show surrounds the stars’ salaries. The first season all six characters were making $22,500 per episode, and the second season individual salaries were negotiated (Keck). Prior to the third season David Schwimmer (Ross), got the six together and proposed that they unite and demand equal pay; business affairs was not happy but gave in to the ever popular group and all six were payed exactly the same for the final eight seasons (Keck). Looking back, Littlefield comments, “From day one, Marta and David put forth that this was truly an ensemble show. And very quickly the actors said we want to be treated all as equals. I think David Schwimmer knew exactly what would hold that cast together for many, many years to come” (Keck). This is a feel good story and helps contribute to fans’ love for the show and characters. Americans subscribe to the notion that individuals have control over their fate and with hard work can get what they want. Of course in this case, cooperation perhaps took away from one individual’s success in order to achieve a greater good for the group, which is not exactly American. However I think this contradiction is lessened because the new and young actors were uniting in a relative ‘underdog’ position in order to get what they deserved from the wealthy and powerful, and the underdog story certainly is American.
Matt LeBlanc talks salaries and the high price the stars were making in the final two seasons!
Friends was a new type of sitcom in that it centered on a group of friends instead of the family (Davies). Kauffman says, “the show was about that time in your life when your friends are your family” (Keck). This message will always resonate: Americans like to choose whom they spend their time with; there is less emphasis on ritual and family, Americans can be with whoever they want to be. This has created a stronger timeless element than that of family centric sitcoms, as family dynamics have changed over time more so than the dynamics of groups of friends. The six characters grow through their twenty’s while experiencing relationship trouble, heartbreak, job searches and job changes, brief fallouts with friends, and some money worry. These concerns represented many viewers’ concerns as they transitioned into adulthood and this will probably always be the case.
However, Friends was a sitcom and the problems were never too bad. It was an idealized version of life that one could still relate to. Americans generally believe that their future will be better than their present and the show enforced this idea. Who doesn’t want to believe that you can live in New York City and spend much of the day with a great group of friends in a large apartment or out doing things together? Jimmy Kimmel does a skit (end of this post) with Rachel (Jennifer Anniston) and jokes, “Is it dumber than living in a huge apartment in New York City for eight years even though you work in a coffee shop?” and “Maybe we can meet our group of friends, and we can all have breakfast together as a group before work like normal people do all the time.” This idealized version of transitioning to adulthood, where responsibilities were never too big, the hardships were never too hard, comfortable lifestyles were lead by all, and you spent as much time with friends as you had in high school, seemed great! Fans loved the slightly unrealistic time lapse between two character’s fight and make-up; we all wish for those friendships that withstand the test of time. Fans always say things like ‘I want to be the seventh friend’ and ‘they have the best life’. Davies explains, “yes, it’s a reality of sorts, but with the harsh edges blunted by glossy styling and razor-sharp banter” (Davies).
Friends found a nice balance between being realistic, relatable, and technically possible, but also idealized and perfect. The humor woven into every story line helps the show to retain lightness, where again nothing is really bad. This laughter and lightness is cited as the reason many watch the reruns in the early hours of the morning.
In the 1990’s Friends writers struggled with being at the 8pm slot and incorporating adult humor – which pales in comparison to what is on television today. Kauffman remembers being told that a condom could not be mentioned on television, but Kauffman made a sex education argument and was allowed the condom if it remained in the box (Keck). Today, twenty yeas later, parents turn to Friends as a more innocent option for their teenagers. One of these parents is President Obama! Kauffman says, “I was fortunate enough to have President Obama at the house for a DNC event in November and I think one of the greatest moments in my life was when he told me his girls are only allowed to watch four hours of television a week, and the TV they choose to watch is Friends. And they watch it as a family. That just killed me” (Keck). Parents who watched the show are now bringing it to their kids. It is interesting that a show that was somewhat controversial twenty years ago is now seen as safe TV for our adolescents. Of course these same parents may be nostalgic to life pre-kids or simply to when they used to enjoy the show after a long day of work.
Much of the show happened in the coffee shop ‘Central Perk’ that appeared in nearly every episode.
Today coffee shops have become more popular and contributed to Friends timelessness with new fans. Littlefield says, “They were completely ahead of the curve in what a coffee shop meant in a young adult person’s life. It was honestly a bit of a head-scratcher, but they knew that was this generation’s new living room” (Keck).
‘Central Perk,’ is being replicated in Beijing by Owner Du Xin who says “Everyone calls me ‘Gunther’ here” (Lim). Gunther was the quirky coffee shop barista who was in love with Rachel. Xin calls Friends “his religion,” and his detail in creating Central Perk has been appreciated by many customers – enough so to lead Xin to open a second café in Shanghai! (Lim). Xin’s recent addition was creating a replica of Joey’s apartment next door to the coffee shop. When asked for his motivations, Xin says, “I learned a lot from Friends: how to treat friends, girlfriends, my wife, how to be generous, how to be gentle” (Lim). Furthermore, it has been claimed that some Chinese fantasize about the sexually promiscuous attitude on the show that is far from their stricter traditions. This is interesting because America used to subscribe to more conservative sexual norms, but all except the politically conservative right has largely dismissed this. Further, secular progressives have equated encouraging conservative sexual practices with the subordination of women. Still, the Friends cafes bring in guests from all over. One visitor explains that it’s not the sexual freedom specifically but that “Their lives are very free, very happy. They can do whatever they like. For Chinese people, the influence of our families is quite big,” Qiu says. “So we yearn for that lifestyle.”
A Chinese adaptation of Friends called Planet Homebuddies was created with a six episode online release (Guerrero). The shows developers are trying to reach young adults. The creator says, “We noticed that working around the clock on weekdays and hanging out with friends on weekends is how most of today’s youth in China live their lives, with more and more adopting a ‘homebody’ lifestyle. Our new series will serve as the voice of today’s 20 to 30-year-old set in China, and examine this emerging trend” (Guerrero). Here is the first episode, with the theme song at the beginning:
Millions of fans have hoped and begged for a reunion, but the cast and creators seem uninterested in the idea. Below is a video of Lisa Kudrow (Phoebe) on Conan in 2013 saying that a reunion was never in the cards. Kudrow mentions that she was fooled by a Friends reunion hoax and actually thought she had been left out of the reunion plans before realizing it was just clever photo shopping by a hopeful fan!
Littlefield also quiets reunion suspicions, “But from what I’ve heard, the cast seems to be nervous about a reunion because it was so satisfying. And if they can’t do it as well as they did it, then why do it? There was something magical about the way it ended” (Keck). Kaufman adds, “There will never be a scripted episode or movie with them together. And there shouldn’t be. It would ruin it. And I don’t spend much time wondering what the characters are doing” (Keck).
Jimmy Kimmel brought fans this closest thing to a reunion:
Carter, Bill. “‘Friends’ Finale’s Audience Is the Fourth Biggest Ever.” New York Times. New York Times Company, 8 May 2004. Web. 4 May 2015.
Davies, Michelle. “Friends for Ever: Why We’re Still Loving the Hit TV Show 20 Years on.” Daily Mail. N.p., 19 Oct. 2013. Web. 4 May 2015.
Guerrero, Danger. “The Chinese Version of ‘Friends’ Premieres Next Month and Is Called ‘Planet Homebuddies’.” Uproxx. Woven Digital, 9 Jan. 2013. Web. 4 May 2015.
Keck, William. “Friends: A 20th Anniversary Oral History.” Emmys. Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, 16 Sept. 2014. Web. 4 May 2015.
Lim, Louisa. “‘Friends’ Will Be There for You at Beijing’s Central Perk.” NPR. National Public Radio, 23 Jan. 2013. Web. 4 May 2015.