Top 10 Comedies: #3 Friends

BURBANK, CA – SEPTEMBER 12: (EXCLUSIVE, NO U.S. TABLOID SALES) The cast, (L-R) Matt LeBlanc, (Joey) Courteney Cox Arquette, (Monica, back to camera), Jennifer Aniston, (Rachael), and Lisa Kudrow, (Phoebe Buffay), of the hit NBC series “Friends” perform during one of their last shows on the Warner Bros lot Sept. 12, 2003 in Burbank, CA. “Friends,” which is in its ninth and final season, debuted in 1994, has won 44 Emmys, and is one of the biggest successes in television history. (Photo by David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images) This image is not included in any subscription deal. Use of this image will incur a charge. David Hume Kennerly Getty Images North America

I have had a feeling for most of the last several weeks that once we got to the top three on the comedy countdown, one of the selected shows might ignite a bit of a firestorm. People expect, especially based on our selections thus far, to see a certain program that doesn’t make this list. I won’t name it, because the comments section will do it for me, if not this week, then over the following two. I considered just taking this article and defending my selection, because for some it will be highly polarizing, but the sheer fact of the matter is, number three, along with number one, defined an entire generation. It went well beyond its running length and surpassed being an ordinary television show to capture a large swath of the general public. As a result of that fact alone, it bore strong consideration. When, after a complete rewatch of the series when it was released on Blu-Ray two years ago, it held up, it was consistently funny, and I enjoyed all eleven seasons, the decision was made. Before I knew there would be a comedy countdown, I had this show in my brain. We’re headed to a coffee shop folks.

This is the one about that timeless show that helped solidify NBC’s place as the cock of the walk prior to and after the turn of the last century. That’s too long, unlike this sentence. Let’s try again. This is “The One About Those Six NYC Compadres.”

NUMBER THREE: FRIENDS (1994-2004, NBC)

Six regular cast members. Not just six main stars, but six that stayed with the show from beginning to end, all growing in a natural way and with chemistry that rivals any in memory. Six relative unknowns: David Schwimmer, Matthew Perry, Matt LeBlanc, Jennifer Aniston, Courtney Cox, and Lisa Kudrow. I, like every other guy I grew up with, knew Courtney from “Dancing in the Dark,” and had seen the rest in mainly forgettable minor roles. All of a sudden, at 8:30 PM on Thursday, NBC’s gold standard night for comedy, I see this show about six twenty-somethings trying to make it in New York City. Even if the show had sucked out loud, once I saw Miss Aniston, I’d have been in for at least a season, again just like every other cat I grew up with…that chick was a “dime.” Luckily for me and for NBC, despite the hopes and comments of the anti-establishment crowd, Friends didn’t suck. In fact, the truth was, it was really funny and put a sextet of extremely likable and youthful characters in front of us for over a decade.

Joey Tribbiani: Hey, Ross, I got a science question: If the homo sapiens were, in fact, HOMO sapiens…is that why they’re extinct?

Ross Geller: Joey, homo sapiens are PEOPLE.

Joey Tribbiani: Hey, I’m not judgin’! (S3E8)

I remember watching the first few years of Friends and then bailing, because I thought I was supposed to, probably through the subliminal teachings of Pearl Jam, Kurt Cobain, and Dr. Dre. It was played out, I was told. Nobody cool watched Friends and they definitely didn’t talk about it. But my first serious girlfriend adored it, so I got back into it, then got back out of it. Though I watched most of the final season, it wasn’t until the show actually concluded that I realized just how special it truly was as an entertainment property.

The ratings, sure we all knew everybody watched it. As a result, it became chic to despise it, but virtually no one could ever give a reason why they hated it. The jokes were funny, the characters fit perfectly, and the stories all had an underlying heart without feeling inappropriately corny. Was the on again, off again Ross Geller (Schwimmer) Rachel Greene (Aniston) relationship obnoxious at times? Sure it was, but in virtually every comedy of all-time, to add conflict and keep people watching, that’s how things worked. Jim and Pam on The Office were the rare exception. Time and fictional circumstance kept Leslie Knope and Ben Wyatt apart on Parks & Recreation, just as a misunderstanding did with April Ludgate and Andy Dwyer. The dirty truth is, we need the drama, but once in a while, the easy stuff works. And, in a storyline that wasn’t planned from the beginning, Friends found the real reason it’s so beloved. As much as most of us rooted for the almost inevitable Ross-Rachel conclusion, none of us saw Monica Geller (Cox) and Chandler Bing (Perry) becoming arguably the show’s most compelling couple.

Friends was about relationships, both sexual and, well, friendly. There was history between everyone to some degree, prior to the lights going up on the pilot. Monica and Ross were siblings; Rachel was Monica’s best friend growing up and was Ross’ big crush. Chandler was Ross’ closest friend in high school and college, and along the way, Phoebe Buffet (Kudrow) and Joey Tribbiani (LeBlanc) found their way into the mix. How many iterations of the Friends formula have we seen in some form since the Central Perk gang ordered their coffee, talked about their lives, and changed ours? From Traffic Light (RIP) to New Girl to Mad Love to How I Met Your Mother to The Big Bang Theory, all of it has been an attempt to recapture Friends, but with a unique twist. Some have worked well; some have been incredibly successful, though most have failed miserably. Despite solid casts or even decent writing, it was like the second cast of SNL attempting to replace the original Not Ready For Primetime Players. It’s just impossible to improve on perfection.

David Crane and Marta Kauffman, coming off the end of their CBS effort, Family Album, and the successful HBO series, Dream On, had a few ideas, but one stood out above the rest. They would bring production partner Kevin Bright, who they worked with on Dream On, along to try and sell this new show. From their own comments to Matt Lauer during the run-up to the series finale, here’s how they described the original pitch:

It’s about sex, love, relationships, careers, a time in your life when everything’s possible. And it’s about friendship because when you’re single and in the city, your friends are your family. (2004)

That pair of sentences couldn’t be more accurate to what Friends would become. It was the complete opposite of the Hardees commercial that shows some giant, disgusting burger that couldn’t be eaten with an actual human mouth. This pitch was the show. It seemed very basic because it was. The vision was easy. It was also general enough that it left innumerable avenues to take these six people. Having a larger group enabled so many more possibilities involving any number of them or in solo storylines. What Crane, Kauffman, and Bright would do is make sure we knew what each character cared about and who they were, including their professional life, and then intertwine that knowledge with carefully crafted ensemble comedy. It was exquisitely done and the proof is in the numbers.

Friends was nominated for 62 Primetime Emmy Awards, with all of the main cast sans Courtney Cox receiving acting nods, with Aniston and Kudrow winning Emmys. As for ratings, the lowest the show ever ranked was fifth for an entire season. A mere 20.1 million watched season 7. The next year, following the Monica-Chandler wedding, the show rebounded to over 24 million average viewers. Critical response went from fairly mediocre in the show’s first year, usually over comparisons to Seinfeld, to highly positive and heavily acclaimed in the final years. That’s rather stunning and shows remarkable consistency in the writing, because 95% (not official, just a guess) of shows run too long and use up all of their good ideas. Friends was still extremely good as the two hour finale aired on May 6, 2004. That finale, as a piece of fan service, was about as solid as anyone could expect. The hype was outrageous. The cast was on every talk show, every gossip show, and every magazine cover on planet Earth. Most of you reading this piece today remember exactly how big the Friends finale hysteria actually became in anticipation of that last episode.

So many things reach stellar levels of popularity for ridiculous reasons. Fads happen all the time, and we all buy into our share. I could pull out my can of pogs from the attic right now, or my Garbage Pail Kids, or my Koosh balls. Actually, I still dig those from a distance and for stress relief. Some things, for example the Kardashians, become famous for being famous. Reality television’s appeal completely escapes me, because of the inherent lack of reality. That said, make sure you read Mattie Lou’s Bachelor recaps every week, because they’re tremendous. In the case of Friends, if you watch the show objectively, forgetting about what you think you’re supposed to like or not like or if something seems so mainstream it’s clearly coming from “the man”, you’ll discover it’s just a great television program. It’s okay for that to be the case. It’s okay for something to have achieved success because it actually earned it. These people were and are talented. They cared about each other on and off the set, helping each other and negotiating as a group. The story of Schwimmer and Aniston refusing pay raises early in the show’s run because they felt their four co-stars deserved the same, fighting for their cast-mates, is astounding.

It’s no wonder that every single time you watch an episode of this landmark comedy, there’s a constant sense that these people really enjoy being around one another. I’m sure there were disagreements and tiffs and expected Hollywood nonsense, but overall, these guys and gals did it the right way. Matthew Perry has been very open about his drug and alcohol issues during the show, but he still performed extremely well. His willingness to speak after the fact, while attempting to conceal his issues when the show was on the air, deserves respect. There were some stiff conversations in a few interviews, but honesty usually requires a tough moment. Also, Chandler Bing remains one of the funniest characters ever on television.

Rachel: Guess what, guess what, guess what!

Chandler: Um, ok. The fifth dentist caved and now they’re all recommending Trident?

One more Bingism because the guy’s schtick simply cracks me up.

Rachel: Ok, well, I’m turnin’ in.

Chandler: Rach, we gotta settle.

Rachel: Settle what?

Chandler: The Jamestown colony of Virginia. You see King George is giving us the land.

Did I mention both of those are from the same episode? Season 1, Episode 18 if you’re scoring at home, and you should be. Every character had moments to shine, all had great one liners, and all had some level of quirk that was a joy to uncover. Joey was a struggling actor, eventually a soap opera actor, but was not book smart. Chandler worked in a more regular 9-5 office, but he was paranoid and used comedy and sarcasm as defense mechanisms. Ross was a paleontologist but has confidence issues and his ex-wife left him for another WOMAN. Rachel is young and ditzy, left her ex-fiance at the altar, and has very little common sense. Monica is a chef, a very talented cook, but is a neat-freak, almost to obsessive compulsive levels, and is also quite controlling. Phoebe performs music at Central Perk, is out of her mind, and is the artsy member of the group.

Those recurring characters they encounter, usually due to physical or sexual relationships, come and go, can always return when the time is right, and just about every one of them added plenty to the show. Richard Burke (Tom Selleck), provides much needed dramatic tension to Monica’s life, both before and after she and Chandler get together romantically. Mike Hannigan (Paul Rudd) rounds out Phoebe’s individual story in the back half of the series and plays a key role in her biggest moments. That’s just two examples of many. The show is overflowing with talented people who wanted to be a part of something they knew was special. When they showed up, they punched in and did great work. There was no “phone it in” on this show, because it was too important.

The storylines were often ingenious, were put together with care, and the final product almost always delivered. I felt like How I Met Your Mother was a show that most of the time, despite your feelings on the final season or the end game, got the biggest moments right. Friends got basically every one of them right, but also found the time to get nearly all the little stuff right as well. From the chick and the duck to the recliners to Rachel’s jobs to people using the library location of Ross’ book to have sex, it was always funny. It wasn’t a show that ever annoyed me. That binge rewatch two years ago was one of the more entertaining and fun experiences I’ve had in a while watching a comedy. “I got off the plane” is still as memorable a moment as I can remember in a sitcom. It’s hard to do it much better than Friends did it, and in the past 20 years, I’d say only…um…two, were able to accomplish that feat. We’ll talk about those two shows in the next couple of weeks.

Friends defined hairstyles, clothing styles, humor, pop culture, and turned its six stars into icons of their time period. None of them has ever escaped the shadow, but all of them have gone on to some level of success. While Schwimmer put his brain to directing and writing, also to causes he believed in, Cox found critical acclaim with the vastly underappreciated Cougar Town. As Perry worked through some failures and personal growth, he did some decent film work and has The Odd Couple reboot set to premiere on CBS later this month. LeBlanc won a Golden Globe for his starring role, as a parody of himself, in Showtime’s Episodes. Aniston’s personal life keeps her in the news, but she’s done some very funny films and just received award consideration in the movie, Cake. Kudrow is back on HBO with The Comeback, which continues to be a very funny show, again an over-the-top parody of herself.  

But, with all of what these actors and actresses have accomplished, nothing will ever top that time when they hung out for a decade in an apartment none of them could possibly have afforded in reality. Nothing will ever top the laughs, the tears, the one of a kind moments that separated their slice of television history from any other. Nothing will ever top the ratings, the level of awareness, and the stardom they found together when they were more similar to the characters they played on screen.

They were people in their 20s trying to make it, and in the process, they changed the game.

Friends was just added back to Netflix. All ten seasons are available there. The show runs in constant regional syndication as well as national syndication on networks such as TBS, also on Nick At Nite.

Me, I’m @GuyNamedJason. Come follow me on the tweets, especially if you’re a single woman, because…you know… HOW YOU DOIN?

10. Frasier

9. The Office

8. Modern Family

7. NewsRadio

6. 30 Rock

5. Community

4. Sports Night

Written by Jason Martin