How Friends changed the sitcom landscape

How Friends changed the sitcom landscape



Before the dawn of the 1994 TV season, networks were declaring that fall to be the year of the “family.” Building off of Urkel-related horrors like Family Matters, many TV creative powers were aiming to capitalize on the familial mindset with relatives-based series: Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl, Steve Harvey’s Me And The Boys, and not one but two shows that featured orphans trying to raise themselves and stick together: On Our Own and Party Of Five.

As it turns out, 1994 was the year of some kind of family, but an unconventional one, as TV legend James R. Burrows was one of the few who foresaw the Friends explosion. Pilot director Burrows—who knew sitcom ensembles from his work on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, Taxi, and Cheers, among many others—knew that the magnetic chemistry of the cast was going to be the show’s main draw. At a Hollywood event in his honor last year, Burrows recalled, “I said to Les Moonves, who was then running Warner Bros., ‘Give me the plane—I want to take the six kids to Vegas to talk to them.’ It was me and the six of them, and I said, ‘This is your last shot at anonymity.’ I knew that this show had a chance to really take off.”

Friends did more than take off: It changed the sitcom landscape by breaking from many typical formats. The show did not revolve around a family home or a workplace, but a makeshift clan that seemed familiar to Gen Xers who were forming their own similar connections. The six twentysomething stars were so young that network execs initially suggested an “older mentor type” to give the show’s opinions more weight. The first sitcom not to feature any sort of authority figure (i.e., parent or boss) was The Monkees, which debuted in 1966 (I like this parallel because Matthew Perry’s delivery always seemed rather Dolenzian). Hip young sitcoms of earlier eras usually featured young couples (Bridget Loves Bernie, He & She), en route to eventually starting their own families. It’s safe to say that before Friends, the youth sitcom was far from as prevalent as it is today (although Living Single, a sitcom about six African American friends living in Brooklyn, preceded Friends by a year).

Seinfeld had debuted on the same network (NBC) a few years earlier, and had paved the way with its show about nothing and Larry David’s moratorium: “No hugging, no learning.” Lord knows Friends broke the former rule at least a few times an episode, but held fast to the latter. Other than romantic relationships, there were no real plot or character developments; the main criteria for a successful episode seemed to be that the Friends just hang out with each other as much as possible (in season three’s classic “The One Where No One’s Ready,” filmed in real time, they don’t even leave Monica’s apartment).

Friends didn’t really need character or plot progression because the cast had what Burrows spotted immediately: an off-the-charts chemistry. David Schwimmer described it in Vanity Fair: “To find one magical actor who is just right for the role is difficult enough, but to find six and then to have them actually have chemistry with each other is just kind of a miracle.” An equal ensemble cast like Friends’ was also unusual, as most shows had one or two stars, surrounded by supporting players: In early drawing-board incarnations, Chandler and Phoebe were demoted to second-tier. Schwimmer’s insistence that the cast negotiate as a unit was unprecedented, but helped the actors jump from unequal salaries in the first seasons to an equal $100,000 per episode per cast member with the third season (eventually reaching $1,000,000 per episode with the final season; unlike many long-running shows, no cast member ever left until the end, even as various film careers were taking off). Keeping with that team spirit, the cast also started out by only submitting themselves in the supporting category at the Emmys; in season one, Schwimmer and Kudrow were nominated, and Kudrow actually won. (In later years, other Friends actors took over the nominations—except for Courteney Cox, who wouldn’t become award bait until Cougar Town—with Jennifer Aniston eventually taking home the Best Actress award.)

The tightness of the cast helped that chemistry translate to the small screen; no one else on the show was experiencing instant stardom like the six of them were, and it helped the entire ensemble bond as a unit. Matt LeBlanc told Vanity Fair: “There’s only five people in the world who know exactly what being on Friends was like, other than me. There’s five of them. David, Matthew, Lisa, Courteney, and Jen. That’s it.” Rolling Stone’s 1995 cover story reported that the actors all got together to watch the show every Thursday, just like real-life friends were doing across the country. The three male leads took off to Europe together after the first season wrapped, Aniston eventually became godmother to Cox’s daughter, and the actors still frequently appear on each other’s shows.

The creators behind Friends quickly figured out that for the show to succeed, it needed to capitalize on that cast chemistry. A look at season one traces this exploration: The pilot starts out with various random conversations between the five friends (sans Rachel, who has yet to arrive in her wedding dress). The talks continue about such mundane topics as dreams the cast had last night, but the coffeeshop setting doesn’t change. The message is clear: This is going to be a show where people sit around and talk. A lot.


Early on, Friends contained more solo scenes for the main cast, especially Monica. As Courteney Cox was ostensibly the best-known cast member (from her turn on Family Ties as Alex Keaton’s girlfriend, not to mention the Bruce Springsteen “Dancing In The Dark” video), it made sense that most of the initial plotlines would revolve around Monica: The Friends consisted of her brother, her high school friend, her former roommate, and her neighbors, mainly hanging out in her apartment. Viewers saw scenes of Monica talking to fellow chefs at work (the only friend to actually have other friends!), comparing notes on “Paul The Wine Guy” in the pilot, and complaining that her friends liked her boyfriend more than she did in episode two, “The One With The Thumb.”

Then the show smartly underwent some experimental cast-shuffling. Separating the genders in episode four (sports versus drooling over George Stephanopoulos, ho hum) did not work as well as episode five’s dividing the six into three disparate duos: Devious Monica and Joey split up a couple, Phoebe and Chandler perform simultaneous breakups, and Ross and Rachel offer one of the first real instances of their eternal chemistry (she gives him a grateful kiss, he whacks his head on a dryer). Also unsuccessful: cornball endings like “The One Where Nana Dies Twice” (episode eight), where the friends find an old-timey picture of Nana with the gang at Java Joe’s—and it looks just like them! The next episode, “The One Where Underdog Gets Away” is more effective because of all the vitriol that comes before the happy ending: Trapped in New York for Thanksgiving, the friends turn on each other until their collective hearts are warmed by the sight of Ugly Naked Guy sharing dinner with an Ugly Naked female friend. Realizing they’re lucky to have each other, the group sits down to a Thanksgiving dinner of grilled cheese, hoping that this ruinous Turkey Day is followed by “a lousy Christmas” and “a crappy new year!

Darker messages like these (not too dark, but darker than Family Matters) saved Friends from its potentially saccharine sweetness. Generation X came right after the patriotic Baby Boomers: They had grown up with the Vietnam War, Watergate, and Nixon’s resignation, so this generation was fairly disillusioned by authority figures that were formerly untouchable. Thanks to the remnants of the George H.W. Bush recession (although the Clinton economic recovery was kicking in), this was also the first generation that realized that they might not improve on the lot of their parents’. Gen Xers did not buy into the “job for life” corporations their parents did, understanding that jobs came and went, as did authority figures (on the show, symbolized by a slew of unhelpful parents), but friends would always be there.

In this cultural landscape, the Friends’ theme song, partially penned by the series creators, made perfect sense: “Well no one told you life was going to be this way / You’re job’s a joke, you’re broke, your love life’s D.O.A.”—a far cry from turning the world on with a smile or celebrating the happy days that are yours and mine. Waitress Rachel, who starts the series off by walking away from a secure future with orthodontist Barry, despairs early on, “What if it all doesn’t come together?” Chandler’s job is so boring no one can even remember what it is, and most of Joey’s income initially comes from being a subject in medical studies. Monica’s message to Rachel at the end of the pilot is: “Welcome to the real world. It sucks! You’re gonna love it.”

Unlike so many sitcoms of the era that showed parents as those dependable, solid foundations you could always fall back on (your Blossoms, Full Houses, Step By Steps), for the fighting-for-independence characters on Friends, parents could be downright villainous. How else to explain Judy Geller’s continual dismissals of her daughter (“Oh, we’re having spaghetti for dinner? That’s… easy.”), Rachel’s dad’s efforts to squash her new lifestyle, or Chandler’s mom’s seduction of his best friend? Some of the parents are well-meaning but hapless: Elliott Gould is wonderfully clueless as Ross and Monica’s dad, and LeBlanc gets one of episode eight’s biggest laughs when he tells his adulterous father that when his dad is under Joey’s roof, he’ll abide by Joey’s rules: The role-reversal dream of offspring everywhere.

So the Friends are figuring it out on their own, but at least they have each other. This is most easily observed in the storylines of Rachel and Ross in the first season, as both are starting from square one: Ross has lost his wife to another woman, and Rachel is reinventing herself from a Long Island princess into a Manhattanite. The guys help Ross move into his new apartment, and everyone even supports him when he’s so lonely he gets a monkey. In episode 18, “The One With All The Poker,” Rachel loses a job, but her friends help her rally by building her up in a poker game, with Ross, of course, letting her win with a final bluff.

The show creators capitalized on the fun that could be found in the cast’s frequent hangouts like the poker game. Season-one group highlights include Monica’s communal breakup of Alan, the guy she’s dating that the Friends really like (Rachel: “But… the holidays are coming up! I wanted him to meet my family!”), or the way the friends begin to turn on Fisher Stevens’ brilliantly snarky Roger, as he pokes fun at their dependent group dynamic (saying that their omnipresent coffee cups “might as well have nipples on them”).


But a few pairings even went past this chemistry, with dyads that played off each other so perfectly, it’s hard to believe we weren’t watching actual relationships. In particular, season one introduced us to Chandler/Joey and Ross/Rachel. LeBlanc and Perry play off each other seamlessly, as the actors’ unspoken shorthand reveals the intense trust they must have had in each other, with Chandler’s continually looking out for the less-than-bright Joey, and Joey continually trying to help Chandler out of his sarcastic shell. When Ross kisses Chandler’s mom (Morgan Fairchild), it’s Joey who loyally insists that Ross has to tell his friend; when Joey inadvertently sets Chandler up with Janice, the woman he’s already broken up with twice, Chandler still sticks with the double-date.

Of course, the relationship of Ross and Rachel wound up (for good or ill) defining the series, but in season one, it’s still completely entertaining to watch the friendship develop, over laundry, glasses of wine on the porch, even during a fight when Rachel accidentally lets Ross’s monkey Marcel loose (Yes, that sounds like a total euphemism. It’s a good thing that monkey didn’t last very long on the show). The Ross-Rachel buildup made the eventual payoffs, like season two’s “The One With The Prom Video,” so valuable from the viewers’ standpoint because by then, we were as invested as the players themselves.

Friends essentially created what is now known as the “hangout comedy.” The more madcap Happy Endings also featured six leads of equal status who did little more than hang out all the time, while My Boys’ best moments were when the entire cast was playing poker or drinking at the local tavern (much like Friends’ coffee shop). How I Met Your Mother’s five leads also skipped the coffee and headed straight to the bar. New Girl only hit its stride when its focus shifted from star Zooey Deschanel to more of an ensemble approach with her roommates. Although Friends admittedly got difficult to watch in its final seasons, the legacy of the show’s early years proves that it went far past haircut fodder to make an indelible mark on the TV landscape. Although Burrows found similar cast chemistry a few years later with Will & Grace, his more recent efforts (The Class, Partners, the recently axed Friends With Better Lives) show just how difficult it is to make that particular kind of lightning strike again.

Filed Under: TV, Friends

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