Why Friends’ fake game show epitomized ensemble comedy 

Why Friends’ fake game show epitomized ensemble comedy 

Welcome to the TV Roundtable, where some of TV Club’s writers tackle episodes that all deal with a central theme. The theme for the current round of installments is “competition.”

“The One With The Embryos” (Friends, season four, episode 12; originally aired 1/15/1998)
In which a bet gets out of hand yet again, but without the cleavers this time around…

Donna Bowman: The best thing about game shows, which can be excellent television in their own right, is the parodies they inspire. There’s a reason Saturday Night Live goes back to the fake game-show well over and over again. Trivia questions and answers can be a laugh riot, whether the contestants are freakishly knowledgeable or completely clueless. And that’s not even mentioning the comic possibilities of the quizmaster role, with its prescribed mix of suave television host and ultimate arbiter of truth.

Anyone in need of a primer on the fictional game show should look no further than “The One With The Embryos,” one of the best half hours the multi-camera sitcom format ever produced. Monica and Rachel bet a C-note that they know more about Chandler and Joey than vice versa, and everything in the quiz that follows works like gangbusters. Each question contains a whole episode’s worth of backstory, compressed into a few seconds of Q&A (Monica’s biggest pet peeve is animals dressed as humans; Chandler’s father’s all-male burlesque is called Viva Las Gaygas). Reaction shots provide a quick burst of extra comedy when the answers embarrass one of the characters (Monica’s nickname when she played field hockey was Big Fat Goalie; Chandler was 19 when he first touched a girl’s breast). Ross throws himself into the host role with gusto, but he’s matched in enthusiasm by the four contestants, whose reaction to the opening coin toss presages the joy and despair that will hang on every rapid-fire question.

The biggest key to the episode’s success is the way the script provides a repeated, syncopated rhythm—tension, release, release—to multi-part jokes within the gradual escalation inherent in the game. Take Rachel’s excitement over knowing whose name is on the address label of the TV Guide that’s delivered to Chandler and Joey’s apartment every week. “Chandler Bing!” she announces, to Monica’s disgust. Ross delivers the bad news: “I’m afraid the TV Guide comes to Chanandler Bong.” Beat, cut to Chandler: “Actually, it’s Miss Chanandler Bong.” And that’s how a good gag becomes an epic gag, in 30 seconds or less. Throw in Monica’s angry accusation in the following act, after they lose the lightning round—“We steal that TV Guide every week!”—and you have something close to perfect.

Because this little game, with its ridiculous apartment-switching stakes and outrageous revelations (Chandler has the bejeezus scared out of him by Michael Flatley, Lord of the Dance, because “his legs flail about as if independent of his body!”), is secretly a character showcase. Monica’s uncontrolled competitive streak drives the action, and if you’ve forgotten just how Courteney Cox’s go-for-broke energy anchored the show, then you’re probably not watching Cougar Town, and shame on you for that. Rachel just wants so much to contribute that she gets tripped up on her own thought process, leading to the climactic “He’s a transponster!” gibberish that ends the girls’ run. 

Meanwhile, in the titular plotline, Phoebe stays safely out of the fray, getting implanted with her brother and sister-in-law’s babies. These embryos mostly serve to make the name of the episode hard to remember when one is trying to locate what by all rights should be called “The One With The Quiz.” But it does provide a huge laugh and a stellar ensemble-character moment when the group pauses briefly after Phoebe leaves for the doctor’s office to reflect on the occasion. “It’s such a huge, life-altering thing,” Rachel muses. Then Ross pipes up “The test is ready,” and Phoebe is instantly forgotten in the collective competitive mania.

In spite of its status as the single show that has wielded the most influence on today’s television-comedy landscape, Friends doesn’t get enough critical credibility for my taste. But then, I speak as someone who continued to find the show well-written, engagingly performed, and occasionally brilliant throughout its decade-long run at the top of the charts. I know that for others, its steamroller success and legacy of imitators—not to mention the transformation of its cast into well-heeled celebrities and tabloid fodder—make its simple pleasures hard to swallow. Or maybe you don’t find them that pleasurable in the first place. Let’s spin that big TV Club Summertime Roundtable wheel and see where Friends winds up!

Phil Dyess-Nugent: I have a shameful confession to make: When this show was the hottest thing on television, and one of the hottest things in popular culture, I was a Friends snob. I watched the first season for a few weeks, and didn’t not enjoy it, but the bouncy good cheer and the insanely good-looking actors—and the fact that even the characters who seemed to have next to no visible means of economic support seemed to be living pretty well in a part of Manhattan I could barely afford to loiter in—got up my nose. I’m very sheepish about this now. Watching this episode out of context does at least make me realize that there was no shame in never feeling comfortable about just trying to jump back in, even after I’d unwedged my head from my ass. I don’t know who thinks of Friends as revolutionary TV, and obviously that wasn’t part of its mission statement, but it definitely did its part in redefining sitcoms as a form in which significant events happened in the characters’ lives, and their relationships developed and changed over time—like in a soap opera, but at much greater speed. Seriously, it feels as if you miss this show for a month or two, and when you check back in, every character is sleeping with someone different from whom they were sleeping with the last time you saw them. (Meanwhile, one of them has become a surrogate mother.) I remember when the definition of a sitcom was that nothing ever changed until the ratings started to dip around season four, at which point some poor couple had to have a baby.

So the main thing I have to volunteer is this: I don’t know whether the trivia questions about the characters’ lives are drawn from actual events that had occurred on the show up to that time, and you don’t have to know that to find this sequence both hilarious and oddly adorable. The fact that Monica and Rachel think they know the details of Chandler and Joey’s lives as well as, oh, say, I know those of Richard Thompson’s and Sam Peckinpah’s, is both funny and a great metaphor for the way this show defines friendship as hanging out together through a string of wacky incidents and heart-tugging moments. If any of this stuff does reference actual episodes, then maybe it doesn’t hurt to know that—unless it does.

Ryan McGee: When Friends was on its A-game, little could surpass the series in terms of its comic punch, chemistry, and yes, even heart. There’s always a certain resistance to claiming that something so immensely popular also happens to represent the peak of that pop culture’s form, but at its best, Friends could easily ascend to that level. So I’m glad we’re talking about this as part of the Roundtable. Covering this show week-to-week, as is the custom nowadays, would be torturous. As good as it was, I’m not sure it could have sustained such analysis. That’s not a knock on the show so much as the format of the reviews themselves. “Friends do what Friends do” would be the sum total of entire seasons of recaps.

As with the rest of you, I like the idea that the answers to the trivia questions themselves suggest entire episodes devoted to that single topic. (“The One About Chandler’s Fear Of Michael Flatley” sounds like an episode of this show that should exist, no?) But I also enjoy the fact that the game itself has stakes. Had the entire endeavor been erased by Monica and Rachel squelching on the bet, this would have been a fun diversion but nothing more. But as Phil points out, things managed to change on a fairly rapid basis on this show. Sure, it’s no The Vampire Diaries or Revenge in that regard, but it’s also pretty easy to determine what season a particular rerun originally aired. Not just because of the actors’ hairstyles, but also because of character relationships. That gives the show a lived-in feel that means the great anecdotes aren’t just in the past for these characters—they’re in their future as well.

As much as the bet itself takes center stage, it’s Phoebe’s journey toward motherhood that still thrills to this day. I’ve seen this episode a half-dozen times, and Lisa Kudrow’s speech to the embryo is heartbreaking every time. Friends didn’t always know how to calibrate this character (a problem it had with Joey as well for a long time), but when the writers gave Kudrow the proper material, she gave Friends a unique energy. Plenty of ensemble sitcoms rely on the “wacky” character to balance things out. But often, those characters stood on the periphery, not often let into the show’s inner narrative circle. On Friends, the group simply isn’t the group without Phoebe. She’s as important as any others, and in this episode she serves to unite the circle just as it threatens to splinter.

Noel Murray: Phil, I like the notion of you not having seen enough Friends to know whether the incidents referred to in the quiz actually happened on the show or not. Now I’m picturing Friends as the sitcom version of the comic book Astro City, with a mythology that extends well beyond the screen, encompassing fragments of every famous and/or conventional sitcom plot that every TV fan knows. To answer your question, though, it’s not that Monica being called “Big Fat Goalie” ever happened onscreen, or that we’ve ever visited Las Gaygas—it’s that Friends was always very good about building out its characters’ backstories and personalities, such that they quickly deepened and grew beyond the more shallow types they were presented as in the first episode. (The transformation of Rachel was particularly striking; she’s an entirely different person in the pilot than she would be by the end of the first season and beyond.) A lot of the comedy of the quiz comes from how longtime viewers can anticipate the answers and the reactions (right down to Monica’s anguished “Nooooooo!”), based on how well-developed the gang has become by this point.

And a big part of the reason why that deepening happened is what you’ve all pegged as the key to the show: Things change. There are real stakes. Chandler and Joey will live in that apartment for about half a season, and then the show will restore order briefly, before introducing another shake-up. Chandler will move back into the apartment a few years later when he and Monica get together, and Rachel will move in with Joey. A story unfolds. I personally never cared much about the Phoebe-as-surrogate-mother story (I’m like the gang: anxious to get back to the game), but I appreciate it as a signpost of where we are in the show as a whole. Okay, if Phoebe’s pregnant, then we’re about a half-season away from the trip to London, which kicks off the Monica/Chandler storyline. And so on. And that’s what’s so brilliant about the quiz. It doesn’t just reveal what these people know about each other; it reveals what we know about them.

Genevieve Koski: Phil, you questioning whether the events mentioned in The Quiz ever happened in the Friends onscreen universe made me think about “The One With The Embryos” in terms of a current series that shares some basic DNA with Friends: Community, specifically the standout episode “Paradigms Of Human Memory.” That episode’s ingenious faux-flashback format allowed the series to build a big, unseen universe for its characters, showing events that happened to the study group but that we, the audience, never saw before these “clips” brought them to light. “The One With The Embryos” pulls a similar, albeit simpler, trick by alluding to conversations and conflicts and inside jokes that have developed over the course of this friendship, unseen by the audience at home. There’s poignancy to the realization that the characters we watch week to week “exist” in their world all the time, not just the 23 minutes we’re watching them. It’s like seeing your teacher outside of school, or your priest at the post office; it makes them real people, people like you. Obviously, we’re talking about fictional characters who don’t actually have more nuanced (and yes, more mundane) lives than what we see, but little references like the ones in The Quiz serve a similar function, fleshing out these people and, more importantly, this weird six-way friendship around which the series is based. It establishes that these characters share even more than what we see—which is a lot—making it plausible, even downright characteristic, that they’d while away an afternoon quizzing each other about each other. (And sleep with and marry and have kids with one another. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.)

I was and remain a Friends fan from episode one all the way through the series finale, and unashamedly so: When the series premièred, I was too young to register that the Central Perk T-shirt I wore throughout sixth grade was anything other than totally hip, and by the time I did register the cynicism surrounding the show, its myriad imitators, and its stars’ bloated paychecks, I was too invested in the characters to care. Like Sex And The City, another generation-defining, oft-maligned series, there’s plenty to quibble about with Friends in terms of its influence, legacy, and plausibility, but it’s hard to deny that both series cultivated unanimously strong ensembles composed of specific, well-drawn characters who were each relatable in some way (and ridiculous in others). That’s why the Friends gang could be paired off, romantically or otherwise, in any permutation and it would pretty much work.

Or one of them could be sent off on her own storyline completely. It makes sense that Phoebe would be left out of The Quiz, as she’s not related to or living with any of the competitors, but her storyline of getting implanted with the prospective child (or, as it turns out, children) of her brother and sister-in-law serves as a nice emotional counterpoint to the silliness of Chanandler Bong and lightning rounds. And, as it happens, it also fits into our theme of competition, though this time it’s competition in the biological sense: science vs. nature, egg vs. uterine lining, all that intense, grown-up stuff. Phoebe’s realization that this is Frank Jr. and Alice’s only shot at kids, and not a very statistically promising shot at that, leads to the aforementioned discussion between her and the embryos, a great moment that could only work with a character as good-hearted, naïve, and weird as Phoebe. This would not be Friends’ last foray into the realm of fertility and pregnancy, but each time the show went to that well, or any well, it tailored the situation to the characters: Only the reliably peculiar Phoebe could get involved in something as weird as having her brother’s triplets, just as only the hyper-competitive Monica could gamble away her apartment (while spoiled Rachel just flat-out refuses to acknowledge the loss). No matter how soapy or silly Friends got, it generally remained true to the characters and their friendship; even when they started to pair off, the ramifications of those romantic pairings on the rest of the group were always addressed, because these six individuals aren’t interchangeable, and their actions have an effect on the others… sometimes to the tune of a really nice, unrealistically spacious Manhattan apartment.

Todd VanDerWerff: Friends haters are rather like Bigfoot: I’ve heard about them and seen evidence of them, but I’ve never encountered them in the wild. There’s a lot of time spent defending and re-defending this show among those who really love it (which would include my wife), but I’m never sure whom these people are defending it from. Certainly the show will draw out Internet cranks wherever it’s discussed, but it also strikes me that the show was always well-liked by critics and showered with Emmy nominations, including a win for Best Comedy late in its run (for the show’s post-Sept. 11 season, when it abruptly vaulted back into the public consciousness in a big way). I’m a big fan of the first five seasons, while feeling the back half of the series has its moments but also plenty of issues (most notably the gradual broadening of everything Noel mentions below), but it’s also a rather dazzling example of how to plot out serialized storylines in a sitcom. Seriously: Is there a sitcom as heavily serialized as this one is on the air right now? I’m sure there is, but it’s also unlikely that show would be as popular as this one was. Episodes like this one, episodes that made for major story shifts and changed the status quo, were big deals when they aired, and I can still remember the hype leading up to this episode in the TV Guides and Entertainment Weeklys of the world.

This is all a long-winded way of saying “The One With The Embryos” is an episode I’ve seen so many times, I essentially didn’t need to see it again. It might be my wife’s favorite episode of television ever made, to the degree where she could tell what I was watching, all the way across the apartment, simply from hearing a rooster crow. (Can I say I was never a huge fan of Chick and Duck? Yet here they are, pointing again to the way the show marked the relentless passage of time.) I’ve grown a little less enamored of the Phoebe plotline over the years—though I don’t hate it or anything—while still finding the quiz scenes sublime. And can we give it up for the surprising comic timing of David Schwimmer? The character of Ross became such a dopey hangdog by the end of the show—and even at points in its best seasons—that it’s easy to forget just how much fun he could be, and his role as game-show host might be my favorite thing about the episode. He’s funny in a very different way from the two teams competing for the apartment, yet reliably hilarious all the same. This is a great episode both for how cleverly it builds out the show’s mythology and for how many different types of humor it mixes into the story. It’s a great use of a whole comedic ensemble in the same place, and that might be Friends’ greatest legacy.

Erik Adams: Here’s how deeply this episode is embedded in the contemporary TV canon: Having never seen the entire half-hour before (I think it originally aired when the show and I were on a break), I already knew and loved the “Chanandler Bong” gag. That speaks to the “well-defined character” bit we’ve harped on, since the viewer only need be aware of Chandler’s smart-ass sense of humor to be amused by his choice of pseudonym.

And while The Quiz is the episode’s obvious centerpiece, it’s that finale that launches the whole endeavor into the stratosphere. In a neat bit of foreshadowing excerpted above, Ross refers to his trivia challenge as “the test,” but the test with results that will have ramifications beyond the apartment-swap arc is the one that indicates Phoebe’s pregnancy. The Quiz has legitimate stakes, yes, but those are all overshadowed by the news Phoebe shares with her friends and family (and friends who are her family) at the end of the episode. These characters are going through life-altering moments together, and like Ryan suggests, this one would slot in among Althea’s funeral and Rachel’s actual favorite movie in a history of the Bing-Buffay-Geller-Green-Tribbiani friendship. Given its significance, however, there’s no way any of them would be stumped by the question “Where did Phoebe reveal she was pregnant?” in a future version of The Quiz.

Stray observations:
PDN: I seriously need to get the DVD bricks and catch up with this series sometime; I have it on reliable authority that the final season was one of the best. In the meantime, it’s interesting seeing these performers in their iconic roles if you mainly know them from other, later performances. It’s nice to see that Jennifer Aniston was always a spark plug, and fascinating to see how much more polished Matt LeBlanc has gotten. But for me, the big news is finding out that Matthew Perry once had the ability to rearrange his features to form different expressions. He even used to be able to smile!

NM: Phil, I enjoyed Friends from start to finish, but I wouldn’t say the last season was an appreciable improvement over the few that preceded it. I’m always stunned when I stumble across an episode from one of Friends’ later seasons by how broad the show got toward the end. Maybe I’m less of a fan of those seasons because I only watched them when they aired, and then rarely ever again, while I watched the first five seasons over and over in syndication (back in those pre-kids/newlywed days when pretty much all Donna and I did was watch syndicated repeats in the late afternoon, new shows in primetime, and then Mystery Science Theater 3000 in late night). But there was a slackness that set in with Friends later on, as NBC kept throwing money at the cast to keep the show on the air, even though everyone was exhausted, creatively. At that point, all that careful character-building started to work against the show a bit, as the writers and actors started playing more to the caricatured versions of their own creations. Ever read a fan-written script of a show, on a message-board or whatever? That’s what Friends felt like near the end: like everyone involved was using the most basic, obvious traits of the characters and the show. But I hasten to add that I only see episodes from those seasons occasionally, and again, when I watched them at the time, I didn’t mind them so much.

PDN: I did know from the few episodes of this series that I’d seen that the damnedest people used to show up on them. Nonetheless, I could have spent a long time guessing at weird combinations of actors playing husband and wife without ever imagining that some casting director had ever paired up Giovanni Ribisi and Debra Jo Rupp.

RM: As much as the world seems to want to pass by the multi-camera comedy, the intimate nature created by these actors in front of that audience really makes “The One With The Embryos” sing. The bet works because the audience members aren’t sure who they actually want to win—but they also can’t wait to see either outcome. In short, they are invested in the onstage antics, which is as easy to detect as the sweetened laugh track infecting television today.

EA: Friends is often beat up on the plausibility front, but all the establishing shots of snowy New York streets—coupled with the characters’ competitive nature—give these five young Manhattanites a good reason for spending a weekend afternoon to answer trivia questions about one another. This, however, does not explain why boom mics keep falling from the ceiling of their apartments.

NM: I don’t know why Rachel wants to keep that apartment so much. Apparently it’s always cold in there.

Next week: Phil Dyess-Nugent’s pick gives us a look at a feud within the separate yet equally important groups of the criminal-justice system with the season eight Law & Order episode “Divorce.” (The episode is available for streaming at Netflix.) Then, Noel Murray asks us just one more thing about Columbo’s “The Most Dangerous Match,” also available on Netflix

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