(“The One With The Ick Factor,” season one, episode 22, originally aired 5/4/95 / “The One With The Birth,” season one, episode 23; originally aired 5/11/95)
Joe: Well, here it is. The episode we’ve all been waiting for. The one that earned Jonathan Silverman his own NBC sitcom, The Single Guy. (Seriously, what does he show in this episode that might possibly have earned him that?) No, this is the episode where Ross’s son is born, and, as if to stay on theme, for 85 percent of the episode, Ross is acting like a child himself. As we’ve seen all season, nothing brings out Ross’s worst qualities like Susan, and it’s no surprise that the two of them are jockeying for position by Carol’s side as she goes into labor. But I think, more than any other point this season, the Ross/Susan give-and-take feels strictly balanced. While I could certainly quibble with the conclusion of the “There is no Lesbian Lover Day” / “Every day is Lesbian Lover Day,” exchange, it’s both a great joke and it’s told from the perspective that Susan and Ross are ultimately on equal footing and are equally sympathetic. That’s progress.
That the whole baby storyline boils down to “It Takes a Village” is probably predictable, but it’s the right note to strike on this show. Rachel’s getting ice chips, and Aunt Monica will always have gum, and Phoebe has wise insight to impart on Ross and Susan. Joey’s off being a good surrogate boyfriend for Leah Remini, so that also bodes well, as does Chandler’s ... well, at least Chandler knows when to deploy a good tension-breaking joke (better than Rachel, as we see). The idea is that Ben’s going to be in good hands, even if Ross goes on the occasional men’s-rights tangent.
Sonia: Definitely. I love “The One With The Birth." I've seen it multiple times and it still holds up. It's an instant classic—and because it all fits together so well, it’s a bit trickier to pull it apart and see the mechanics of its brilliance. But there’s three things, I think, that work together to make “The Birth” as great as it is.
First, all of our Friends have a moment of unique contribution to the story, an in-character moment for each of them that contributes to the driving force of the comedy. Rachel gets flirty and selfish; Phoebe’s weird but insightful; Monica is sobbing over her unborn babies in a corner. Chandler contributes his one-liners and Ross is the plot device that brings them here and Joey has an unexpectedly heartfelt storyline with a woman in dire straits. Each character has something to contribute, and it doesn’t feel like anyone is trying too hard to feel relevant or tagging along with someone else just to have something to do. That’s hard for six characters, but “The Birth” nails the beautiful diversity of the ensemble cast.
Second, the episode is packed—there is not a single slack moment. Even the outro is eerily meaningful, tapping into that “it takes a village” theme that you mention, Joe. So much in it holds up to later examination—Joey’s encouragement during Remini’s birth foreshadows his support for Rachel during her labor. Chandler and Monica broach the idea of having kids together. Ross begins to make his peace with Susan. Rachel continues her doctor thing. And that’s not even the whole of the stories packed into this episode—the Knicks/Celtics rivalry, Monica’s argument with her mother, everyone hates Phoebe’s guitar, Aunt Monica will always have gum. It’s tighter than a drum, this episode.
And lastly, it has fantastic raised stakes. Sitcoms always struggle with stakes, because they’re often capitalizing on the humor of the mundane, but the end-of-season childbirth is tradition, and it’s nice to see that the show easily antes up its ability to deliver tension, humor, and pathos when the occasion calls for it. That’s always one of the hallmarks of Friends—its extraordinary ability to switch gears, to play both the lightest humor and some surprisingly dark moments as well. It’s also great to see the season building up some momentum with this penultimate episode, after what has felt like a lull (for me) since Phoebe’s two-parter.
Joe: It would take a lot for any episode to hold on to any kind of impression alongside “The One With The Birth,” which is an all-time classic and a milestone for the show. But “The Ick Factor” excels in its simplicity, blending together two storylines that add up to the gang just having fun with each other (and at each other’s expense). I’d momentarily forgotten where the twists and turns would go in Monica’s story with Ethan, so for a while it seemed like the 26-to-21 age difference only seemed so scandalous because none of the Friends cast looks their characters’ age. But, yeah, Ethan being a high-school senior does indeed change things up. Interestingly, all the cultural references that get brought up to illustrate their age difference make Monica (and her pals) look positively ancient from a today perspective. Joan Collins cradle-robber jokes? The Bicentennial? Power Rangers??? The gang busting on Monica for her Mrs. Robinson situation (there’s a more timeless reference) dovetails nicely with Rachel’s trifle of a subplot wherein she keeps having sex dreams, first about Chandler, then about Chandler and Joey together, then, finally, to Ross’s great relief, about Ross. It’s so very Ross (a little sad, a little creepy, a little sympathetic) to actively root to appear in the sex dreams of the girl he’s crushing on, but Jennifer Aniston’s line reading of “Sometimes ... it wasn’t even me” to Joey and Chandler is an all-time keeper.
In Chandler and Phoebe’s subplot, she temps for him and subsequently discovers that his co-workers (who are subordinate to him since his promotion) don’t really like him. In fact, they mock him, bringing us to the show’s first outright meta acknowledgment of Matthew Perry’s signature vocal inflections (“that is so not true!”). Once again, the gang has fun busting each other’s chops, but this is the one storyline that also speaks towards the show’s theme. Sometimes, growing up means climbing the corporate ladder and incurring the resentment of your underlings. It happens! I look forward to one day earning the resentment of newbie A.V. Club writers myself.
Sonia: It’s interesting—I didn’t like most of “The Ick Factor,” but I see your point. It is simple, and if you don’t know the joke, I imagine the reveal is devastatingly funny. I like any episode that gives Monica a bit more of an opportunity to have real-person emotions and puts her in the center of attention. (To that end, the scene where she comes in after working out with her headphones on and can’t hear anyone calling out her name until they all scream “Mon” in unison is sweet and totally something that would still happen in a modern sitcom, which amuses me.)
But what really struck me here was the very last moment between Ross and Rachel—that strangely psychological moment of Ross grappling with Rachel’s sex dreams, trying to come to terms with them and petulantly trying to change them, as well. There’s that tiny moment where she finally is fantasizing about Ross and he half-falls onto the couch where she’s napping. She wakes up and they exchange this tiny moment of mutual physical attraction before they’re interrupted.
Honestly, much of the Ross/Rachel hasn’t really been working for me up to now, but this seems perfect. The chemistry between Jennifer Aniston and David Schwimmer certainly contributes to that. Their behavior with each other in that scene has that element of mingled fear and desire that is crucial to the endless torture of the drawn-out sitcom relationship, and for once, I bought it.
- That’s Robby Benson who gets directorial credit on “The One With the Ick Factor.” Which means we should all be viewing that episode through the eyes of love. [JR]
- “You don’t stop for Chunkies!” “I used to have that bumper sticker.”
- “Why won’t I be married when I’m 40?!”
- Chandler’s outfit in the hospital. Just… wow. [SS]
- Lisa Kudrow’s line readings on “Boss Man Big!” and the subsequent “Big Boss Man!” are keepers. [JR]
- I legit kind of tear up at Phoebe’s speech to Ross and Carol when they’re locked in the janitor’s closet. It’s so heartfelt and moving. Girl, I love Lisa Kudrow. [SS]
- Ethan’s “What’s the deal with ‘gunpoint’?” tangent feels verrrrry mid-’90s observational comedian. [JR]
- Leah Remini is so great in this episode. I mourn for her career. She was always the best part of King Of Queens, but she could have been more than a disillusioned wife. [SS]
- What is with the names Ross, Carol, and Susan were batting around for a boy? Jordy? Cody? Dylan? (Apologies to all the Jordys, Codys, and Dylans out there. You’re all beautiful people at heart.) [JR]
- Oh, dude! Courteney Cox is playing a cougar! FORESHADOWING. [SS]
- People of Color on Friends Watch: 1, a nurse. [SS]
- Next week: The season finale!