Ah, Friends. To some, it’s the greatest show of all time. To others, it’s just The Office for geriatric millennials who started receiving AARP fliers in their late 20s. One thing it’s not is a bastion of cultural diversity. The lily-white cast of rich, New York yuppies making fun of the “ugly, naked guy” next door didn’t paint a realistic picture of urban life in the 90s, with characters walking around saying things like “could you be any whiter” and “how you doin’, my fellow white person.”
The show’s lack of diversity has been a blemish in the show’s legacy for Friends creators David Crane and Marta Kauffman, who realized in 2020 that the vanilla Friend group might’ve been a tad gross. “It was after what happened to George Floyd that I began to wrestle with my having bought into systemic racism in ways I was never aware of,” Kauffman told the L.A. Times. “That was really the moment that I began to examine the ways I had participated. I knew then I needed to course-correct.”
Friends star Lisa Kudrow thinks the show’s creators were right to avoid telling stories about people of color because they had “no business” telling those stories. “I feel like it was a show created by two people who went to Brandeis and wrote about their lives after college,” Kudrow told The Daily Beast. “When it’s going to be a comedy that’s character-driven, you write what you know. They have no business writing stories about the experiences of being a person of color. I think at that time, the big problem that I was seeing was, ‘Where’s the apprenticeship?’” Previously, Kudrow conceded that if the show were produced today, “it would not be an all-white cast, for sure.”
And not write about people of color they did. There are so Black people in Friends’ New York City that BuzzFeed listed all 27 of them last year. And what a list it is. First, there’s Aisha Tyler, who played the longest-running Black character on the show (nine episodes), Charlie Wheeler. But who could forget such hilarious side characters as “Man,” “Teacher,” “Kid” (played by famed Smart Guy Tahj Mowry), “Child looking at Chandler,” and fan-favorite “Knockers,” who BuzzFeed describes as [sigh] “a Black woman used for her large breasts to determine whether the man in front of her is gay or not.” Must-see TV, indeed.
Kudrow is right about no one wanting to see or hear what the songwriters behind “Smelly Cat” have to say about race in America. However, Kudrow does ignore that in the 236 episodes of Friends, the creators didn’t think to hire a few more people who could write stories about the experiences of being a person of color. Unfortunately, the Friends writers’ room wasn’t a particularly welcoming place.
In the early 2000s, as reported by Bustle, Amaani Lyle, who nearly became the first and only Black female writer with a creative credit on the show, sued Warner Bros. over alleged sexual and racist harassment in the Friends writers’ room.
In 2018, Lyle told BuzzFeed:
They have perverted this case into something as a bullying, sort of scare tactic in a very mafioso kind of way to mute employees and not foster an open, transparent work environment At some point, they’re going to have to take accountability and realize that they are propelling the systemic issues that keep these problems alive and give them bandwidth and oxygen. They’re the ones doing this.
I tried to sue [Warner Bros.] and have them be accountable. I lost and I was ready to move on and let it go and let things evolve as it will, but [decades later] Hollywood imploded on itself, and that had very little to do with me or my case. There were a lot of highly visible people, A-list actresses who were now talking about being victims, and people cared more. They didn’t care when it was just some anonymous girl living in Hollywood.
We’ve got all of the optics without actually changing things organically, and systemically, we are not going to move the ball down the field. You cannot have campaigns such as #MeToo and Time’s Up if you’re still scaring the shit out of people with my case.”
In recent years, Kauffman’s denounced her prior view on race in the writers’ room. “I’ve learned a lot in the last 20 years”, she said. “Admitting and accepting guilt is not easy. It’s painful looking at yourself in the mirror. I’m embarrassed that I didn’t know better 25 years ago.” Kauffman also donated $4 million to Brandeis’s African and African American studies programs.