The List: They've been there for you... 20 years of Friends
On September 22nd 1994, a sitcom debuted that would go on to be one of the most successul and popular TV series of all time. Doug Whelan looks back on the best of friends
"That thing Friends is good, isn't it?" So said your brother, your sister, your best friend and probably you yourself back in late 1994, when the sitcom about six friends in Manhattan arrived on the scene. For 10 years it was among the most talked about, highest rated and most lucrative gigs on TV, and here we are, 20 years later. TEN years after the finale. The numbers start to scare you. But here we are, all the same. It's still in heavy rotation on several channels, and like slipping on an old pair of shoes, it's somehow still fun to watch, despite the fact we've seen them all before.
To mark the not inconsiderable occasion of 20 years of Friends, we decided to take a fond look back at some of the show's best aspects. It ran out of steam in a big way later on in its existence, but at its best it was, and always will be, great TV...
The One with the…
Start at the start, episode names. Whoever refers to TV series episodes as their actual titles? Perhaps the most die-hard Sopranos fans, but generally speaking, we've always referenced our favourite shows with that infinite catch-all phrase, "the one where…" So, the Friends writers were on to a winner right from the beginning by skipping the middle man and actually titling every episode of the show just like that. Glancing down the list, among the most inspired in their simplicity would be "The One Where Rachel Finds Out", "The One Where No-one is Ready", and "The One Where Everybody Finds Out". It's a neat gimmick that works more than it doesn't, and probably makes for some solid Friends quiz questions.
"How you doin'?"
Friends generated quite a few catchphrases over the years, some of which turned into running gags throughout, and others - like this one - that escaped the confines of the show and entered the pop-culture lexicon almost immediately. Joey's go-to pickup line was so devoid of any charm and actually a bit sleazy, that it was a miracle it ever worked for him. But work it did. The gag was that Joey was so inherently dumb, it was the only thing he could actually come up with to seduce a woman, but also that he was so attractive that he didn't even need to. It can be heard in pubs and clubs across the land even now - more often as a general greeting, we hope.
In the early years of Friends, one of the main topics of conversation off-screen was Jennifer Aniston's unusual hairstyle. Girls everywhere were obsessed with it, and we reckon at one time or another every young one out there was off down to the salon to get a Rachel. It never looked as good in real life as it did on Jen's lovely head. Jennifer Aniston confessed years later that she hated it. "There have been moments I'd rather not re-live, like that whole Rachel thing," she told Allure in 2011. "I don't love revisiting that particular era. I think it was the ugliest haircut I've ever seen."
Could there BE any more catchphrases?
"How you doin'" was head and shoulders above the rest when it came to catchphrases, but Friends actually had plenty more among the rest of the cast, as well as a plethora of running jokes. Rhetorical questions (like the one above) peppered the show in the early years, and the three girls each had one of their own: Rachel often offered a long, drawn-out "Nooooo" upon getting bad news, Monica would say "I know!" in a really annoying voice and Phoebe, of course, had her bizarre songs, most notably 'Smelly Cat'. Then there was the "Oh…my…GOD" that acted as a fanfare whenever recurring character Janice (Maggie Wheeler) appeared. How many more can you spot?
Dr Drake Ramoray
Yet another running gag over the 10 series (attributable to Joey again) was his alter ego from the soap opera Days of Our Lives, usually used to poke fun at soap opera conventions. Joey's "fart acting" was one such mockery, another being when Ramoray was brought back to life later in the series. That was when the one and only Susan Sarandon made her guest appearance as the woman whose brain is set to be transplanted into Ramoray's body. Yes, that is an utterly ridiculous sentence, but that was kind of the point. The less said about the Friends spin-off, Joey, the better.
We're not sure if this originated with Friends or another source, but most people you ask credit the show for bringing it into their lives. It's also another one that has become part of the conversation - who is on your list? Five celebrities who you would and could sleep with, without fear of your other half getting annoyed. It has to be celebrities of course; otherwise, it would just get weird. They have to be unattainable. Unlike the previous examples, this was a one-off rather than a running joke in the series, but it certainly made its mark. Because everybody has a list, whether they let on or not. And if you haven't got a list, well you better get busy and make your decision, because that bad boy is getting laminated.
The A-list guest stars
No sitcom is complete without celebrity guest stars, and in its 10 series, Friends might have the most complete list of A-listers ever to take a round of applause. It being the biggest show in the world at the time, bosses had no problem attracting them either; you name them, they were in there. The most memorable had to be Brad Pitt though, for his inspired appearance as Rachel's nemesis. He really had that smouldering thing going on.
Elliot Gould is one of the coolest actors anyway, so his recurring appearances as Monica and Ross's dad, Jack, were always our favourite episodes. He was doting but kind of dumb, and Gould's nonchalant delivery always hit, especially when he was coming out with one of his trademark inappropriate comments or observations, in that ever-so-slightly camp delivery of his. "I'm just saying…" was something you'd hear him say a lot of the time before or after scandalising everyone in the room. It's hard to pick out a best moment for Jack Geller, but suffice to say, his appearances were always memorable and the character will be a part of his legacy alongside his countless film roles.
"We were on a break!"
Another one that started as a line in one of the storylines only to go on as a running trope throughout the show, and one of the lines that defines the entire series. After Ross cheated on Rachel (or not, depending on your point of view), his defence in the weeks, months and years afterwards was that one particular line and it turned into a topic of debate among the couple, as well as the rest of the cast. Our favourite occurrence was during Hugh Laurie's guest appearance as a random passenger on a plane beside Rachel. She has recounted the entire sorry tale to him (against his will, for that matter), and his reasoned response is "anyway, it seems perfectly clear that you WERE on a break". Were they or weren't they? Who can say for sure? The only thing that matters is that all's well that ends well (several years later).
Chandler & Monica
Friends was at the height of its popularity when the writers took the decision to put Chandler and Monica together as a couple in the fourth series, but it was something they had been kicking around as an idea for quite some time before that. They felt the Ross and Rachel story had gone as far as it could in terms of being the central theme of the show, so took the somewhat risky decision to put two other cast members together. Cleverly, it was the opposite of the 'we were on a break' saga. Clandestine (to begin with), committed and uncomplicated, it was a gamble that paid off and gave the show the breath of fresh air it needed.
Joey & Chandler: bromance
OK, four of the six friends ended up a couple of couples, but the strongest relationship of them all had to be the enduring bromance between Joey and Chandler. It's never been confirmed whether it was just a coincidence that the two lads bore more than a striking resemblance to Sesame Street's Bert and Ernie, but therein lies the essence of it. The early seasons were defined by their bachelor pad antics, and one of the best running storylines had to be when Joey temporarily moved out. It was presented as a pitch-perfect parody of a romantic break-up, and special mention should go to Adam Goldberg as new flatmate Eddie, easily one of the most memorable guest roles of them all.
That theme song
Believe it or not, The Rembrandts are still out there somewhere, but they will never be free of 'I'll Be There for You'. The duo's story is exactly as you'd expect: struggling pop-rock duo (Danny Wilde and Phil Solem) plucked from obscurity to become the soundtrack to a generation. They split in 1997, but reunited in 2001 and have been trucking away ever since. And yes, they get paid every time the song is played on TV. "Let's just say I'm not going to retire on it," Danny Wilde told The Independent in 2004, "but it put my kids through college." Not bad. Confession: we mute the TV when it comes on these days.
The six of them were earning $1 million per episode going in to the final season of Friends. We call that "never work again money". The reality is that none of the six cast members have ever really ascended much further anyway. Jennifer Aniston's film career features perhaps one rom-com too many; Matt le Blanc starred in the spin off Joey, which was utterly awful. David Schwimmer is better known as a director now, while Courteney Cox, of course, starred in Cougar Town, which had its moments despite the awful name. Matthew Perry's had several high profile misses, while Lisa Kudrow has become a high profile character actress in the likes of Easy A and Bad Neighbours.
The reunion (that will probably never happen)
It's 20 years this week and if ever there was a time for it to happen, it would be now. The window is closing, interest-wise, on a reunion. The somewhat awkward recent appearance of Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow and Jennifer Aniston on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon was probably as close as we're gonna get. And if you saw that, you'll know it was a bit of a misfire. A simple one-off reunion episode would almost certainly be a disaster when you think about it. Live studio audience? The coffee house? No thanks. Nope, we're just going to have to make do with the endless, endless repeats. You could say they'll be there for you. Sorry.
The old saying about New York City on screen is that the city itself is a character, so it's fitting that we pay tribute to the seventh cast member of Friends (even though the entire thing was filmed on sound stages that barelt resembled the East Village in Los Angeles). Central Perk was the scene of too many events to recount and spawned a vast array of imitators and tributes. Who can forget its manager Gunther and his crush of doom on Rachel? Anyway. Central Perk, Friends: happy 20th birthday. We salute you!
First published in INSIDER Magazine, exclusive to Thursday's Irish Independent