On 22 September, 1994, America's NBC Network broadcast the first episode of a sitcom about six New York 'twentysomethings' whose lives centred around love, relationships and coffee. Initial public reactions were lukewarm, but NBC pressed on and transmitted the rest of the series of 24 episodes.
They must be glad they did. Friends rapidly became a cultural icon of the cusp of the Millennium, and acquired fans across North America, Europe and Australasia. It was a gift for merchandisers of virtually every type of product1; the DVDs became the highest-selling of any TV programme; film stars queued to perform cameo roles and guest appearances. The show made worldwide celebrities of its six stars, and millionaires of its creators, David Crane, Marta Kaufman and Kevin S Bright.
Could that sitcom be any more funny?
Notably, Friends was one of the main culprits in educating the younger generations in the way of 'New York speak'. This curious mode of elocution, with stress added to unconventional syllables2 and the use of 'so' as an intensifier3 has become widespread in both English and Australian vernacular: an impressive achievement for a mere sitcom.
Friends ran for ten series in all - no less than 236 episodes over the course of ten years! Although the quality of comedy and originality of plots were variable from episode to episode, there was an interesting progression of both overall plot and character development throughout the series. Dedicated viewers began to identify more with the various characters as they matured, giving Friends a human touch that few other sitcoms have been able to match.
Chandler Bing (Matthew Perry)
Over the first couple of series, Chandler is the wise-cracking know-it-all, ever ready to take the mickey out of his friends and their pursuits. He's terminally unsuccessful with women, due to a combination of his innate sarcasm and the fact that he spends hours poring over the flaws of potential girlfriends ('Big head! Big head! Big head!').
Later on, we learn a bit more about Chandler's psychology, and perhaps the reasons for his defence mechanisms. His mother is a sex-obsessed 'romantic'4 novelist; his father ran off with the houseboy when Chandler was 12 years old and now is a successful drag artiste, the headline act in a Las Vegas burlesque show. With all this in mind, Chandler becomes a much more loveable character, and indeed he mellows considerably as the series progress. Although there may be a more significant reason for this...
For the final six series, Chandler falls in love with, becomes engaged to, and marries, Monica. This removed several of the running jokes at his expense, although one of the main ones is perhaps indicative of Friends quirkiness and - critics say - lack of realism. Chandler is the only 'office boy' of the six, and the standing joke is that nobody can ever remember quite what he actually does (Rachel's best guess being 'um... transpondster?'). He resigns from his lucrative data processing job when they transfer him to Oklahoma in Series Nine, and seeks out a new career as an advertising agent5. A lot of people, when meeting Chandler for the first time, are quite surprised that he isn't homosexual.
Actor Matthew Perry was full of ideas during the writing of Friends and contributed a great deal of the script for scenes involving Chandler (the only one of the six leads to have ever been allowed into script conferences). He claims to have a similar sense of humour to his character, but emphatically not the same sort of parents. Matthew Perry's father, John Barrett Perry, was in fact a model for Old Spice aftershave and guest-starred in Series Four as the father of one of Rachel's boyfriends.
Phoebe Buffay (Lisa Kudrow)
Archetypal ditzy blonde Phoebe had unarguably the hardest upbringing of the friends. A true child of the streets, her mother committed suicide when Phoebe and her twin sister, Ursula6, were very young. Phoebe was an apprentice mugger and frequently makes reference to her shady background and run-ins with the law. Her sister Ursula is deceitful in the extreme, and - thankfully - very little is seen of her (especially considring Ursula's career as a porn star in films such as 'Buffay the Vampire Layer'). Several times during the series, Phoebe is in trouble with the law for practising massage - her chosen career - without a licence, and once for impersonation of a police officer. Although she managed to wriggle out of that one by sleeping with the policeman she was impersonating.
Arguably Phoebe's most notable contribution is playing songs of questionable merit on her guitar. Her song 'Smelly Cat' became an unofficial anthem for the programme, and was featured in several plots: being made into a music video, as well as being sung by Chris Isaak and Chrissie Hynde in various episodes.
Originally a radical vegetarian left-winger, Phoebe's views become distorted somewhat as she discovers how good fur looks on her, finds her half-brother and gets cravings for steak while carrying said half-brother's surrogate triplets. Eventually, she acquires very orthodox longings to be married and have babies, which results in having to choose between long-running on/off boyfriend David, who has been away in Russia, and recent divorcee Mike. 'Unique' seems a somewhat insufficient word...
Actress Lisa Kudrow has very little in common with her character, possessing a conventional upbringing and a degree in biology. This makes her performance seem all the more remarkable.
Monica Geller (Courteney Cox)
Neurotic, compulsively tidy Monica shed 100 pounds of weight in her last year of high school7, and various references to her childhood obsessive eating abound. Lithe Courteney Cox was even willing to wear a 'fat-suit' in several flashback episodes over the years to play her flabby younger self.
Sister of Ross, Monica perhaps evolved the least of the six leads over the course of the ten series. Certainly, cohabiting with, and later marrying, Chandler gave her a man to be neurotic about, while her ambition and her love of food have remained unchanged. Her career as a chef has undergone several manipulations over the years: she began Series One as a sous chef in a trendy restaurant; later she became a waitress at a 1950s-themed restaurant (in desperation); opened a catering business with Phoebe; was appointed head chef at an Italian restaurant after slating its food in a newspaper column; and ended up in charge of one of New York's elite restaurants.
Perennially the hostess for the group, Monica is a control freak and extremely competitive, even with her closest friends, to a quite worrying degree. Her obsession extended to marriage and children, and she broke up with at least one long-standing boyfriend (Richard Burke, a much older optometrist and friend of her parents, played by Tom Selleck for most of Series Two with occasional cameos later on) because he was not prepared to commit.
Ross Geller (David Schwimmer)
Laughably tagged as the geek of the group (whereas, in reality, women consider all three male stars to be more than averagely attractive), Ross was best friends with Chandler at college, but rather than move into a nonentity office job, he studied for his doctorate and became a palaeontologist. He was later to become a palaeontology lecturer at New York University. In the shallow world of Friends, scientist equals geek, and Ross spent much of the time suffering various misfortunes on dates with women. Of course, one woman found him attractive from episode one, and the Ross-Rachel on-off saga became the central storyline.
Ross was originally married to Susan, who supplied him with a son, Ben, in Series One. Unfortunately, by this time, they were separated and Susan was living with her lesbian lover, which provoked some debate on the best way to raise the said son. Ross consoled himself by buying a pet monkey, a capuchin called Marcel8. After a relationship with Rachel which lasted half of Series Two and half of Series Three, and an acrimonious break-up9, Ross found love again with Emily (played by Helen Baxendale), the English niece of Rachel's boss. After a whirlwind romance, Ross proposed to Emily and they married in London. Unfortunately - in one of the best-remembered moments - during the final moments of the wedding vows, Ross said Rachel's name instead of Emily's, prompting Emily's swift departure and a quickie divorce. To cap it all, a couple of years later, a very drunken Ross married an equally drunken Rachel in Las Vegas, and had to get divorced for a third time. He maintained that having three divorces made it hard for him to meet eligible women.
In Series Five Ross moved into the flat across the street from Monica and Rachel, the flat previously owned by the infamous Ugly Naked Guy10. This afforded him the unwelcome privilege of being able to see various goings-on on Monica's balcony, and this was how - in a fragile mental state - he first found out about his sister's relationship with his best friend, Chandler.
Forever pedantic about grammar and scientific accuracy (the latter being a good wind-up target for the ditzy Phoebe), Ross's mannerisms grew more exaggerated over the years - often to the point of annoying/terrifying the audience. Whether this was a deliberate move or just overacting is uncertain.
Rachel Green (Jennifer Aniston)
In the pilot episode, Rachel was very much the newcomer to the group, a runaway bride who coincidentally met up with old schoolfriend Monica in Central Perk, the coffee shop. Initially a pampered Daddy's Girl, unprepared for life in the big city, she moved in with Monica and took up a waitressing job at Central Perk to fund her coffee habit before eventually moving into the fashion business with jobs at Bloomingdales11 and Ralph Lauren.
Rachel has been the most nomadic member of the group. After Chandler announced his intentions to move in with Monica, Rachel went to live with Phoebe, but later ended up staying with Joey and then Ross.
Rachel also has a convoluted romantic history. Obviously Ross figures uppermost, but crushes on both Chandler and Joey at various times are significant. However, after Monica and Chandler announced their engagement, Rachel indulged in a one-night fling with Ross, the upshot of which was a baby girl, Emma. While Ross bemoaned the fact that he now had two children and three divorces, Rachel realised she knew very little about parenting and thus depended on Ross's experience.
Rachel would have been delighted to know that she was in fact a fashion trendsetter herself. Jennifer Aniston's hairstyle - the 'Rachel' - was much copied the world over.
The finale of Series Ten resulted in Rachel being called away by her job to Paris - the centre of world fashion. This meant the decision between her career and Ross - her cohabitee, part-time lover, and father of her child - formed the spine of the very final denouement.
Jennifer Aniston became perhaps the best-known of the actors for her work outside of Friends. She has appeared in a number of films in the light 'romantic comedy' genre and, of course, had a high-profile marriage to actor Brad Pitt.
Joey Tribbiani (Matt Le Blanc)
Dumb, loveable Joey was frequently the centre of the show's funniest moments. At first, he was a seemingly terminally unemployed actor, before making the role of Doctor Drake Ramoray his own in daytime soap opera Days Of Our Lives. Throughout his career, Joey made a name for himself in some of the least demanding and bizarre roles imaginable (who could forget Freud: the Musical or Cable TV detective Mac in Mac and CHEESE12'?), while at the same time being good-naturedly dim and blokeish.
Joey was renowned for his intellectual naïvety: picking up women with big Adam's apples; knowing exactly where his passport was when going to London ('in the first drawer of the dresser; you don't want to lose that'); being unable to work out the coincidence of two twins sharing a birthday - and so on. Whenever he picked up new vocabulary, everyone realised it was from his opportune purchase of a dictionary, or 'Word of the Day' toilet paper.
Not that this affected his ability with women, mind you. There was barely a girl on Manhattan Island who had not heard Joey's Italian-American 'How you doin'?' pick-up line. He worked his charm on Monica when moving into Chandler's flat (as we saw in a Series Three 'flashback' episode) and later on Rachel while she was living with him. Throughout, there is a thread of flirting with Phoebe (including the vague mutual promise of marriage at some point in the future) although this tantalisingly comes to naught in the end.
Joey's sprawling extended family make themselves felt at various points during the series. As well as his six sisters, we also meet his grandmother and both parents at various times.
Joey is a man of simple comforts: his love for pizzas13, sandwiches and turkey; his reclining chair and widescreen TV; his pet chick and duck (known as Yasmine - after Yasmine Bleeth of Baywatch fame - and Dick) and 'Hugsy', his cuddly stuffed penguin. But he was a sufficiently popular character to initiate a Friends spin-off: the eponymous Joey followed Matt Le Blanc's character to Los Angeles. However, it could never match the popularity and quick wit of Friends and soon became another average American sitcom.
Characters Also Worthy Of Mention
Throughout the ten series, clearly there has been an extras list nearly as long as the New York telephone directory. Still, a few special characters appear time and time again, until they are almost as much a part of the series as the central cast.
Jack and Judy Geller (Elliott Gould and Christina Pickles)
Ross and Monica's parents live in an unspecified upstate town and make frequent appearances. Judy is a one-child parent: quick to shout the praises of Ross; equally quick to find the flaws in Monica. Of course, it horrifies Monica when she sees herself turning into her mother, but she turns the tables on Judy on more than one occasion.
Jack Geller is unsubtle, loud and quite boorish. He has a habit of saying embarrassing things in an tactlessly loud voice. Revelations about his and Judy's active sex life are not unknown, and a fight nearly ensues when he meets Emily's equally outspoken English parents (played by Jennifer Saunders and Tom Conti) at Ross's second wedding. Despite these flaws, he's often the parent both Gellar children turn to in a crisis as his vague words of reassurance offer comfort and occasionally a little of that wisdom that only comes from being a parent.
Janice Litman Goralnik née Hosenstein (Maggie Wheeler)
Janice is New York woman personified: a loudly-dressed, very loudly-spoken, hypochondriac shopper divorcée with a laugh like an itinerant donkey. She seems destined to cross paths, romantically, with Chandler: not just once or twice, but time and time again, and invariably in the most awkward of situations (when he is getting his nails done, in the maternity ward, in the fertility clinic). Naturally, she becomes Chandler's arch-nemesis.
Janice's arrival is always preceded by one of the show's few catchphrases: a drawn, out and very Nu Yawk: 'Oh! My! Gohhhhhhhhd.'
Gunther (James Michael Tyler)
Bleach-blond Gunther plays a management role at Central Perk and occasionally defuses the banter of the male friends with his own deeply sarcastic comments. His real role in the programme, however, is to demonstrate his unrequited love for Rachel. He is the first to jump to her assistance or offer a favour (he is believed to still own the Sphinx cat that she abandoned), only to be pushed aside for really not being enough of a man. He makes a touching confession to Rachel in the very last episode: a fit way to leave. Despite being invited to many of the Friends' parties, figuring peripheraly in their lives for over a decade, none of them know his second name (Chandler's guess at 'Gunther Centralperk' is unlikely to be close).
Gunther's presence wasn't even planned by the scriptwriters until he was given a couple of lines in Series Two. Tyler was originally chosen for the part merely because he was a real-life coffee shop attendant and could work the prop cappuccino machine in Central Perk.
Estelle Leonard (June Gable)
Joey's agent was a magnificent piece of character acting. Estelle was a cigarette-addicted, untrustworthy old lady who regularly mucked about with Joey's career and was guaranteed to raise a laugh when she appeared on screen. Her only other known client was The Man Who Eats Paper, who ate Joey's memorial speech at Estelle's funeral in the final series.
Friends has been host to more than 50 guest stars from film and television, including Richard Branson, Billy Crystal, Danny DeVito, Sarah Ferguson, Reese Witherspoon (as Rachel's spoilt younger sister, Jill) Jeff Goldblum, Elle McPherson, Gary Oldman, Brad Pitt, Denise Richards, Julia Roberts, Winona Ryder, Susan Sarandon, Charlie Sheen, Kathleen Turner (As Chandler's father!), Robin Williams and Bruce Willis.
The official title of each episode begins 'The One Where...' or 'The One With...' or words to that effect. Friends addicts tend to call them (the episodes) TOWs. One notable exception to the rule was 'The Last One'.
Although the programme was set in New York, it was filmed on the west coast, in Los Angeles.
The show was nominated for many, many Awards, and won quite a few, including a BAFTA, several Golden Globes and an Emmy. There is a good chance that the episode where Joey receives a soap opera award parodies at least one or two incidents in real life.
The theme song, 'I'll Be There For You' was a massive hit on both sides of the Atlantic for The Rembrandts, who failed to meaningfully follow up their 1995 smash. All six of the main cast appeared prominently in a specially-made music video.