The One Where I Finally Understand

I have an on and off relationship with the TV show Friends and that is as it should be. 

Or, to put it in the lexicon of the series, I’m never quite sure if we truly love each other or are just taking a break.

I see what you did there!

As its creators Marta Kauffman, David Crane and Kevin S. Bright recalled in the new HBO Max special, Friends: The Reunion, the one-line pitch to network executives about the series was always this simple:

That time in your life when your friends are your family.

So naturally there comes a point when you move on, other priorities take over and you begin creating your own family

At least that’s the way Kauffman put it in a series of interviews sprinkled throughout the special.

Hearing it said out loud in such stark terms I finally understood all these many decades later, in the 20-twenties, why a television series that became an international phenomenon from 1994-2004, and continues to this day, and will likely continue for generations to come, was never MY story.

Let’s unpack that Chairy…

I’m one of those people who never thought of moving on from my really good friends.  I knew early on I didn’t want to have kids and wasn’t going to have kids. I knew my real family would be my friends, and whatever relatives I chose to stay in touch with.  I didn’t make a distinction because there NEVER WAS a distinction.

I knew that I could create my own family any way that I chose to.  It would not even for a millisecond occur to me that the people in my life closest to me, who I’d love most in the world, could NOT include those who were my dear, dear friends.

Some of this has to do with being gay and of a certain age.   Many of us LGBTQ baby boomers simply didn’t fit into the hetero-normative margins of the straight world so we fashioned an even more fun, kind and loving one comprised of OUR friends. 

You didn’t necessarily have to be queer to be part of that world.  You just hand to get it, be there and love us.

Sound familiar?

Phoebe gets it

It is important to note this was done not out of resentment but of choice.  If you grew up the way I did, at the time I did, moving on wasn’t on the table.

To have a real, true friend meant you had a forever family.  Especially if you had lived through the eighties and early nineties period prior to when Friends debuted.

A reminder of how painfully 90s Friends is

It was the height of the AIDS epidemic and by 1994 each day was like climbing through the rubble of a nuclear holocaust if you were one of my friends.  Who was alive, who was dead, who was depressed, who was doing well and who was just generally in denial or drifting or drinking/drugging themselves to death?

That was a daily occurrence and just about the only thing you knew is that your friends that remained would be there for you.

Oh Chairy.. ya did it again!

But miraculously here’s what each day also brought you —

Dumb jokes and dumb jobs; hilarious and heartbreaking dates that might or might not turn into love affairs; mortifying moments of embarrassment and secret vices that your good friends would be more than happy to publicly rag on you for…

Terrible fashion choices, silly haircuts, weight gains and weight losses, and relatives who could swoop into town and undo every neurosis you had spent years getting under control in one quick visit.

You wouldn’t think this would be the case at the time but it’s true.  It was also what made Friends work, even for those of us who didn’t quite always get it.

Well we all get bad haircuts…

Unlike other network sitcoms of its era:

  • It was funny, it was clever, it was silly and, every so often, it tugged at our heartstrings.
  • It had six of the most charismatic and adept casts in all of sitcom history – Jennifer Aniston, David Schwimmer, Courteney Cox, Matthew Perry, Lisa Kudrow and Matt LeBlanc – who even now, reassembled together again onstage at the Warner Bros. lot, some 17 years later, seem incapable of phoning in a false or phony note when it comes to their interrelationships.
Dare we say.. authentic?
  • It has even managed to rise above all types of the usual show biz b.s. antics since its been off the air, those that have eclipsed and nearly swallowed up the afterlife of almost every other late 20th century show.  To whit:

a. Yes, we knew the actors all got paid a record-setting one million plus per episode and more towards the end of its run.  We were HAPPY for them.

b. Yeah, we know to this day it’s reported the EACH make $20 million per YEAR in residuals and the show STILL generates about a billion dollars a year for WB TV.  We can live with that if it means we get to sometimes see it.

I’m with Janice here #wow

c. Uh huh, we get the friends each received about  $2.5 mill for this special alone; that there’s a lot of cosmetic “enhancements,” and hair dye, to keep them so dewy-looking; that the “girls” are closer than the guys; that some of their careers have fared better than others; and that Matthew Perry, in particular, continued to struggle with severe substance abuse and other health issues that plagued him throughout the run of the show.  Whateva and we’re rooting for him.

But nothing truly tarnishes the juggernaut that is Friends.  And if you don’t think so consider…

a. What other cast would get paid that much money to reunite?

b. Which other show has a worldwide audience ranging from Nobel Prize winner Malala to one of sport’s GOATs David Beckham?

c. And how many nineties sitcoms could get Justin Bieber to dress up live as a potato or Lady Gaga to do a duet on a song called Smelly Cat for no billing on a reunion special?

100% would watch this show

Friends, like our friends, our families, is far from perfect.  Yeah, I wish it was more multi-cultural, economically inclusive and LGBTQ positive, too.  And, um, please, no WAAAAAYY could they have afforded that apartment at that time – grandmother or not.

But I think of everyone interviewed  Matthew Perry got it exactly right when trying to express what Friends continues to mean and how it endures.

He said no matter what party you went to years later, if you ran into another cast member, you were probably going to spend the evening with them.  You apologized to whomever you were with because all bets were off.  You knew, in that moment, you could talk for hours and very likely would do so, as if no time had passed.

The indefinable pull of that type of relationship is what makes real friends.  And what made Friends.  Whatever either of their drawbacks.

Friends Opening – Season 1

Oh Mary

The fastest selling book in Simon and Schuster’s almost 100 year history debuted this week and it was written by — Mary L. Trump, Ph.D.

It is entitled Too Much And Never Enough, How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man and in a very brisk 225 pages it gives us the unvarnished details of what it’s like to grow up in the extremely dysfunctional and just plain mean Trump family.

We ready

It also sheds light on why she believes our current president is a mentally ill sociopath with an inability to care about anyone but himself.  The book contains an enormous amount of stories about the endless string of Donald lies, Donald incompetence, Donald bullying and, well, pretty much every other type of anti-social behavior any Donald could display short of murder, from the time he was very young up through the present day.

Ms. Trump, 55, is the niece of our current POTUS, Donald J. Trump, and a clinical psychologist who spent quite a lot of time around Donald, his siblings and his parents (Note: Her grandparents) growing up.  So she knows whereof she speaks.

She is also a lesbian.

Gasp!

Well, to be fair, in the late nineties she was married to a woman for an extended period of time, they had a child together, later divorced and she now raises and lives with their teenage daughter.

So at the very least she is a member of the LGBTQ community.

This in no way is an outing of Ms. Trump, who rightly neither hides her sexuality nor dwells on it in her best seller.

But in watching and reading the myriad of coverage about her life and the book roll out, it’s impossible not to notice that the one person in the extended Trump inner family clan strong enough to make a full and healthy break away from all that immorality and, umm, financial dysfunction – and live to come clean about it to the world – is gay.

Perhaps made even more impactful while being interviewed by Rachel

We gay people certainly have as many faults as anyone but the one thing we do know how to do is open a closet door and let the truth come out.

Our very lives are an embodiment of the old adage the truth will set you free because for the vast majority of us it has.

For those of us of a certain age (Note: Ms. Trump is younger than me but still of my generation), and still, for some, of any age, this has not always been easy.  But once we realize it’s not the end of the world but the beginning of a brighter new one, we’re far less likely to be the keeper of anyone’s dirty little secrets, especially when they cross us.

Run Tippy, Run

In short, the Trumps were f-ckng with the wrong person when Mary finally found out after many, many decades, that Donald and his siblings had financially f-cked her and her brother over to the tune of many tens of millions of dollars.

(Note: Buy the book and google her in the NY Times and you can read endless articles about how the family undervalued the size of her grandfather’s estate and threatened to withhold health insurance from her brother’s very sick baby until she and her brother capitulated for a pittance of their inheritance).

Still, this does not appear to be the primary motivator for why Ms. Trump wrote her book, which sold ALMOST 1,000,000 copies in its FIRST DAY.  Rather, it was Donald playing out the same type of lies he had perpetrated upon her and other family members to enrich himself from his father’s estate on the entire country that tipped her hand.

Just a litttttttle bit late, Mary

Watching him lie and deny the plan to put immigrant children in cages or expound on the virtues of KKK members instead of defending the Jews and people of color they wanted to exterminate, was an all too familiar playbook.

In the Trump family, you did what you were told because to not do so would cost you your standing in the inner circle.  To maintain the power, the protection and the position – even if all those brought you were scraps – you kept your mouth shut (nee lied) or risked being thrown out and DESTROYED.

That is what Donald did through the years to all his rivals and perceived enemies (nee EVERYONE), especially Mary’s alcoholic father, Freddy, who died broken and penniless at the hands of the family and Donald at the age of 42.

Again, all of this is recounted in very readable stories throughout the book in ways that are surprisingly even-handed and, even a bit sympathetic, towards Donald.  It’s what gives Too Much and Never Enough its power, and its undeniable ring of truth.

Plus it’s mega ratings

Still, while most readers will no doubt linger on all things Donald, and how his equally sociopathic father Fred, Sr. preyed on each member of their clan and then the outside world to their maximum personal benefits, it is the moment that Mary Trump finally owns her power to us as an LGBTQ woman that most stood out to me.

All through her life, Ms. Trump watched as her father Freddy was shamed into believing he was a failure by the only family that she or he knew, one that they were led to believe they were beholden to (Note: Because they indeed, were; see the above DESTROYED) for personal survival.  Yet many years after Freddy died, Mary still remained close to her grandfather, Fred, Sr., and her grandmother, who she called Gam.

It is with this history she recalls the last two weeks of her grandfather’s life in June, 1999, and how some of the family (Note: Though not Donald) gathered around the dying Fred, Sr.’s hospital bed.

More tea cometh

Her grandmother, Gam, sat in a chair, an aunt held his hand, while another aunt stood to the side with Mary, bemoaning the fact that she and her husband (Fred Sr.’s youngest son / Donald’s youngest brother) would have to postpone their London trip with Prince Charles because of Fred’s likely passing.

He invited us to one of his polo matches.  I can’t believe we had to cancel, her aunt noted in an exasperated and too loud voice that others would likely hear yet, in true Trump fashion, not react to one way or the other.  At which time Mary reveals the following to us:

I could have topped that story.  In a week I was supposed to be getting married on a beach in Maui.  Nobody in the family knew; they’d always been spectacularly uninterested in my personal life (when necessary, I asked a guy friend to accompany me to any family occasion that required a plus one) and never asked about my boyfriends or relationships.

A couple of years earlier, Gam and I had been talking about Princess Diana’s funeral, and when she had said with some vehemence, ‘It’s a disgrace they’re letting that little faggot Elton John sing at the service,’ I’d realized it was better that she didn’t know I was living with and engaged to a woman.

Seeing how serious my grandfather’s condition was, I had a terrible feeling that when I got home, I’d have to break the news to my fiancée that, after months of planning and overcoming logistical nightmares, our mostly secret wedding would have to be postponed.

As it turned out the wedding was postponed and Fred, Sr. died several weeks later.

Sums it up

The entire Trump family attended the funeral, including Mary, yet Mary was the only one to escort Gam, her grandmother, home and sit with her for several hours more in the house she had shared with her husband for more than 30 years so she wouldn’t have to be alone.

Any number of LGBTQ people from dysfunctional families will read the above passage and recognize a familiar scene. The single young thirty something with no discernible life taking care of the elderly relative the straight, married siblings don’t quite want to be bothered with or can’t be because they have a family.

But equally familiar to some will be the scene some 30 pages later when her Gam also turns on Mary once Mary and her brother realize they are not receiving their own father’s share of his inheritance from Fred, Sr.

Will we be shocked by any of this?

Apparently it was Donald’s edict that unless Mary and her brother disavowed their claims to their share and let Donald and the remaining siblings have the many more millions, her brother’s permanently disabled baby, would lose his Trump family health insurance, which he was guaranteed to in perpetuity and, in fact, needed in order to be able to survive with round the clock care.

Now not quite sure of what to do, Mary gets a call from Gam who not only tersely tell her off amid Mary’s protestation, but to pound her point home, admonishes her with these choice words: Do you know what your father was worth when he died?  A whole lot of nothing.

 Not knowing what to say, Mary pauses.  At which point there is a click. Gam had hung up on her. In fact, Gam never spoke with her again.

It took awhile but after all this time Mary Trump is finally talking back to the entire Trump clan, most especially about their leader, and ours, Uncle Donald.  Like many in her community, it’s taken almost a full lifetime for her to embrace her voice and the entire truth about who she is and where she came from full throttle.

Now that she has it would behoove us, ALL OF US, to listen.

Sly and the Family Stone – “Family Affair”