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

The End of the World As We Know It…

Screen Shot 2015-09-12 at 11.32.10 PM

It was 103 degrees in Los Angeles for several days this past week – a kind of hot, humid and stagnantly breezy heat we softies out on the left coast are unused to. Take a scalding, steamy shower with the door closed and then put your blow dryer on high and walk into it. That’s the best way I can describe it. And if you’re a young guy who can’t relate to blow dryers because you have one of those stupid side buzz cuts, just take my word for it and wear a hat. Please.

How do we make this go away?

How do we make this go away?

I suppose anyone with my receding hairline shouldn’t be criticizing the hip and happening pate of the moment, but someone has to. It’s like you all started shaving your head from the sides on the go with a portable electric razor but then, while walking by Nordstrom’s men’s cosmetics counter, a rack full of product fell off a loose shelf onto your head and all of the remaining hair on the top that you didn’t get to. Forget what the stylists are saying. In 20 years you will look back at these photos with a horror that we men of a certain age (Okay, me) now reserve for snapshots of us in leisure suits and Nik-Nik shirts. Trust me.

Dear God.

Dear God.

If I sound a bit annoyed, well – perhaps I am. It’s tiring to see the Republican Apprentice being cheered by yahoos at pep rallies all over the country as simultaneously one of the most brilliant and experienced women to ever surface in American political life gets pummeled daily in the public town square for using the wrong email. Why so many people have such a hard time believing a 67-year-old couldn’t quite understand the process of wiping her personal server clean (Note: Her “with a cloth?” answer sounded right to me), much less compute ahead of time the ramifications of owning one for convenience is beyond me. I’m not quite her age but at this point I’d buy almost anything for convenience – especially if I had a job where I had to deal with one commercial airliner, much less all of them, as I traveled all over the world on a daily basis. And that’s without even factoring in hair, make-up or jet lag. What a frickin’ nightmare.

Let’s face it, contemporary life has become a nightmare. Summer is winding down, we’ve just passed the 14th anniversary of 9/11 and the Presidential race, still a year away, has surpassed the reality show Paddy Chayefsky warned us about in Network. To make matters, worse, this is happening in 100 plus degree September weather all over the country as newscasters gleefully warn us of mammoth storms and tides and floods and pestilence and maybe even showers of frogs to come.

give-me-strength

Sidebar: My favorite part of the ongoing political fights these days are the tweets and comments pop songwriters are sending out when the likes of The Republican Apprentice or Kentucky’s own new favorite daughter, born-again, gay marriage eschewing country clerk Kim Davis, dare to appropriate their material as theme songs. When Kim flounced out of jail to Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger,” current frontman Frankie Sullivan posted on the band’s Facebook page:

NO! We did not grant Kim Davis any rights to use ‘My Tune – The Eye Of the Tiger.’ I would not grant her the rights to use Charmin!

A cease and desist letter from the group’s lawyer followed.

But even better was what happened after the R.A. (that’s Republican Apprentice, again) decided it would be the height of irony to walk out to one of his frenzied crowds as REM’s “It’s End of the World as We Know It” blared.

Said REM guitarist Mike Mills: Personally, I think the Orange Clown will do anything for attention. I hate giving it to him.

To which REM frontman Michael Stipe added: Go fuck yourselves, the lot of you–you sad, attention grabbing, power-hungry little men. Do not use our music or my voice for your moronic charade of a campaign.

But imagine a world where one’s choice of entertainment has to coincide with your political and social beliefs? Well, frankly, I’d be fine. I could happily give up Kelsey Grammer, Patricia Heaton, Chuck Norris and Kid Rock. Yes, I’d miss the occasional Meat Loaf (Note: The singer, not the roast) but other than that – really, I’d be good.

You can go too (we'll keep the Chair)

You can go too (we’ll keep the Chair)

As for the other side – well, stop to think about it. How much would THEY miss? How much would you pay NOT to have to go a fundraiser where Ted Nugent plays the main stage and Jessica Simpson does the lounge show? Or even vice-versa?

To my friends on the other side (yes, I do have some) – think about this. You’ve got Vince Vaughn and we have Tom Hanks. Doesn’t that tell you something? Did you even see the second season of True Detective?

Not to mention, we have Cate Blanchett brilliantly playing a lesbian in the upcoming love story Carol, along with Eddie Redmayne portraying Lili Elbe, one of the first transsexuals on record (in the early 1900s) in the soon-to-be-released The Danish Girl to look forward to. Of course, this has to counter our most public transgender woman in contemporary life, Caitlyn Jenner (Note: Though actually, she’s yours), going on Ellen DeGeneres’ show last week and not quite fully committing in favor of gay marriage and the R.A.’s continued national bashing of one our most famous contemporary lesbians, Rosie O’Donnell, in a presidential debate non-sequitur weeks before. Is there a yin and yang to all of that?

#undeniable

#undeniable

Well, one can only hope that Lily Tomlin wins the Oscar for her terrific performance as a deliciously bitter lesbian poet in Grandma to put us one step ahead on that score. And yeah, it can happen – go see the movie. And if you’re still not convinced and have already decided to root for Cate in a film you haven’t yet seen, why don’t you table it for just a few more years and give it to her for portraying Lucille Ball in the upcoming Lucy-Desi biopic Aaron Sorkin is writing. No, I’m not kidding.

I suppose this disproves the idea that it’s all a nightmare, even though sometimes it can seem so. Speaking of which, there are only two movies among the thousands I’ve seen (Note: I use to be a film critic) that have ever given me nightmares.

One was Requiem for A Dream, a harrowing tale of drug addiction based on the novel by Hubert Selby, Jr. and co-written and directed by Darren Aronofsky. Mr. Aronofsky is for my money one of the 10 best American directors working today and if his first film Pi, a thoroughly original visual masterwork of paranoia in black & white, was too esoteric for some he proved with Requiem that by using more recognizable characters from everyday life in a realistic yet still somewhat stylized setting he could disturb us even more.   The image of Jennifer Connelly rolling around in a boxing ring will haunt me till the end of my days – of that I am at least 98% sure of.

I bet you thought I was going to post a picture of Jennifer.. nope... Jon Hamm is single #couldntresist #myhappyplace

I bet you thought I was going to post a picture of Jennifer.. nope… Jon Hamm is single #couldntresist #myhappyplace

The second was the original The Last House on the Left. It came out in 1972 and was a graphically nasty little movie about two girls who decide to get stoned on the way to a rock concert and are brutally tortured by a gang of escaped convicts, who in turn get brutally tortured by the grieving parents of one of the gals. It was so real and so horrible my group of friends who I dragged to it on the basis of an over-the-top ad my teenage self spied in the newspaper in 1972 wouldn’t talk to me for a week.

Notably, that movie was the first feature directed by the late West Craven, who went on to direct some of the most famous horror franchises of our era, including the original Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream movies. Mr. Craven, by all accounts a gentle, intelligent and quite erudite person in real life, died several weeks ago at the age of 76 – which might seem old to some of you but no longer feels ancient to your average baby boomer (even someone on the very low end of boomer status such as myself).

The twisted and delightful legend.

The twisted and delightful legend.

In any event, among Mr. Craven’s many other credits was 1999’s Music of the Heart, which starred Meryl Streep in the real life story of a schoolteacher who struggled to teach the violin to inner city kids in Harlem. Yeah, it was a bit old-fashioned but despite what you might have heard it’s watchable, sincere and sweet. It also goes to show that even those who create the sickest and most diabolically twisted images dialogue and manufactured story lines in the zeitgeist could have the potential for a sweet, sincere and inspiring side.

One wishes Mr. Craven was still around for many reasons – but one of them being to scare straight some of the sickies among us now polluting the public square and monopolizing the airwaves as they jam up the zeitgeist with a newer and more potent brand of their own toxicity. He could explain to them that just because the public is buying the crap that you’re making and selling doesn’t mean that you can’t evolve to something a little bit better that will last longer and that you can be proud of.