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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
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?
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.