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'Not Very Entertaining, Clever, or Original”: How NBC Almost Killed 'Friends'

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We might like to fool ourselves that comedy writing is all about inspiration and individual expression, but in the US it’s a research-driven business. And the auguries were not good for one sitcom pilot commissioned by NBC in 1994.

Its developers had hit upon the notion of young people living in the city for the first time—the moment in your life when the future is a “question mark.” The network suspected that there might be something in a collection of spunky characters sharing living space in a downsized economy, hil­arious consequences guaranteed. And, undeniably, there was something in the wind, a suspicion that the times were changing and that there were new kinds of people, new social situations to talk about.

The talk in the early Nineties was of a dis­connected and disappointed Generation X and its embrace of slackerdom, an about-face on avaricious Reaganism that turned a refusal to take responsibility for your life into a kind of heroism. Plaid, paisley and the Beatles were back; complaint rock, poetry slams and coffee culture were arriving—the bourgeois bohemian was having a second coming. Though NBC wanted a Gen X comedy, the writers David Crane and Marta Kauffman thought that these themes could resonate beyond a youth audience. And yet the sitcom that absorbed all this material and presented it in palatable, prime-time form was, to the eyes of its first audience, a disaster.

In May 1994, four months before the first episode screened at 8.30pm (PST) on Thursday September 22, an internal NBC report described the Friends pilot as “not very entertaining, clever, or original.” Of its six characters only Monica generated much interest from the test audience but even this approval was “well below desirable levels for a lead.” The appeal of the other cast members was considered marginal or lower. Rachel the runaway bride was a scarcely believable spoiled brat; Ross the divorcé “generated little sympathy and no one cared much what happened to his character.” Though teenagers quite liked Phoebe the “airhead,” the characters of Chandler and Joey barely registered. And apparently the coffee-house setting was “confusing.”

However, it is the observations of older viewers, the 35-plus cohort that formed the bedrock of nightly TV audiences, which, in retrospect, are most telling and most ironic. To Baby Boomers these characters “did not care about one another the way that real friends would.” They were “smug, superficial and self-absorbed ... and not like people they would want to know.” (This for a show whose own theme song stated unambiguously, “I’ll be there for you ...”) They were, in short, not real friends.

Rating the sitcom as “weak”, the NBC report concluded with recommendations guaranteed to enrage anyone who has ever written anything: add older characters, make the principals more likeable, and the nebulous “add more humor.”

It makes the heart sing to think that a piece of market research, even a minor one, could get it so comprehensively wrong. Friends marks its 20th anniversary this month, having become the dominant sitcom of the Nineties and afterwards in apparently endless repeats, the ideal of a certain kind of twentysomething nirvana. The supposedly unsympathetic Rachel Green and Ross Geller went on to be the biggest will-they-won’t-they television couple since Maddie and David (Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis) in MoonlightingFriends demolished the formula that says that all we want from fiction is a simplistic likeability. The report’s very criticisms of the show were the reasons it became so successful.

Ross, Rachel, Chandler, Monica, Phoebe and Joey were superficial, self-absorbed and at first difficult to like. But in their solipsism and neurosis they reflected and sent up the world emerging around them—of coffee shops as a venue for chronic self-examination, of unemployment or underemployment masquerading as a faux-leisure lifestyle, of the individual as the star of his or her own ridiculous melodrama—far more accurately than any conventional gooey-hearted family sitcom. In their soft narcissism, their preoccupation with the minutiae of their own lives and their utter lack of interest in their social or (God forbid) political context, the Friends created a coffee-scented cocoon that millions wanted to enter. They proved that the real Me Decade wasn’t the Seventies. It was the Nineties.

“One of the most surprising things about Friends,” says the comedy writer Andrew Ellard, who has script-edited The IT CrowdRed Dwarf and Miranda, “is that it says it’s absolutely fine to be monumentally selfish. We’re asked to see Rachel as this spoilt, self-centred woman but the rest of them are just as bad, if not worse.

“The friends in Friends ARE there for one another but they absolutely don’t care about anyone else. And the show never hands down any serious consequences for that. It is brilliant, brilliant comedy but hidden in there is a confirmation of that awful middle-class mindset that yes, of course I could wait tables for a living, but really I’m supposed to be working at Ralph Lauren. That’s who I really am.”

To the network’s credit and the relief of Crane and Kauffman, who were also executive producers for the show, NBC ignored the recommendations of the pilot report that Friends should be made to obey the conventional rules of comedy. Two nervous sops to a broader audience had already been considered and discarded back when the show was still called Insomnia Café: a father figure called “Pat the Cop” who would drop into Central Perk to offer the Friends the benefit of his experience (it is hard to imagine anything worse or more TV-ish) and a move from coffee shop to diner, for no discernible reason except that much of Seinfeld took place in a diner.

Instead, Friends went ahead largely as written. Seen today, that first episode inevitably seems a little dated—all the boys dress like they’re in *NSync—and there’s an unfamiliar earnestness to Ross and Rachel’s romantic yearnings. There are a few laboured jokes, such as Phoebe “cleansing your aura,” that would struggle to pass muster in later, more honed episodes. But the things that strike you are the pace, the gag rate, the sharpness of the characters, the sense of a busy and immanent world ready to be discovered. Rachel materializes in Central Perk, shrill in her wedding dress, and Ross has just got divorced. We’re in medias res and then some.

Apart from subtly tweaking Matt Le­Blanc’s character, Joey—a little less Martin Scorsese Italian, a lot dumber—the core of the show remained unchanged for the next ten years. Nobody left and nobody got fired. (The actors grew close in real life, and even negotiated pay rises together, a first in US comedy, with Jennifer Aniston and David Schwimmer accepting pay cuts in the interest of unity.) If characters came close to a life-changing relationship—Monica with her childhood optician or the millionaire Pete, played by Jon Favreau, or Ross with a string of women including a second wife played by Helen Baxendale—the writers went to inordinate lengths to break them up. The ones the Friends were really meant to be with were, after all, the other Friends.

“It’s remarkable that Crane and Kauffman could create a true ensemble comedy with six key characters, any one of whom could carry an ‘A’ story,” Ellard says, “but to get that cast right from the very beginning is extraordinary.

“The characters are so well calibrated that when the surprise Monica-Chandler relationship happens in season four, you think, ‘Yes, of course!’ It wasn’t planned and yet it’s right there under their noses.”

Between 1994 and its finale in 2004 Friends attracted audiences of between 20 and 29 million in the United States. After its second season it never left the Nielsen ratings top five. Later in its run, when the world around it grew more threatening, Friends’s appeal as a safe haven—a virtual Central Perk—was so strong that its ratings increased 17 per cent after the 11 September 2001 attacks on New York City.

But in Britain it would signify something else, becoming first a cornerstone of Channel 4’s self-reinvention from alternative broadcaster to youth network and then a lure to the self-contained, feel-good universe of E4. “The premise of the show might have been twentysomethings trying to figure their lives out,” says Channel 4’s acting deputy head of comedy, Fiona McDermott, “but to most viewers here in Britain they didn’t seem lost at all. They were incredibly aspirational.

“What made Friends so special, and in retrospect so poignant, is that it’s the last gasp of that comic theme of going to the big city to make it. You absolutely could not make a show like that now. Who can afford to move to New York now and hang out in a coffee shop on the off-chance that you might find your dream job? Instead, they’d be in desperate, low-paid jobs and unpaid internships—or they’d be wealthy already, which is equally lacking in comic potential.”

So, a show that had aimed to mine comedy from directionless lives rather became a picture of a kind of promised land, a New York where opportunity was there for the taking (eventually). Endless out-of-sequence repeats and then on-demand viewing sliced and diced Friends so that new audiences watched it piecemeal, as a non-linear narrative (Are Monica and Chandler together yet? Are Rachel and Ross off or on?). This compounded the addictive sense that everything was always OK in a world that would never change.

“You can usually tell where you are in the story by Matthew Perry’s weight,” says the critic Andrew Collins. “Other than that, the show does represent a kind of unchanged, prelapsarian dream. It’s the Clinton years, when the economy is booming and there’s really nothing to worry about domestically or internationally. Friends is about the last moment before everything went wrong.”

Ross’s Eighties synth band. “We were on a break!” Dr Drake Ramoray. The “Rachel” haircut, present only in seasons one and two and loathed by Jennifer Aniston, but so popular that even in 2010 British women were still voting it their favourite hairdo. Ugly Naked Guy. Fun Bobby. The duck, the articulated armchairs and the DIY entertainment centre. Joey’s method acting (just think of a hard maths question). Phoebe’s evil twin and her idiot half-brother. Janice and “Where’s my little Chandler Bing-a-ling?” Fat Monica. Rachel’s nose. Ross’s lesbian ex-wife. “Smelly Cat.” “How you doin’?” Gunther’s sad, longing looks across the coffee shop. Chandler’s mysterious job. “Oh. My. GOD.” “Yay!” Oh, and Marcel the Monkey, season one’s sad and quickly disposed-of comic crutch, the first and only instance of a comedy putting an end to its Scrappy Doo and not the other way around.

If the measure of a strong comedy is its contribution to what we now call the meme pool, Friends proved to be the biggest international generator of catchphrases, bits and moments since Monty Python’s Flying Circus. (I’ve been complaining of the “meat sweats” at barbecues for years without realising that the name of this particular syndrome was made popular by Joey Tribbiani.) Such was Friends’s global reach that not only did it provide youth culture with a ready supply of snappy quotes to lubricate the conversation, but it began to shape the way its viewers behaved in ways more permanent than the Rachel Hairdo.

The very late-Nineties notion of the Third Space, neither home nor workplace, got its first exposure in Britain through Friends, which in effect prepared the ground for Starbucks to open in the UK in 1998. Central Perk was where you went when you were out of work. Now Starbucks is where you take your MacBook Air to steal wifi and ostentatiously pretend that you’re working.

“The show, and especially Chandler, turned sarcasm into the default mode of conversation for a generation,” says Andrew Collins. “Sarcasm became how we spoke to one another.” Could you be any lazier? Could it be any hotter in here? In whole sequences of Friends the cast communicate entirely in snark, in that mean but affectionate way that only real friends can tolerate.

Friends might not have created that style of speech but it was the biggest echo chamber on the planet, transmitting its tropes and character templates around the world. The question “Which one of the Friends cast are you?” was an early lo-fi internet staple, pre-dating today’s BuzzFeed quiz frenzy by a decade and more. Could a show be any more influential? Notice, too, that Matthew Perry’s Chandler Bing – a career smartass because he’s secretly terrified that there’s nothing else inside him—is the Friends character who most imprinted himself on the culture. You might not know a Joey or a Monica or a Ross. But everyone works with a Chandler. If you don’t, then the Chandler is probably you.

“There’s an argument,” says the script editor Andrew Ellard, “that unmarried, underemployed twentysomethings who hadn’t sorted their lives out weren’t being seen on TV in the early Nineties. But when Friends arrives, suddenly it’s clear that people like that are in fact the majority. The irony is, that life stage has extended itself far longer than anyone thought it would. Now it’s thirtysomethings who haven’t figured out where their lives are going—and that’s what gets you The Big Bang Theory and How I Met Your Mother. That’s where the legacy of Friends is handed down.”

The legacy was to be an interrupted one. The fit between Friends and the harsher, less secure early Noughties was less comfortable. The show was visibly ageing, its characters now into their thirties and some (Monica, Chandler) itching to leave Manhattan for suburbia. The disconnect between those characters cavorting in the fountain in the title sequence and the sitcom-sleek megastars of the show itself became harder to ignore. When Friendsended on 6 May 2004, television comedy already had a new lingua franca in the hand-held camera of the post-Office fake documentary, with its merciless focus on excruciating social embarrassment and moments of warmth (Tim and Dawn in the British version, Jim and Pam in America) so strictly rationed as to be torture.

“There’s another argument,” Ellard continues, “that Friends marks the end of a particular period that started with Annie Hall – that very New York, very Jewish humour of relationships, dating and neurosis that produced things likeWhen Harry Met Sally. Where else do you go when you’ve made Friends, which is When Harry Met Sally: the Sitcom? Afterwards you saw reaction, not continuation, because nobody could do that combination of comedy and soap as well as Friends.”

The warmth of Friends—cloying to some—dissipated in more cynical times. And where Friends echoes today those echoes are distorted. Two Broke Girlsoffers us trying-to-make-it-in-the-city with caricatures and grating one-liners instead of human beings that you want to spend time with. Though The Big Bang Theory is undeniably very funny, its characters are people you’ll never meet unless you live in Cupertino or Shoreditch. The Zooey Deschanel vehicleNew Girl is a nightmare vision of what Friends would have been like if Phoebe had been the lead – a frantic kookfest where every prop and costume comes straight off Etsy. Lena Dunham’s Girls is Friends with tattoos and raves and cocaine and actual sex, and is more truthful to the lives of twentysomethings. But you can do that kind of thing when mainstream television no longer exists.

The final episode of Friends drew nearly 52.5 million viewers in the US, beaten only by the holy trinity of SeinfeldCheers and M*A*S*H as the most-watched finale in American TV history. Admirably, it was not purely mawkish. Babies, romances and life paths are decided and the fussball table is destroyed in order to rescue a trapped duckling, a symbolic end-of-an-era moment that’s up there with the Starship Enterprise exploding. Only a heart of concrete could fail to be a little moved at the sight of the Friends apartment, now empty and bare. We have all seen the places where we spent our twenties stripped down to meaningless walls and floors.

The show ends, inevitably, with a wisecrack, but at least it’s a good one. Let’s go for a coffee, someone says as they lug their possessions downstairs and into middle age. “Where?” asks Chandler. We do not see Central Perk again, and you suspect that the Friends won’t, either—if they do, they’ll be occupied by rampaging kids or mentally absent, texting and tweeting. It was a poignant final thought in 2004 and more so in 2014, when even the people who are there for you might not really be there at all. 

This article originally appeared in the New Statesman