[Editor’s note: This article was first published on September 18, 2019.]
In 2014, I published a book called “Sitcom” that served as a history of the American situation comedy, covering the gamut from “I Love Lucy” to the present day. For that work, I wrote a chapter on “Friends,” rewatching the entirety of the series and appreciating its warmth and its acidic vigor. I felt like I’d said my piece.
Then I came across this story in the New York Times about high-school kids watching “Friends” on Netflix and shipping Ross and Rachel, as if this were a hot new series and not a two-decade-old show. Some combination of the series’ streaming debut and the internet’s unstinting love for “Friends” helped it find an entirely new audience, and I wanted to tell the full story of the show for everyone who was only just discovering it now, as well as the fans who had tuned in for the first episode back in 1994.
Over the course of the past two years, I’ve had the opportunity to interview many of the writers, actors, directors, and crew who worked on the show. I was impressed by the astounding rigor and dedication with which they approached their work, and the underappreciated craft which went into every frame of the show. It was easy to presume, as I had, that “Friends” had simply emerged, wholly formed, every Thursday night on NBC. Learning the stories of the people who made the show helped me understand just how they had done it. The writers often drew on their own lives, and the lives of their friends, to give life to the show’s sextet, transmuting their own experiences into adventures for Phoebe and Chandler and the rest of their characters.
Doing it took everything out of them. Writer Jeff Astrof told me about once approaching the show’s co-creator, David Crane, with a request. They were currently working 100 percent of the time and making a show that was 100 percent. Growing tired of seeing the sun rise over the Warner Bros, lot, he wondered: what if they could cut back to 75 percent effort and made a show that was 90 percent excellent? Crane rejected the deal out of hand. “Friends” had to be 100 percent, always.
For me, writing this book was an effort to understand not just the people who had made the show, but the people who loved it. And so, one day last year, I took a trip to the West Village, to the place where Central Perk would have been — you know, if it had existed. I had lunch with a friend in the ground-floor restaurant, but while we ate, I kept getting distracted by the people gathering on the street outside. They were all standing catty-corner from the restaurant, peering up and posing for photos. At first, I couldn’t understand them: why didn’t they get any closer? Finally, it clicked: they wanted to see the building made famous by “Friends” in exactly the fashion they were familiar with from the show itself. They were seeking to recreate the famous shot of the building’s exterior, only with them in the center of the frame.
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There was so little of “Friends” to see in New York — the show itself was shot in Los Angeles, and only rarely ventured into familiar Manhattan destinations — but people wanted to see it anyway. They were here in the flesh to pay tribute to the show that they loved, and even if there was nothing to visit, they wanted to be there regardless.
“Friends” remains so unstintingly popular that Netflix was willing to spend $100 million for the privilege of keeping it for one last year. It is so popular that Warner Bros. is launching its own new streaming platform, HBO Max, in part to be able to control “Friends” directly, and reap the profits. There really is no precedent for a television series that maintains this level of audience devotion this long after its premiere, and the show’s 25th anniversary this month feels like an ideal opportunity to pay homage to what it has achieved.
The new generation of fans loves “Friends” for two overlapping but separate reasons. First, “Friends” provides a roadmap for the future, giving younger viewers a sense of what might be coming: first jobs, first relationships, first heartbreak, even marriage and children, all secure in the knowledge of doing it all with your friends by your side. Additionally, with the world — ahem — in the condition it is currently in, the idea of retreating to a space where good-looking young people sit around and drink coffee, and the most compelling problem facing them is “does she like me?” begins to sound better and better.
We love the 1990s in part because they were the last time we felt able to tune out the world entirely. Whether that was good or bad, it is something many younger people desperately seek to recreate, 22 minutes at a time. Critics sometimes refer to “Friends” as comfort food, and what is comfort food but the thing that gives us solace when nothing else can?