I would love to have been there at the original pitch meeting for Friends: ‘So yeah, it’s about a bunch of friends.’ Pitching The Office must have been similarly brusque: ‘It’s about some office workers working in an office.’ And The Simpsons? ‘Oh yeah, that’s the one about a family called…the Simpsons’.
Like all great comedies, the premise for Friends is so simple it sounds almost facile. But embedded within the simplicity of the idea is the entirety of human experience; the joys, the sadnesses, the heartache and the tragedy; it’s all there in Ross’s remarkable range of expressions that ran from deep melancholy to boyish wonder.
The nerdy Ross, played by David Schwimmer, along with his best buds Chandler, Rachel, Phoebe, Monica and Joey are back on our screens for the first time in 17 years in a one-off reunion imaginatively titled Friends: The Reunion (or as some are calling it, ‘the one where they get back together’). Brevity was always a big part of the show, from the snappy opening credits to the lean 20-minute running time.
You might want to question the wisdom of a comeback at this late stage; anyone who has attended a school reunion in middle age will recall the horror of seeing bright-eyed young contemporaries worn down by life’s drudgery. The Friends cast are no different — all now in their fifties, a lot has happened since they last sat on the Central Perk sofa.
But the excitement of diehard fans — both young and old — on hearing news of the reunion is testament to the enduring appeal of a show that ran for 236 episodes and gained 62 Primetime Emmy Award nominations. For millennials who spent 10 of their most formative years avidly following the show’s myriad machinations, Ross and his charming chums were far more than just TV characters: they felt like actual friends. The brilliant cast of actors beautifully embody those angsty years between 25 and 35 when friends begin to pair off and panic sets in.
They may have been sassy New Yorkers living in a downtown loft but the glamorous setting was largely irrelevant. It was our emotional connection with the group that kept us coming back for more. And we were with them every step of the way, from the innocent pre digital mid-Nineties period when answer machine misunderstandings and hideous blouson shirts kept us giggling through to the sober mid-Aughts era when we were all just that little bit more bruised by life but still looking to our friends for comfort. For our heroes, love came and went but there was always a space on Central Perk’s comforting couch for the lovelorn and the broken of heart.
The clever, twisty plotlines could often move us to tears but it was the sheer quality and quantity of laughs we remember most. The timing was pin-sharp and always managed to confound expectations.
A few years ago freelance writer Talib Visram decided to study the structure of television comedy. He took a handful of primetime shows and compared them in terms of jokes per minute — the total number of jokes divided by the number of minutes in the show. Friends came in at a whopping 6.06 jokes per minute, a remarkable achievement for a series with such a high turnover. US producers tend not to skimp on the writing process, often employing whole teams of intellectual heavyweights; The Simpsons famously made jokes about the preponderance of nerdy Ivy Leaguers working on the show.
In Britain, classic sitcoms often play off class stereotypes — see David Jason’s Del Boy or Felicity Kendell’s Barbara Good. The great thing about Friends is that no one cares where Chandler went to school or whether Rachel was posh; the writers simply wanted to reflect our own tragedies and triumphs back at us. There’s an optimism and a generosity of spirit that cynical Brits like me find irresistible.
Creator David Crane and his stable of writers may not have realized it at the time but their hit show very much mirrors the teachings of Greek philosopher Epicurus who, back in the third century BC wrote, ‘It is not so much our friends’ help that helps us, as the confidence of their help. Of all the means to insure happiness throughout the whole life, by far the most important is the acquisition of friends. Of all the gifts that wise Providence grants us to make life full and happy, friendship is the most beautiful.’ Amen to that and to one of TV’s finest achievements.
This article was originally published on Spectator Life.