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History of TV: The One With the #ScriptChat About ‘Friends’

December 3, 2020
4 min read time

Happy (late) Thanksgiving, friends!

Following this American national holiday, it feels most apt to talk about a show that put on some of the funniest Thanksgiving episodes to grace the small screen. It’s hard not to envision Monica shakin’ it while wearing a bespectacled, uncooked turkey on her head in season five’s “The One With All the Thanksgivings,” or Brad Pitt mouthing “I hate you” across the infamous Geller-Green apartment set to his then-wife Jennifer Aniston in season eight’s “The One With the Rumor,” whenever Thanksgiving rolls around again. At least for those of us who sat through every episode of the comedy series’ 10 seasons … And there are quite a few of us.

The NBC sitcom’s swan song pulled in 52.5 million viewers to cap off a decade of laughs, tears and storytelling that changed the comedic television landscape. “The One Where They Say Goodbye” was later dubbed the most-watched television episode of the 2000s. Not bad for a show about six twenty-somethings who sit around and drink coffee a lot.

So what made this half-hour hangout sitcom so popular it’s been on, like, all the Top-50-of-all-time-shows lists and racked up 62 Emmy® Award nominations (and a few wins)?

The one where they embraced pop culture status

In a world where people still stood around the proverbial water cooler to gossip and talk about their favorite shows the day after they aired — On Demand was still a thing of the relative future when Friends hit airwaves in 1994 — the writers behind Friends went all the way meta with naming episodes about precisely what everyone would be talking about from that particular episode. In season 10’s “The One With the Late Thanksgiving,” guess what? All the characters were late to Monica’s Thanksgiving dinner, after they convinced her to make it. While television episode naming has become more clever since Friends stopped airing new episodes in 2004, those were some of the first instances where a show acknowledged its own place in pop culture.

Then there were the trend-setting hairstyles, catchphrases and curious TV trope of twenty-somethings owning vast New York City apartments. Maybe that had to do with the largely young writers room that creators Marta Kauffman and David Crane surrounded themselves with, which speaks to the “write what you know” adage all screenwriters are told. (Maybe not the big apartment bit, however, if you’re a writer…)

Another screenwriting takeaway here is that while we try to write for timelessness, sometimes fully leaning into the zeitgeist of a decade is what makes the show timeless for nostalgia’s sake. As does a show’s core themes.

Grounding comedy  

Sure there were plenty of jokes and one liners — “My two greatest enemies: Rachel Green and complex carbohydrates,” Pitt’s guest starring character Will Colbert famously utters in that Thanksgiving episode — but what really kept audiences coming back were the moments of gravitas in between the levity. Friends was arguably one of the first prime time comedies to feature long-term character arcs. We had the will they/won’t they Ross and Rachel love story, as well as the evolution of Monica and Chandler’s flirtation into a full-fledged grown-up relationship that even saw them move out of Manhattan into a house with their adopted baby.

The show’s multi-camera structure in front of a live studio audience also served to heighten the energy of the show, as the jokes were tested on real people during taping. The script structure of a show like that is also another beast entirely; more technical and extensive, due to the production process. If you’re into writing multi-camera comedies, reading a Friends script is highly recommended to study the dynamics.

A show by any other name 

Can you imagine a world without Friends? Kauffman and Crane originally titled the hangout sitcom Insomnia Café. The show went through several name incarnations and it goes to show how every part of a show, right down to the title, can affect its general package.

As does the cast that brings the characters to life. Who else wanted Courteney Cox (Monica Geller), Lisa Kudrow (Phoebe Buffay), Jennifer Aniston (Rachel Green), Matt LeBlanc (Joey Tribbiani), Matthew Perry (Chandler “Could I BE wearing any more clothes?!” Bing), and David Schwimmer (Ross Geller) to be friends in real life? The onscreen chemistry between these six is undeniable, and undoubtedly partially to thank for the show’s insane success and notoriety. I mean, besides the fantastic writing, of course. It finally won its Emmy for Best Comedy Series in 2002.

A number of famous friends also stopped by Central Perk as guest stars, including Eric McCormack (Will & Grace) and Jon Favreau (Iron Man), who both auditioned to be original cast members, as well as Tom Selleck, Susan Sarandon, Reese Witherspoon, Bruce Willis, and Julia Roberts among many, many others.

In retrospect

Friends has found a new generation of fans on Netflix, as well as its fair share of criticism for lack of diversity that ran rampant through much of prime time during the show's era on TV. It has also spawned a plethora of copycat shows (How I Met Your Mother and New Girl feature similar themes), though most never last. But that won’t stop the studio suits from trying to replicate the magic of Friends. Because at some point, we can all relate to that feeling between childhood and true adulthood that’s defined by insecurities, the promise of love, and happiness of knowing you have a solid set of friends who will always be there for you.

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