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On Air: The one with the hand gestures

The language of television comedy - it's a living, breathing thing. And in America, it's a language without words. Friends is a prime example of non-verbal communication at its trendiest. Wah?
Oh, coo-ul. The fifth series of Friends has just started. Across the nation, teenage girls will be pestering their parents to get Sky TV, which recently collared the first-broadcast rights to the most popular, and very nearly the best, sitcom on Anglo-American TV. There is a decidedly urgent feel about Series Five. For millions of devoted, would-be chums of Ross and Rachel, Joey and Chandler, Phoebe and Monica, it's time for some crucial questions to be answered. Did Ross and Emily go through with the wedding, despite Ross addressing Emily as "Rachel" in the middle of his marriage vows? Will Rachel's heart be terminally broken? Will Monica and Chandler, having unexpectedly woken up in bed together in London, become a hot item back in New York? Can Phoebe's pregnant bump possibly get any bigger? And most important, will the cast ever stop doing that thing with their hands?It's called "vogueing", I'm told, in modern dance halls. Back in the Sixties, it was called "throwing shapes". It means going "da-dah!" and holding it for a few seconds. It's something beyond gesticulation, and closer to the children's game of "Statues", where you wave your limbs about expressively, then suddenly stop dead as if in a freeze-frame. It guarantees that the words you utter are emphasised not by the tone of your voice, but by the way your hands are frozen in the air, like a frame around what you're saying. It's a kind of concrete italics. And it's having a pernicious effect on the nation's youth. British children are starting to mutate into a lot of Continental hand-wavers.

There's a whole generation of pubescent British kids whose conversation now aspires to the smart-ass, ironical rhythms in which the Manhattan sextet communicate, as if that were the only way for human beings to speak. They borrow the words, the delivery, the intonation. If you tell a modern English kid something really amazing, where once they'd have said "Gosh", they now say "Whoa", like Joey. "That is so not you," these London babes, echoing Monica, will say in the changing rooms of Hennes and Tammy.

Friends didn't invent the word "puh-leeze"or start the fashion for saying, "Hell-o-ow?" to imply stupidity. But they co-opted both words, and a few more besides, to construct a whole lexicon of sarcastic incredulity: "Excuse me? I can not believe you said that". "Am I missing something here?" Note the constant mid-sentence emphasis - after a while, the dialogue in Friends developed a kind of recognisable music, a signature cadence you could practically hum. (Some of us began to talk like that ourselves, until threatened with divorce by our unimpressed partners). There was even a period, around Series Two, when Phoebe and Rachel briefly talked in non- verbal whinging noises, "neh-hahrr" meant "It's not fair" or "I don't want to" or sometimes, "I don't care"; "yuh-hahr" meant "Just do it anyway and stop complaining". My six-year-old son began saying it when refusing to eat his supper. Rachel's hairstyle, Chandler's dandyish one-liners ("Well, it could have gone worse" he says of Ross's wedding-day bloomer in Episode One, "He could've shot her"), Phoebe's terrible songs, all spawned a few thousand emulators.

And now, gesture. No television show has ever featured such variety and prodigality of gesticulation. No television show could possibly feature more, unless it were a soap opera about a bunch of argumentative and cuckolded Sicilian market traders. The Friends lot are always going "da-dah!", but with endlessly sophisticated refinements. At the climactic moment in Episode One, when the newly-married-but-instantly-abandoned Ross asks Rachel if she'll come on his honeymoon to Greece, Rachel goes into a ditzy little tremor of indecision; nothing happens for five seconds, six, seven. Then she bursts into action. "Yes I can do that" she cries, head thrown back, hands dramatically clenched. "Oh, cool" says Ross, giving a double-thumbs- up sign. Both of them behave as if they're playing charades instead of having a conversation. Chandler is always explaining things, pressing thumbs and middle fingers together with fake-precision. Joey always seems to be holding up something and pointing at it dramatically, as though he's in a commercial. And lately he's taken to flouncing out of rooms with a double-wrist gesture (like someone asking to be handcuffed) that's never explained but always gets a laugh.

Gradually you see that each character has a gesture that's uniquely his or her own, a sort of manual idiolect. Rachel's gesture is to extend the fingers of both hands and press the tips into her temples, as if constructing a roof to ward off the bad luck that's about to befall her. Ross's is to turn both his hands into guns, with forefingers extended, and level them ballistically at whoever has annoyed him. Chandler's is to make a lightning sketch in the air with both hands, wriggling his whole body in serpentine counterpoint, as if to insist on the funkiness of his plans. Joey's is a simple, expansive, Italianate extending of both arms, palms upward, a demonstration of innocence. Monica's is to hold both hands up to her cheeks in fake horror, like a beautified Munch Scream. Phoebe's is to waggle an admonitory forefinger and make her whole arm tick metronomically back and forth. Look out for them; they come round all the time. Episode Two is particularly rich in gesture. If you were to press the fast-forward button, you'd swear you were watching a group of St Vitus Dance patients attempting to chat each other up in sign language.

What does it tell us about American comedy? Only that it isn't like British comedy. We tend to shy away from excessively broad comic acting unless it's to suggest that a character is a complete prat (Vivian, in The Young Ones, springs to mind). We have not gone in for huge facial gestures since the heyday of Albert Steptoe. You do not find Delboy and Rodney mugging for the camera, any more than did Captain Mainwaring and Sergeant Wilson; their expressions alone are usually enough to get the laugh. And the national genetic inheritance that makes us suspicious of hand-wavers and cheek- kissers in Marseilles or Rome translates into a shyness about throwing your limbs about the place. From Birds of a Feather to Blackadder to The New Statesman to Men Behaving Badly, British comedy is more typically about odd-looking and semi-articulate people sitting around being inventively rude to each other.

In American sitcoms like Friends, Seinfeld and Frazier, if one can generalise so recklessly, what's happening on screen isn't so much acting as performing. Each of the characters in Friends has a turn to do, using the other five as an audience (perhaps this accounts for a suspicion that occasionally creeps into your head that, for all their togetherness, the six don't actually know each other terribly well). Each has a form of delivery, a conversational tic, that's been virtually patented - so Phoebe must keep up a flow of slightly crackpot insights and Joey must always show signs of regressive infantilism. Such individual requirements makes actual dialogue, actual conversation more and more difficult to write. Therefore, everything must be emphasised, to suggest that every small plot twist, every minor narrative point has an importance. That's why watching Friends can be an exhausting experience.

`Friends' continues on Thursdays at 9pm on Sky1