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Friends 20th anniversary: Six things we wouldn't have without influential comedy series

The influence of Friends is so all-pervasive we often take it for granted

Ellen E. Jones
Monday 22 September 2014 11:25
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Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year

Twenty years ago on Monday, the US network NBC broadcast the very first episode of a series which would go on to change your social life forever.

Much like the pull of gravity, the influence of Friends is so all-pervasive we often take it for granted. Now that it’s possible for a twenty-something to have been born in an era without the definitive twenty-something sitcom, it’s time to reflect. Here are six things we wouldn’t have without Friends.

1. Consistent laughs

Whatever you might have read in Friends ‘Til the End: The Official Companion Book, this was never cutting edge comedy, especially when you consider the brilliance of British comedy at the time. The year Friends launched (1994) was also the year that gave us The Day Today, The Fast Show and Knowing Me, Knowing You With Alan Partridge. The year before, it was Shooting Stars and the year after, the first episode of Father Ted.

But what Friends lacked in genius, it made up for in comforting consistency. In ten series we never went more than 60 seconds without a punchline. Such is the power of the team-writing system.

2. The true spirit of camaraderie

They don’t call David Schwimmer “the Bob Crow of situation comedy” for nothing. It was his idea that the cast of Friends should collectively bargain for their pay, a strategy which eventually netted them $1m each per episode - a new record in television.

This might never have been possible if creators Marta Kaufmann and David Crane had not also steadfastly rejected suggestions that scripts be redrafted. The studio wanted a more traditional structure, featuring one dominant character and five supporting ones, but eventually saw sense. Speaking of which...

3. Proof that the suits don’t know a thing about comedy

Here are a few of the terrible ideas proposed by nameless NBC execs during the development stage of Friends: 1) An older character called ‘Pat the Cop’ who gave the twenty-somethings relationships advice 2) That the coffee shop setting be replaced with a diner, because it was ‘too hip’ 3) A central romantic storyline between Monica and Joey. No, no, no, no, no.

4. A Nationwide caffeine addition

Coffee as cultural pastime was actually the invention of Georgian London’s coffehouses, but until the cast of Friends started sipping lattes during normal working hours, it was long forgotten on these shores.

It’s no coincidence that the mid-nineties arrival of ‘Central Perk’ coincided with the UK’s embrace of franchised coffee shops with nice soft furnishings. Progress has its downsides, however. Whatever happened to a nice cup of tea and chocolate Hob-Nob?

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5. An irritating way of speaking

Linguists have studied the dialogue of Friends and concluded that its influence on the way English is spoken globally goes way beyond Joey’s “How you doin’?” catchphrase.

There’s also Phoebe’s ‘upspeak’, Chandler’s sarcastic inflection and the word “so”, which replaced “very” or “really” as the most popular intensifier, thanks to Rachel and Monica’s regular gossip exchanges. Could a sitcom be any more influential?

6. Some admirable aspirations

Much is made of ‘the Rachel’ haircut, but what really made Friends such aspirational viewing had nothing to do with style. Their clothes were dowdy, their taste in music was abominable (Hootie & The Blowfish? Really?) and their Manhattan loft apartments were very obviously sound stages in a Los Angeles studio.

Even so, audiences - often unconsciously - imitated Rachel, Ross, Chandler, Monica, Phoebe and Joey. Perhaps that’s because unlike the characters in Seinfeld, Cheers or most other great sitcoms, Friends was about people who were not only funny, but also functional. They were well-balanced, fundamentally decent people who looked after each other. They were Friends.

Comedy Central will be broadcasting back-to-back episodes of Friends from 10.30am to 9pm on Sunday.

What I watched this week

Scotland in A Day, 4oD

After all the referendum rows and talk of lasting division, there’s something healing about Jack Doherty’s Life in A Day-style ‘self-shot’ mockumentary. Brian Cox, Douglas Henshall, Kayvan Novak and Doon Mackichan star as ordinary Scots on all sides of the argument - and they’re all as silly as each other.

http://www.channel4.com/programmes/scotland-in-a-day

The Leftovers, Sky Go

Three years after two per cent of the world’s population disappeared without a trace (an event known as the Sudden Departure) and the town of Mapleton, New York is trying to return to normality. The Guilty Remnant, a strange cult of white-attired, chain-smoking mutes has other ideas. The first episode you watch of this dour, frustrating drama may also be the last, but it’s essential viewing, all the same.

http://www.sky.com/tv/show/the-leftovers

Cilla, ITV Player

Girl-next-door and tough cookie Sheridan Smith is perfectly cast as girl-next-door and tough cookie Cilla Black. This three-part drama follows Black’s early days of stardom on the Merseybeat scene as she pals around with a little-known band called The Beatles and tries to persuade Brain Epstein to give her a shot at the big time.

https://www.itv.com/itvplayer/cilla/series-1/episode-1

Peaky Blinders (series one), iPlayer

I wasn’t completely enamored with Birmingham’s answer to Boardwalk Empire first time around (the trendy soundtrack seemed try-hard). Then they announced the casting of Tom Hardy as a London gangster in the upcoming second series and I felt suddenly inspired to give it another go. Go figure. BBC Two have been re-running series one all week, which means it’s now available for catch up on iPlayer.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b03bgw2m/peaky-blinders-episode-2

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