Saturday, May 03, 2014

Oh. My. God. It’s the one where it all ended.

They say nothing ages faster than comedy, but in the world of situation comedy, some things stand the test of time. I feel certain that, if I'm still riding life's great theme park 31 years from now, I will be able to watch an episode of Dad's Army - a full 100 years after World War II ended - and will still laugh like a drain, as I have since childhood, at the brilliance of its observations about British class and our nation’s underdog character.

Likewise, I could probably spend the rest of my days watching boxes of The Simpsons, Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Cheers, Frasier and all twelve episodes of Fawlty Towers repeatedly without tiring of the comedic dexterity with which they were written and performed.

But Friends? In ten years' time, will I still be watching repeats of the show which ended ten years ago this week after a ten-year, ten-'season', 236-episode run? Given that it continues to be shown in syndication around the world, continues to sell box sets by the…um…box set, it’s unlikely the show will ever disappear. One reason for that is that a generation of twentysomethings grew up with it.

On May 6, 2004, Ross (David Schwimmer), Monica (Courteney Cox), Chandler (Matthew Perry), Joey (Matt LeBlanc), Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) and Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow - yep, I don't know, either, why she is always mentioned last) went their (mostly) separate ways after a decade of profoundly white, urban New York japes centred mostly around two SoHo apartments and a coffee shop. Or Studio 24 of the Warner Brothers lot in Burbank, if you want to be pedantic.

Compared with the post-modernism of Seinfeld and its 25-minute observations on modern neuroses (not to mention another notably ethnic minority-free ensemble of New Yorkers), Friends was a gentler comedy that traded on the interplay between its central characters' growing up before our eyes. The original pitch to NBC by creators David Crane and Marta Kauffman read: "It's about sex, love, relationships, careers, a time in your life when everything's possible. And it's about friendship because when you're single and in the city, your friends are your family.”

Thus Rachel went from ditzy, spoiled WASP brat to single mother; Ross, from awkward dinosaur geek to serial divorcee...and awkward dinosaur geek; Monica evolved her role as OCDish chef to become earth mother of the group, turning into the psychologists' dream wife for Chandler, whose weight fluctuations over ten series kept pace with Matthew Perry's own demons. The only constants were Joey and Phoebe, so often the comic stooges, combining Woody from Cheers' dim-wittedness with the Reverend Jim from Taxi's vacancy.

It would be fair to say that none of Friends' main characters were ever fully rounded, but in creating a series about a sextet, as opposed to, say, Will & Grace's titular duo (though both were usually overshadowed by the OTT campness of Karen and Jack), there was always plenty of scope for varying degrees of exposure, week-to-week, to different combinations of the six characters.

What is worthy of note is that, despite the cheesy premise of the show’s I’ll Be There For You theme tune, the six friends provided vehicles for Crane and Kauffman to explore themes of monogamy, gay marriage, motherhood (single and surrogate), divorce and even cross-dressing (still one of the show's greatest gags - Kathleen Turner as Chandler Bing’s dad).

But let's not try to deconstruct Friends too much: the most successful sitcoms are those which don't just become "must-see TV" (a concept, anyway, created by the networks to drive ratings), but which invade popular culture and become part of our vernacular. I'm talking about catchphrases. "Don't panic!", "You plonker!", "Yada, yada, yada", even "ooh Betty!" (non-Brits, that might take explaining…). “Oh my God!” (and its social media-abbreviated "OMG") somehow became adopted as the go-to reaction of young adults all over of the world thanks to Friends, while patented sarcasm became a more prominent part of urban conversation (“Can open - worms everywhere...").

Friends also introduced other cultural phenomena to the world outside ersatz Manhattan. The coffee shop, for example. Before Friends and, therefore, before Starbucks, people in Britain, for example, didn’t ‘hang out’ in coffee shops. They drank tea in cafes, met in pubs and, in a more innocent time, pitched up at what was once known as the “Wimpy bar”. Friends legitimised hanging around on sofas and faux leather armchairs, nursing a bucket of latte and having a seemingly casual attitude to going to work.

Friends gave us the ‘Rachel Haircut’, a style which Aniston reportedly hated and her stylist was, allegedly, stoned out of his head when he created it. That, though, didn’t stop thousands of women in the late 1990s walking into hairdressers and demanding “A Rachel”.

But if there was one standout outcome of Friends, it was letting Matthew Perry’s comic talents loose in prime time. Previously a serial auditionee and cast member of not-to-be picked up, Crane and Kauffman effectively created Chandler as an outlet for Perry’s comic delivery, licensing him to ad-lib his natural predilection for sarcasm and wise-assery. No one will ever know exactly how many times Perry has been asked by journalists: "So, how much of Chandler is you?".

When the show ended in 2004 - watched by a record audience of 50 million in the US -  it did so with an intentional full stop by the writers. The characters went off to live the rest of their lives, while the cast went off to varying fortunes: Aniston become America's rom-com sweetheart; Cox MILFed-up Monica to become the star of the brilliant Cougar Town; LeBlanc blanked out with the ill-advised Friends-spinoff Joey (redeeming himself more recently in the BBC's Episodes); Schwimmer has pursued a successful stage career; Kudrow has branched out into production; and Perry has been  busy associating himself with the prefix "short-lived", with shows like the Hollywood satire Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip and Mr. Sunshine lasting  the course. A pity, given his comic brilliance, though news that he would be appearing in a television remake of The Odd Couple shows promise, despite the "been there before" factor (he and LeBlanc effectively spent ten years playing Felix Unger and Oscar Madison as Friends Chandler and Joey).

Despite repeated rumouring about movie versions, as well as the varying degrees of post-Friends success experienced by the cast, the show stopped for good on May 6, 2004.

Ross and Rachel were ultimately reunited ("We had dicked the audience around for 10 years with their 'will they or won’t they’," David Crane has told Entertainment Weekly, "and we didn’t see any advantage in frustrating them").

Monica and Chandler moved to suburbia to raise their twins. Joey (the spinoff tells us) heads to LA, and Phoebe setles down with Mike.The final scene sees the six hand in their keys (ironic, given that they rarely ever used door keys in the show’s ten-year run), and they close the door to Monica and Rachel’s apartment for the last time, Chandler having the last word (at the suggestion that they all go off for a coffee he snarks: "Sure! Where...?").

The idea of a movie or a reunion show would not make sense. "The essence of the [final] show leads you to an organic conclusion,” said David Crane. "Friends started as the time in your life when your friends are your family, so what's at the heart of the episode is really six friends going off in different directions.”

46-year-old Matt Le Blanc says that he would not want to see "Old Joey", nor does he want to see Monica and Chandler with their now ten-year-old children. "I’d rather imagine that," LeBlanc said recently. "Everyone’s going to have a different vision of what those characters are like, so to have that materialise is going to disappoint most people… It’s better to just let them think."

For those in desperate, caffeine-like need of a fix of Friends, you are unlikely to be far from a rerun on satellite or cable TV, wherever in the world you find yourself. The reruns provide all of us who started watching in our mid-twenties the chance to step back to a time when, probably, we weren’t so concerned with mortgages and negative equity, school fees or garden clearance.

Yes, there were plenty of occasions when it resembled a smug advert for The Gap, but there was a comforting warmth about the genuine friendship of the six characters. Of course, it hardly represented the lives of actual New Yorkers in their twenties - the apartments were far too big for a start - but Friends was, after all, a sitcom, not a crass reality show.

And it was, and still is, funny.

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