IT’S 20 years since we were first introduced to over-sized coffee mugs at Central Perk, Marcel the Monkey and the Rachel cut. The first episode of the iconic comedy series, Friends, aired on September 22, 1994, in the US. Despite daily re-runs, fans haven’t yet tired of the catchy one-liners.
Friends hit US screens amid established comedies like Seinfeld, Mad about You and Frasier. It was the quirky little sister to those other sitcoms. While Seinfeld was unconventional, just hanging on the margins of acceptable, Mad about You was about New Yorkers who had settled down and figured out what they wanted.
Friends was like a big mug of coffee; warmhearted and welcoming. The beauty of the show was that it was simply about six friends in their 20s getting by, learning the life lessons of dead-end jobs and single life.
Monica Gellar, played by Courteney Cox, captured the essence of Friends when she said: “Welcome to the real world! It sucks; you’re going to love it!” While the gigantic loft in New York City was unrealistic for a chef and waitress, Friends truthfully exposed the triumphs and struggles of 20-somethings.
This was the generation putting off marriage until their 30s. They aspired to acting or working in the fashion industry. Friends portrayed the extremes of our 20s. At that age, there are people ready to take on the serious job, like Ross, the paleontologist, and then there are those like Rachel, who has to be coaxed into cutting up her Daddy’s credit cards to make her stand on her own two feet. The Friends generation was replacing serious adult decisions with having fun in a world of semi-independence from their parents.
Like earlier hit sitcoms, such as Three’s Company in the 1970s and 1980s, Friends embraced the alternative nuclear family of apartment living.
On the brink of adulthood, the characters could deal with life’s issues amid the security of their friends, who were, in turn, their new family.
While they were navigating their way through life and learning to grow up as they approached their 30s, they had help from each other.
The six characters were faultlessly created, and cast with relatively unknown actors: Courteney Cox, David Schwimmer, Jennifer Aniston, Matthew Perry, Matt LeBlanc and Lisa Kudrow.
Cox’s character, Monica, is excessively neat, and organised bordering on OCD. She works as a chef, while yearning to find her ideal love and the approval of her parents.
David Schwimmer is Ross, Monica’s older brother, a palaeontologist who has a lifelong crush on Rachel. Ross is a recent divorcee: his college sweetheart turned out to be a lesbian and so his self-esteem has been crushed.
Jennifer Aniston’s Rachel is the pretty, cheerleader girl who has spent most of her life as a spoiled, rich ‘princess’.
After running out on her perfect wedding, to Barry the dentist, she must learn to face the real world.
Matthew Perry was perfectly cast as Chandler, Ross’s college buddy, who actually isn’t gay and who gets past life’s obstacles by cracking a joke.
Lisa Kudrow’s Phoebe is the loveable eccentric, the quirky friend who is always there to surprise and who sang ‘Smelly Cat’.
And then there’s heartthrob Matt LeBlanc, as Joey, the aspiring actor and eye candy. Each character had a unique element that made the group gel.
Friends defined an era. This was a time long before the internet, streaming, Sky Planners and Facebook.
Back then, we actually watched a show when it was being aired on the TV.
Friends was an instant hit. Within weeks, the show’s sarcastic tone and catchphrases could be overheard on buses and in coffee shops. Knowing all the words to ‘Smelly Cat’ was a prerequisite, while one-liners such as ‘We were on a break’ or ‘If I wasn’t going commando’ were instantly acknowledged. The writers had created an impenetrable Friends bubble.
Throughout its run, Friends bagged 62 Emmy nominations and catapulted a cast of unknowns into a world of stardom.
By seasons nine and ten, the actors had negotiated salaries of $1m an episode, making Aniston, Cox and Kudrow the highest paid TV actresses of all time. As a comedy, it had broken boundaries, entering a new sphere.
Over the ten years, the cast continued as they started, ensuring they remained a true ensemble, never letting one character dominate.
Aniston and Schwimmer’s comedic timing were unrivalled. It was a stroke of genius to accentuate Ross’ nerd-like, irritating character flaws as he experienced a kind of mild mental breakdown.
Ross had progressed from the annoying to the hilarious, giving us some of comedies greatest moments.
Friends remains the quintessential show about the angst of being in your 20s. Thanks to the stream of constant re-runs, on channels like Comedy Central, an entirely new generation has embraced Friends.
It’s testament to the writing and actors that, 20 years, on the show, which despite having no reference to modern phenomena such as twitter feeds, Facebook, and the internet, has been embraced by a new age bracket.
The reason for this is simply that Friends is hilariously funny, while telling a very familiar story.
This episode is pure genius. It covers a very short window of time but grasps the essence of each character in that time frame. It also gave us some of the best Friends quotes and comedic moments, such as when Joey appears wearing all of Chandler’s clothes: ‘Hi, I’m Chandler, could I be wearing anymore clothes. Maybe if I wasn’t going commando...’
This is the one where Ross is upset because it’s the anniversary of the first time he had sex with Carol his ex-wife. The ice puck hitting the nurse in the nose...need we say anymore?
This is where we see Ross at his tipping point. When his boss eats his Thanksgiving sandwich Ross losses the plot. Up until now his nerdy ways have been on the brink of annoying but his highlighted irrationality is spectacularly funny.
This is where the infamous ‘We were on a break’ quote derives from. Ross has slept with the copy girl and Rachel finds out, leading to an all-night talk out in her apartment while the others hide-out in Monica’s bedroom. And Joey gets a new walk.
This is the one where the girls lose their apartment to the boys in a quiz lightening round. The episode gave us the Rachel quote ‘He’s a transpon- transpondster!’ in response to the question ‘What is Chandler Bing’s job?’, highlighting the ongoing joke that nobody knows what Chandler does for a living.