“So no one told you life was gonna be this way – (clap-clap-clap-clap)” The stars of Friends, before and after
Janeane Garofalo, take it away:
“I see you, Hootie and the Blowfish listeners – never has a CD purchase said so much about a person.
I know who you are. You’re not a lawbreaker.
You don’t rock…as a RULE. But when you do, it’s in a very ‘VH1’ kinda way.
You wish Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan could star in EVERY movie, not just as a loving couple, but a totally-dysfunctional couple that would say nuggets of wisdom that we could put on mugs or bumper stickers.
And you like the show Friends a LOT!…A LOT!”
I love anniversaries, even the seemingly-insignificant ones. Six years ago this Thursday, the cast of Friends put down their coffee mugs and stopped swapping partners for the last time. Perhaps the final sitcom of its kind, Friends brought together massive audiences of people from wildly-diverging backgrounds. While the internet was entering its late adolescence – you should of seen how mad Internet got when you took away its cell phone – the cultural access revolution of the most-recent decade had yet to emerge during the show’s reign. Broadcast networks did not have the ability to market programming to niche audiences, nor did audiences possess tools like DVR or web-based viewing options to personalize their experience. Television programmers merely aimed at the critical mass of the Great Middle, and from the show’s initial season, nothing galvanized as large a group of viewers for as many years as Friends.
Garofalo, keeper of the flame of wonderful acerbicity, was right on. Of course, a Hoot’fish[i] (as their true fans call them) concert eventually served as the center of an early episode – “The One With Five Steaks and an Eggplant”. Despite never finding the funniest moments of Friends any more enjoyable than the commercial breaks of my current faves like 30 Rock, I remember many Thursday eves (alongside a sizable chunk of my compatriots at The Brown Tweed Society) where events of the day were paused for viewing the wacky storylines of Ross, Rachel and Co. Despite seeing almost every episode in its original run, and several a second time within syndication, I can barely recall anything specific about the show outside of silly bits like Ross’ monkey eating Scrabble pieces, Joey and Chandler’s adult movie marathon, Phoebe playing “Smelly Cat”, Rachel waking up with an ink moustache, some guest star complaining about big cups of coffee, and Monica…well, being freakishly bossy and annoying. Not to return to Jerry!, but one of the reasons we watched Friends was because…it was on TV.
Outside of maybe ten moments, the funniest thing about Friends are the episode’s titles, which were completely mysterious to viewers outside of TV Guide or the DVDs (“The One With Two Parts, Part One” being my favorite). Setting the template for Sex & the City a few years later, the snappy writing of the first season was tossed away for lazy love-interest-bingo and glorification of conspicuous consumption. If the characters weren’t being paired-off romantically in a seemingly random fashion, they were expressing “thoughts” that were judgmental, anti-intellectual, or downright vapid. Episodes became a game of “spot which demographic we are trying to manipulate”. A scene where the guys converse about something “bro” for the college-age dudes was followed by the girls talking about the guys, or their hair, or other non-threatening topics that wouldn’t scare advertisers. Wait – we need to connect with the older part of our audience – quick, throw a baby on screen for 10 seconds! Awww!
So what about the key players? Who are these “Friends”, and why are they so friendly? Here’s a summary of their work before and after (or during) the show’s run:
The Linda Ronstadt of American Cinema – her comedic talents are top-notch, but damn, does she pick some awful projects. Marley & Me is almost tolerable if you root for the dog to go all Ozzy on that house like it’s a hotel room on tour, or for the movie’s ending to involve Michael Vick. Does she choose films specifically to antagonize Patton Oswalt and his simple request for movie titles to actually mean something (Along Came Polly, Rumor Has It, Just Go With It, Til There Was You…)? On a recent episode of Kermode and Mayo’s Film Reviews[ii], the Good Doctor was nonplussed by the idea of a box set featuring a smattering of Aniston’s cinematic appearances. Thankfully, Simon Mayo was quick to defend The Good Girl (solid storytelling and the awesome “Bits, GIT IN YER CORNER!!”); in addition to Office Space, which has inspired many to quit their job (or to at least smash a few appliances while cranking the Geto Boys). I would add Dream of an Insomniac, where almost every line uttered by JA is in a different dialect. The Break-Up had a few good laughs (and her character used a gig by The Old 97s as a means for relationship reconciliation – easily the saddest/coolest “getting stood up” moment in the past few years). Rock Star was painful at times, but nowhere near as terrible as the reviews made it out to be. Too bad her world is nothing but tabloid covers and crappy rom-coms. Maybe she’ll give up the 8-figure paydays for more clever indies, am I right?
Kudrow has a much higher batting average than Aniston, with fewer films like P.S. I Love You or Analyze That to outweigh the solid outings like Romy & Michelle’s Hugh School Reunion (featuring Jeneane playing, well, Janeane). Sadly, her age (she is six years older than Aniston) likely serves as a deterrent to hack rom-com directors to cast her as the lead (however, allowing more appearances in quality fare). Other highlights include The Opposite of Sex, where Christina Ricci began a kick-ass run (Pecker, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, 200 Cigarettes, The Laramie Project) and Clockwatchers – a dark comedy that combines the ethos of Waydowntown[iii] within an all-women version of Office Space.
Kudrow also has some notable small-screen appearances (Mad About You – another show I watched largely because it was “on TV”, and the Newhart series finale), and an often-hilarious smaller-screen career as an analyst on Web Therapy.
With nowhere near the quality output of her co-stars, Cox was far more significant for her career before Friends than anything outside of the show. You’ve likely seen her dancing with Bruce Springsteen in that memorable video for one of my karaoke favorites, but you might not remember her appearance in a Tampax commercial (where I learned that she was the first person to utter the word “period” on TV, not in reference to an era, a punctuation, or a word of emphasis to conclude a statement). She was also Alex P. Keaton’s girlfriend in Family Ties (and real life) before jumping into the cinematic torture of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (OK, jokes over, I know yous didn’t really like this, right?), or the decent-but-overrated franchise of Scream. The only thing remotely promising (I have not seen it yet) in her resume is November, a thriller directed by Greg Harrison of Groove. I gave one episode of Cougar Town a chance, which was 30 minutes I could’ve been doing something productive, like intentionally injuring QB PACKERS in Tecmo Super Bowl III.
On the bright side, she and hubby David Arquette named their first born Coco, which hopefully reveals her allegiance in the Great Late-Night Battle of 2010.
Can you believe that Diamond Dave, the avatar of grating and neurotic – he took that template to its “Simple Jack” extremes – was a bully during his time at Beverly Hills High? I’m struggling to picture the scenario (“Hey little punk, if you don’t give me your mom’s botox money, your legs will be ‘on a break'”). Despite the largesse of white whine, Schwimmer’s C.V. is fairly watchable. I have to admire his choice to ditch Men in Black for The Pallbearer, which he justified by emoting “This is an opportunity to grow rather than go for the quick cash.” As the clock crept towards that fateful 2000, Rachel’s moustache-artist appeared in Breast Men (a funny film about the origin of boob-jobbers) and Since You’ve Been Gone, a less-violent Grosse Pointe Blank, featuring our favorite Bourbon-core lounge-rockers, Love Jones, as the reunion’s house band (“My second marriage…ruined!”). Several years later, Schwimmer directed Run, Fatboy Run, which was written by Simon Pegg and Michael Ian Black.
His TV career includes several guest appearances and multi-episode story arcs, most notably Band of Brothers and NYPD Blue (aka “The Dennis Franz Ass-travaganza”).
As the show “progressed”, Chandler transformed from witty quipster to teenage emo diarist. I kept waiting for him to don a “Dashboard Confessional” t-shirt as he complained about Janice, or whatever girl broke his heart that week. Forget all that – like Kudrow, Perry is more meticulous with his appearances than the rest of the cast, although his best work remains on the small-screen. His role as Chaz in 1987’s Second Chance (an occasionally-great[iv] precursor to the Apatow axis of buddy comedies) stands out, as does Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip – a glourious mess that would have flourished on a network that gave it a chance to grow (HBO?). A fan of British icons Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, he shows up as a “celebrity fan” in made-for-TV specials about The Office and Extras. Perry has made appearances of some of the greatest programming ever – Not Necessarily the News, The West Wing, and The Daily Show (4 times), making it easy to forget story arcs on Growing Pains and the dreadful Ally McBeal. His battles with the drugs have grabbed headlines, but Perry’s best work is ahead of him, with projects like Down and Dirty Pictures (a satirical examination of the indie film boom) slated for 2011.
Easily the most tolerable of the male characters in the show’s mid-to-later years, Joey counteracted his smooth-as-Yacht-Rock persona by serving as the Trojan horse for the show’s bashing of all things intellectually curious. No stranger to spinoffs (I never saw a minute of Joey – did I miss anything?), he appeared in the 7-episode run of Top of the Heap, part of the Married…with Children empire (you might remember his Heap character’s constant attempts to get “Ba da bing!” to catch on as a national catchphrase sensation – to his credit, this was the era where fast-food commercials were doing just that). He also had a brief arc in Just the Ten of Us, a show serving no purpose, other than answering the question, “Why is this episode of Growing Pains focusing so much on Coach Lubbock?” In 1998, he starred in Lost in Space, whose advertising campaign featured LeBlanc in a spacesuit, screaming “HAAANG ONNN!!!” – his best comedic moment ever.
[i] I have nothing against Hootie & the Blowfish, per se – they were a capable bar band plucked from obscurity by a nation wanting to appreciate “diversity”, but wasn’t quite ready for anything too adventurous. This was 1994, in a nutshell.
[ii] Unfortunately, there will be no episode the week of 6 May. I guess UK news outlets have more important things to discuss. As a sidenote, I’ll miss this election because the great “Heckler” podcast on BBC4, and the “Malcolm Tucker” pieces in the Guardian.
[iii] A Canadian film by Gary Burns, Waydowntown chronicles the tension between four cube-dwellers trying to stay inside for an entire month. Due to Calgary’s central city, where skyways and tunnels connect apartments and shopping to offices, one could conceivably stay indoors forever (although you might go crazy, as the characters do).
[iv] At least I thought so when I was 12