I was there.
In June, 1994 I was among 10 writers who set out to write the series, Friends, created by David Crane and Marta Kaufman. If you had described to me at that moment how big Friends would actually become, how it would go on to be one of the most popular sitcoms of all time and that 20 years later there would be a sold-out FriendFest in London replete with full-scale models of Central Perk and Monica's apartment, I would've assumed you were either very high or had lost your mind.
You see, it was just a television program. And a television program that, when it debuted in September 1994, didn't strike any of us as having the trappings of a gold-plated, unstoppable cultural juggernaut. So why did it succeed when other network sitcoms that debuted that very same month - shows such as Wild Oats (also about a group of 20-something pals but set in Chicago), On Our Own or Me and the Boys - all faded quickly from view?
In the years since Friends hit the air I've wracked my brain to figure out what separated it from the 900 other programs that died quiet deaths during its tenure. What was the secret? What was the strange alchemy that made it not just popular during its 10-year run but ever since it finished? Why do millions of people, including children (like my daughter), who weren't even alive at the time, get hooked after discovering reruns and replays and streamings and embrace it all over again?
The writing on the show was great, don't get me wrong. David and Marta were wonderful writers and the staff they put together was among the best I've ever worked with. But that doesn't fully explain it. I've worked with other writing staffs packed with all-stars and those shows were cancelled after one season. Or after one episode. It's tough out there for fledgling sitcoms.
I think the subject matter appealed: characters in their twenties - as was I - in the slacker/grunge/nascent-internet days of the mid-nineties, a fraught but often hilarious time of life where endless comedy could be mined from bad jobs, bad apartments, bad romances... (as well as romance-free, hilariously awkward sexual encounters). It was about the time you separated from your parents, and your friends became your new family. Young people could fantasize about the day they could break free and re-invent themselves, and those for whom that time had already passed could look back and laugh at the millions of terrible choices they made.
In the end I've only been able to ascribe the success of Friends to three very important things:
1) The cast
2) The cast
3) The cast
Yes I realize all three factors are the same but that's how important the cast was to the show's brilliance. And I say "the cast" because each of the actors has done things without the others, some successful, some not-so-much, but when they were together as an ensemble--there's no other way to describe it-- it was lightning in a bottle. They really seemed liked friends. They really seemed to love and care for each other. Heck, I think maybe they DID love and care for each other. Actors, man. Who knew?
Each one of them brought a unique bag of tricks to the table: Schwimmer's pouty exits, the way Lisa's hands punctuated her words, the face Jen made when she threw that cell phone into a bucket of ice ("and that is what we call closure."), Le Blanc's impressed nod at his own sand boobs, Courteney's relief when she sat in the refrigerator, and of course Perry's re-imagining of the correct words to emphasize in a sentence. I remember every face, every gesture, every delivery. It all worked. And it was magic.
So, there you have it. My two cents as to why Friends has endured. I thank my lucky stars every day that I got to be a small part of it. And as much as I Iaughed at the show then, there's a special kind of pleasure in hearing your daughter laugh at the same thing all these years later.
And I don't think they'll ever be another show like it
Ira Ungerleider was a writer on the first three series of Friends. He is currently executive producer of Angie Tribeca, a comedy starring Rashida Jones that will premiere on TBS in the US in January.