Fun and fantasy fuel staying power of ‘Friends’

May 28, 2021 - 1:57 PM
Screenshot from "Friends: The Reunion" trailer.

LOS ANGELES — K-pop band BTS said they improved their English by watching it, soccer player David Beckham says the show makes him smile “almost to the point of crying,” and Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai said a friend got her hooked on the comedy.

“Friends” may have ended its run in 2004 but the appeal of the comedy about six friends living in New York City shows no sign of waning and is reflected in a reunion special on HBO Max on Thursday.

The show’s blend of farce, fantasy and aspiration has created a new generation of fans, many of whom, like Yousafzai, weren’t born when “Friends” began in 1994 yet have become devotees by watching re-runs.

James Corden, host of “Friends: The Reunion,” said the show has been watched more than 100 billion times across all platforms, influencing fashion and hair styles.

Like “Seinfeld,” it was one of the first American TV comedies to focus on young adults, rather than families or shows set in workplaces.

The characters “are not all married, or where they want to be in their careers, and so you see a little bit of that uncertainty with which probably a lot of people, regardless of cultural or national context, could identify,” said Claire Sisco King, associate professor in the department of communication studies at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

“Friends” co-creator Marta Kauffman said the writers were themselves trying to make a living in New York City when they came up with the idea for the show.

“We definitely pulled from our lives,” Kauffman says in the reunion special.

Despite the lack of diversity on the series – the characters are all white – the reunion features fans from India, Ghana, Mexico and other nations talking about how watching “Friends” has helped them cope with depression, loneliness and family trauma.

Guest star Lady Gaga thanks Lisa Kudrow for her role as the zany Phoebe Buffay and “being the person for all of us on ‘Friends’ that was the different one.”

“Game of Thrones” star Kit Harington praised the show’s comic timing. “These six actors are masters of physical comedy,” Harington said.

Kauffman recalled how jokes would be rewritten on the set if they didn’t get a laugh from the studio audience on a given night, and how audience reaction influenced the development of the romance between Monica and Chandler.

The coronavirus pandemic fueled the popularity of the show in the past year.

“That escapism could be particularly appealing when everyday life was difficult, tedious and terrifying,” said Sisco King.

All the success has made it difficult for many of the actors to leave their “Friends” characters behind.

“It was so hard for people to see Matthew Perry as anything but Chandler, or David Schwimmer is anything but Ross. That’s the Catch-22 with a show that has that kind of intense fandom,” said Sisco King. —Reporting by Jill Serjeant Editing by Sonya Hepinstall

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