“Sometimes it seems you’re stuck in second gear … When it hasn’t been your day, your week, your month, or even your year….”
A wish to do better in the new year of 5780? Actually, it’s a bit of nostalgia for the hit TV show “Friends,” which first aired 25 years ago, in 1994. It was the brainchild of three “Members of the Tribe”: creators Marta Kauffman and David Crane, and producer and director Kevin Bright, who was part of the Bright/Kauffman/Crane production team that brought Rachel, Ross, Monica, Chandler and Joey—in real life, Jennifer Aniston, David Schwimmer, Courteney Cox, Matthew Perry and Matt LeBlanc—into Americans’ living rooms every Thursday night on NBC for 10 years.
Kauffman, Crane and Bright all have Boston-area ties—Kauffman and Crane are both alumni of Brandeis University (Kauffman graduated in 1978, Crane in 1979), while Bright is an Emerson College alumnus (Class of ‘76) and current Board of Trustees member who is also on the Boston Jewish Film Festival‘s honorary committee. This fall, when “Friends” celebrated its 25th anniversary, Bright helped bring a replica of the original couch from the show to his alma mater as part of about 30 pop-up commemorations worldwide.
“There is a tremendous wealth and legacy of Jewish people who have been prominent in comedy over the years,” Bright said in an interview posted on the National Museum of American History website. “You could go back to the very beginning in vaudeville and talk about Fanny Brice, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, all of these great performers who were the sons and daughters of immigrants. During the hard times, the family would get together, and they could always make each other laugh. I feel a part of that legacy of all these incredible performers and writers and directors that came before me and kind of a kinsmanship with them.”
Rabbi Moshe Waldoks of Temple Beth Zion—who, in addition to his rabbinical career, is a former stand-up comic and co-editor of “The Big Book of Jewish Humor”—said “Friends” rarely dealt with Judaism up-front. The only time it did so, he said, was “the famous episode” when Ross “creates a Hanukkah character to replace Santa Claus,” a holiday armadillo, to divert his son from thinking about Christmas gifts.
“Aside from that,” Waldoks said, “I would say perhaps [Ross’s] parents. I would call Elliott Gould Jewish-style—same as, say, Jewish-style food but not kosher food, that New York-ness, a New York thing. Like Lenny Bruce said, ‘If you live in New York, you’re Jewish, even if you’re not, and if you live in Montana and you’re Jewish, you’re probably not.’”
To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the TV friends who enlivened New York, Fathom Events held multi-episode screenings at theaters across the nation, including AMC Loews Boston Common, which is near both Emerson and the fountain in front of the Massachusetts State House, which, apologies to New Yorkers, seems to have been the true inspiration for the “Friends” opening credits.
Each time the opening credits played over the course of four episodes shown for a Saturday-night audience at the theater, more and more people clapped to accompany the Rembrandts’ lyrics. In one episode, nostalgia was even more in vogue than usual as Ross and Monica’s father, Jack, played by Gould, showed home-movie footage of Monica and Rachel on their high school prom night.
The show had all the elements that made “Friends” a hit. Ross and Rachel were in the middle of a breakup, and everyone was wondering when, and how, they would get back together. After agonizing over the ‘80s versions of themselves, Rachel and Monica, along with the rest of the crew, watched a crisis brewing on videotape. Rachel’s date was late, and Ross’s father urged his son to stop playing the “Beverly Hills Cop” music on his keyboard, put on a tux and take Rachel to the prom. But just as Ross suited up and headed downstairs, Rachel’s date showed up. It turned out that Rachel had never known that Ross was willing to be her prom date, and she was so moved that their relationship was back on—at least for now.
The “Friends” screenings took place several weeks before Aniston crashed Instagram with her debut post, a testament to the enduring appeal of “Friends” in American pop-culture history, a resonance noted by experts.
Veteran TV writer Martie Cook, director of the comedic arts program at Emerson College, said that on the surface, “Friends” is about what its title indicates—friends. But, she added, “Deep down, I think it’s about something a little bit more. It’s at the part you reach in life when you head out on your own and your friends really become your family.”
And, she said, “the main reason you tune in to TV … is the characters, the character relationships. These characters were really, really well-drawn. The relationships were really well-drawn … They were so well-drawn and relatable. It’s another reason, I think, it’s continued to thrive.”
“It was just a special, successful casting act,” said Paul Schneider, chairman of Boston University’s department of film and television and a former director and producer. “The characters are just stuck in people’s minds forever.”
It can be challenging to follow up on a hit like “Friends,” but according to published reports, Kauffman (also known for “Grace and Frankie”) is working with her daughter, Hannah K.S. Canter, on a U.S. version of the hit Israeli show “Shtisel,” called “Emmis.” Abot Hameiri, the production company for “Shtisel,” declined comment in an email to JewishBoston.
In the meantime, one can always keep binge-watching “Friends” reruns.
“It’s been discovered by, of course, a new generation, who never saw it on TV [before],” Waldoks said. “It’s had many more repeats for years on cable, and now, of course, on Netflix. It’s a phenomenon that I would say is based not only on what’s funny, but nostalgia for another time—some kind of desire, a wish for the kind of friendship and camaraderie, that makes [the show] pretty attractive, even today.”