Friends – What Made the TV Show So Popular?


Friends, an American sitcom that premiered in 1994, quickly developed a following. The show has been nominated for 63 Primetime Emmy awards and was the recipient of many awards. Its ranking has been consistently in the top ten in ratings. The entire run, from 1994 to 2004, was well-liked and its finale had a viewing audience of around 52.5 million Americans. So what is it about this show that made it so popular?

Set of Central Perk – location for many episodes of Friends TV show

Perhaps it was the characters. The Manhattan-based group of people includes the core group of Phoebe Buffay, Joey Tribbiani, Ross Geller, Rachel Green, Monica Geller, and Chandler Bing. While there are other characters included (primarily more of the Geller family, and some neighbors), these are the ones with which most people find themselves identifying. The basic personality of each character added to the overall identifiability of the show.  If the characters aren’t like you, they are like someone you know.

Phoebe is street-smart, but a bit daffy. She is a masseuse and a musician. Homeless since age 14, she is the twin sister of Ursula Buffay (on Mad About You). Later in the series, she marries Mike Hannigan and adds his name to hers, becoming Phoebe Buffay-Hannigan.

Joey, a struggling actor, considers himself a ladies’ man, and is a womanizer. He appreciates food and is very fond of meatball subs.

Ross and Monica put the “rivalry” in “sibling rivalry.” Ross is the older brother and a paleontologist. His three marriages all fail, and he is occasionally in a relationship with Rachel. Monica is a chef, but rarely stays at one location for long, though she ends up as head chef. She tends to be a bit obsessive-compulsive, and was overweight as a child. She marries Chandler in the seventh season.

Rachel is sweet, but a bit self-absorbed. She is a fashion enthusiast who becomes a manager at big-name companies later.

Chandler is soulful, but insecure and sarcastic. He starts off as a statistical analysis executive and quits to become a junior copywriter for an advertising agency. He marries Monica in season seven.

Top row, left to right: Lisa Kudrow, Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox Arquette; bottom row, left to right: David Schwimmer, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry

Maybe it was the actors and actresses. The men and women who played in Friends became very well known, even to people who were not fans.

  • Phoebe was portrayed by Lisa Kudrow, who previously managed her headache specialist father’s office and did research for him.
  • Rachel was played by Jennifer Aniston, who had tried sitcoms previously without success.
  • Courteney Cox Arquette played Monica; she was already known for TV and film appearances, including Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Seinfeld, and Family Ties.
  • Ross was David Schwimmer, by design – the role was created with him in mind, because of his memorable voice and Broadway appearances.
  • Matt LeBlanc was Joey; he started in Married… with Children and its spin-off Top of the Heap, but mostly was into advertising and modeling before Friends.
  • Chandler was played by Matthew Perry, who had also tried sitcoms previously without success.

While these actors and actresses were already on television before, their stardom can be attributed to their time on Friends.

The group intentionally kept the focus broad, not allowing any one character to become dominant, either in the show or in payment. They negotiated together and all of them received the same payment for each episode. Unlike other long-run shows, all of the six main characters were in every episode. They were good friends in real life, and Tom Selleck, who appeared as a guest star, said he sometimes felt left out. Even once the show ended, the actors and actresses remained friends.

The plotline probably was also a factor. The show depicted a fairly realistic view of the life of young adults. It seems that the general population enjoys watching drama, even when they have to deal with it in their own life. In that vein, the pilot begins with drama, and that continues throughout the ten-year run. Drama mixed with humor helps people to relate, but also helps them to be happy the things are happening to someone else, while being able to laugh about it.

The theme song speaks to people. The idea of the downside of life being mitigated by the friends with whom one surrounds one’s self is uplifting. Knowing that even though bad things happen – regularly – there are people who can be counted on to stay around is empowering. Everyone has things that go wrong, but remembering that there are people who care can help it not to sting quite so badly. These are the sparks of hope that are encouraged to blaze by the theme song.

Performed by The Rembrandts, the song, as a single, topped the American pop charts.

It’s full of quotable quotes. Probably partly due to how true to life the series tended to be, there are a lot of things said within it that make excellent quotes. Some are funny, others are poignant, but all are quotable.

Quotes from Phoebe:

Lisa Kudrow as Phoebe

“If you want to receive e-mails about my upcoming shows, then please give me money so I can buy a computer.”

“Chandler still thinks I’m pregnant and he hasn’t asked me how I’m feeling or offered to carry my bags. I feel bad for the woman who ends up with him.”

“I may play the fool at times but I’m a little more than just a pretty blonde girl with an ass that won’t quit.”

“There was a crooked man, who had a crooked smile, who lived in a shoe, for a… while…”

“Hey, can we turn on the TV? I think it’s raining outside.”

“Come on Ross, you’re a paleontologist, dig a little deeper.”

“But they don’t know that we know they know we know!”

Quotes from Chandler:

Matthew Perry

“All right, look if you absolutely have to tell her the truth, at least wait until the timing’s right. And that’s what deathbeds are for.”

“Oh, yeah, I’m a gym member. I try to go four times a week, but I’ve missed the last… twelve hundred times.”

“I can handle this.”Handle” is my middle name. Actually, “handle” is the middle of my first name.”

“All right, kids, I gotta get to work. If I don’t input those numbers… it doesn’t make much of a difference.”

“I’m not so good with the advice… Can I interest you in a sarcastic comment?”

Quotes from Joey:

“How you doin’?”Matt LeBlanc as Joey

“It’s just my character that’s not brain-dead.”

[Referring to a “moo point”] “Yeah. It’s like a cow’s opinion. It just doesn’t matter. It’s moo.”

[On having his advice ignored] “Fine. No one ever listens to me. If the package is this pretty, no one cares what’s inside.”

[After smelling potpourri] “Well, this is like summer in a bowl!”

[On living alone] “I thought it’d be great, you know? Have some time alone with my thoughts… turns out, I don’t have as many thoughts as you’d think.”

“Dude, stop talkin’ crazy and make us some tea!”

Quotes from Rachel:

“If she wanted to be more like me, why couldn’t she just copy my hairstyle or something?”

“I don’t want my baby’s first words to be ‘How you doing?'”

“Do you know the only person who’d wanna listen to this? A mental health professional. And that’s only because they get paid a hundred dollars an hour.”

Quotes from Ross:

“We were on a break!”

“First divorce: wife’s hidden sexuality, not my fault. Second divorce: said the wrong name at the altar, kind of my fault. Third divorce: they shouldn’t let you get married when you’re that drunk and have stuff drawn all over your face, Nevada’s fault.”

“If you’re going to call me names, I would prefer Ross, the Divorce Force. It’s just cooler.”

[Thinking, on his way down the aisle at Chandler & Monica’s wedding] “Wow. This is the first time I’ve walked down the aisle without the possibility of it ending in divorce.”

Quotes from Monica:

Courteney Cox

[About young Ben, when Chandler filled the high-score list on Ms. Pac-man with bad words] “He’s seven, not stupid.”

“I’ll never have a first kiss again.”

“Whoa. Where you going in those pants? 1982?”

“Welcome to the real world! It sucks – you’re going to love it.”

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