Life Is A Joke, Old Chum.

"Nothing I do means anything."

--David Schwimmer as Ross Geller on Friends

"They never told you life was going to be this way. Your life's a joke. You're broke. Your love life's D.O.A." And so the Rembrandts sing their jangly blues each week in the theme song to Friends; for sheer annoyance, the melody ranks somewhere between the theme to The Greatest American Hero ("Believe it or not, I'm walking on air!") and the Air Supply-flavored melancholy of Cheers's "Where Everybody Knows Your Name." And though any producer with a shred of decency would have painted over the Rembrandts two seasons ago, their singularly syrupy way of saying "I'm a loser, baby" speaks volumes about the show it announces.

For central to the concept of Friends is that the characters are losers. As in all great television writing, each Friend can be reduced to a single adjectival phrase. Monica's a compulsive controlnik. Rachel is (yet another) poor little rich girl. Ross is an adenoidal schlemiel. Joey's cold stone stupid. Phoebe is "a spacy but lovable new age waif" (to quote the NBC web-site publicists).
As for Chandler--he is simply a loser, straight
no chaser.

Strictly speaking, though, the Rembrandts's claims don't polygraph well. Nothing about this show is "broke." Yet the writers persist on pleading the characters' poverty; in one recent episode, Monica and Rachel protested Phoebe making long-distance phone calls. Here, our knowledge of the actors may taint a sympathetic suspension of disbelief. At $75,000, per actor, per episode, they would only qualify as broke when compared to Oprah. The network cashes in a cool $500K for each 30-second spot.

In fact, the only theme-song lyric that rings true is "Your life's a joke." What better way could there be to describe the inner emotional existence of a sitcom character: Their compressed, 21-minute cycles of experience; their truncated, double-take double-talk? Life's a joke, of course. What makes Friends a quality hunk of entertainment product is the sophistication with which it acknowledges the limitations of its sincerity. The same uniquely American ingenuity that brought us the self-cleaning oven--as Jello Biafra once said, give us convenience, or give us death-- has created the self-satirizing sitcom.

Every week we see Chandler and Joey gorging themselves on the slo-mo jug-jiggle of Baywatch, while across the hall, Monica puts the mini back in miniskirt (and the ever-slimming Lisa Kudrow diets her way into an autobiographical recovery movie-of-the-week). But when Joey isn't watching tube babes in tube tops... he's playing one on TV, as a journeyman soap actor. In one memorable recent episode, he instructs a class of aspiring soap-suds on the methodology of his mediocrity. To play sinister, he tugs an interior eye-brow pulley; he turns on the ocular waterworks by plucking pubes with concealed tweezers. But like the handsome and modestly talented Friends cast, Joey knows the real rule of small screen success. "Before I forget--to work in soap operas," he advises, "some of you are going to have to become much more attractive."

When these Friends become lovers, the levels of self-referentiality multiply like a case of crabs. Last season, Tom Selleck, Julia Roberts and Brooke Shields all made friends with a Friend--which is not to mention the Muscles from Brussels (Wham Bam Van Damme, indeed). What distinguished this last appearance is that the actor played himself, on location near that famed New York landmark, Central Perk. Monica and Rachel, we learned, were super-keen on this B-league Stallone. Since Courteney Cox and Jennifer Aniston are certified celebrities too, the deeper fantasy did not involve a lip lock with Jean Claude, but the implicit possibility was that boys and girls nationwide could likewise ambush a favorite Friend beneath the mistletoe of the boom mike.

This suggestion was expanded in a recent episode, when the characters constructed lists of celebrity "freebies": hall-passes for fucking the famous without breaking a monogamic trust. Who could begrudge a partner the chance to go beneath the bathing suit of Yasmine Bleeth? "It's the heart of every good relationship," Ross jokes, "honesty, respect, and sex with celebrities." The Formula: Celebrities play commoners attracted to celebrities, playing themselves. But such facetious values find an echo in the substance (or is that "substance"?) of the show. When Chandler breaks with his intended Janice, she describes their affection in the most profound terms she can conjure. "What we have is movie love," Janice says. There is no deeper human bond.

Except maybe for that between the Geller kids, Monica and Ross. They regard each other with a rancor that feels familiar--although everything onscreen sometimes seems that way. Last week, when Monica and Ross conducted the hypercompetitive Geller Bowl of pre-turkey touch football, my mind turned to The Brady Bunch and their own automotive battle-of-the-sexes. (In the interest of personal disclosure, I rather like both programs.) The Friends monitored their game with an egg timer; Bobby and Marcia avoided colliding with an egg on a cone. Beyond such superficial similarities, the shows share an assumption of charmed inviolability. On Friends we have another blithe Gang of Six. In fact, obsessive Monica matches Jan; dreamy Rachel, Marcia; dippy Phoebe, Cindy. (This doesn't work with the men--the male Bradys never had much personality.) The characters on both shows are coated with the standard sitcom Teflon; slights and suffering slide right off, from week to week, year to year.

The really significant difference is that there's no Florence Henderson on Friends. The kids have the run of the house now. Greg and Marcia (make that Ross and Rachel) can neck 'til they're black-and-blue from chin to chest. What happens without a stern-but-sensitive Brady lecture to slap one's ass into gear, California-style? Well--nothing happens. Finally voicing what viewers at home have long wondered, Phoebe's long-lost brother asks the assembled Friends, "How do you guys get anything done?", as they sip their youth away on Central Perk's central couch. Chandler answers: "We don't."

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