British newspapers and websites were recently aflutter with news of a potential reunion of the cast from 1990s American television sitcom Friends. It seemed to be all anyone was talking or writing about. I have no idea if the reunion is actually going to happen, but all this breathless hoopla reminded me of something strange you discover when you move to the United Kingdom. British people are bizarrely, freakishly, uncomfortably obsessed with the TV show Friends.
How do I know?
- Because they write articles that start with lines like: “Our obsession with friends is real and ongoing” (in the Guardian, of all places).
- Because they have not one, not two, but three “Central Perk” cafe tributes/shrines that you can visit. Two in Liverpool, and one in some place called “Chester.”
- Because the show still airs on British cable TV at least 17 times a day. That’s not hyperbole. It actually airs at least 17 times a day here.
- I’ve had more than one British person say to me: “You’re from New York!? Oh my God, I love Friends!” As if the show were some kind of realistic portrait of life in the Big Apple.
The one where the stupid TV show becomes inexplicably popular
Of course, Friends was very popular in America as well. In its heyday, it was the most viewed show on U.S. television for a few years. I remember watching it myself – it was a silly, lightweight but harmless diversion. Stupid and unrealistic, but not much different, and certainly no better than many other popular sitcoms- Cheers, Seinfeld, Happy Days, Friends. No big deal. But here in the UK, even more than 15 years after the show went off the air, the show has some kind of inexplicable “special relationship” with the British people.
You know how French people don’t like it when you say something about how they supposedly love Jerry Lewis and think he’s some kind of unsung genius? British people aren’t even ashamed of how much they love Friends. They love Friends more than the French love Jerry Lewis. A lot more. Go ahead, and ask any British person:
- Which of the Friends was fat in high school?
- What is the name of Joey’s armchair?
- What is the name of Phoebe’s twin sister?
I don’t know the answer to any of these questions. But a British person will. In fact, I got these questions from a “Friends quiz” posted – not from some cheesy nostalgia magazine – but from the website of the Telegraph, an old-fashioned, UK-establishment newspaper. The quiz was posted on their site, not 20 years ago, when the show first aired – but just two weeks ago.
Do you remember the film “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” where two goofball kids in a band find out that, in the future, all of society eventually becomes centred around their music, ideas and personas? Well, you might be forgiven for thinking, the way British people continue to carry on about this old American sitcom, that by the year 2155, everyone in the UK will have a capuchin monkey for a pet, and Parliament will be called to order with a hearty declaration of “How you doin’?” Maybe “Smelly Cat” will replace “God Save the Queen” as the national anthem…
…okay, maybe not … but they really, really do love Friends here.
And why shouldn’t they love it?
After all, the most popular programmes on British TV are generally somewhat depressing soap operas like EastEnders. In fact, the two shows are more or less polar opposites.
Friends consists of a cast of impossibly attractive young people, living in huge and glamorous apartments in the heart of New York City. They spend most of their time relaxing in a bright and spacious coffee house. They have silly romantic adventures and crazy mixups.
Most of the cast of EastEnders, is kind of fugly by comparison. They live in realistic-looking flats and hang out in an old pub, drinking pints, and occasionally stabbing or kidnapping each other. Whereas Friends featured guest stars like Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts and George Clooney, EastEnders gets floppy-haired London mayor Boris Johnson.
No one told me life was going to be this way
So perhaps it’s natural that British people have an appetite for an show that is the antithesis to these sorts of dreary soap operas. Maybe they view Friends as aspirational – who doesn’t want to have a bright, IKEA-decorated home, good-looking friends, and er, lots of good coffee? Or maybe British people just see a depth to the humour in Friends that isn’t apparent to Americans like myself. Maybe it’s because the show honoured the devotion of its British fans by setting one of its more famous story arcs in London – Ross’ wedding to Emily.
But I have another theory.
It’s not that British people love the programme- they want to actually be one of the Friends. Perhaps they identify with the awkwardness and sincerity of Ross. Maybe they feel quirky and misunderstood like Phoebe. Or maybe they look at Chandler and identify with his defensive sarcasm.
But unfortunately this fantasy is impossible, because the most British character on the show isn’t Chandler, Ross, or Phobe, it’s… Gunther.
Gunther is the man who runs “Central Perk,” the coffee shop that all the Friends all hang out in. He watches them from afar. He is in love with Rachel, but what he wants more than anything, is to become one of the Friends.
Gunther is in virtually every episode of Friends. You might say he is the Friends’ closest ally. If I recall correctly, in one episode, he even helps them invade Iraq. But he will never be one of the Friends. He’s not bright and shiny enough. He’s too different, too foreign. He’s friendly, but not a Friend. He gets invited to their parties, but not their weddings. He is overlooked – they ignore him, forget his name, mistake him for gay and take him for granted.
In some ways, Gunther isn’t just a metaphor for British fans of Friends, but for all of us. After all, real life for both Americans and Britons, is probably a lot closer to the grim milieu of EastEnders than it is to the glossy planet that the Friends inhabit. Maybe British people prefer to believe that such a fantasy world is more possible in America than it is in the UK. Maybe British people love the show Friends, because it is an outlet for an actual, somewhat repressed love and appreciation for an idealised version of America and Americans.
I’d like to believe that this is true, and that Friends is some kind of positive metaphor for Anglo-British relations – a great symbol of Britain’s enduring friendship with the United States of America. Maybe it’s time for the USA to embrace Gunther/Britain and its culture a little bit more. Maybe our collective future culture will be strongly influenced by Friends- not to the extent of that Bill & Ted movie – but enough to remind us how much we have in common as two great nations. Different, but united. Maybe it’s time we Americans invite Gunther into our inner circle.
“I’ll be there for you” indeed.