I am well aware that this article is coming over a decade late but I’ve been re-watching the entire series recently (if you haven’t seen Friends in a while, do this with someone who’s never seen them, trust me).
Joey wasn’t a disappointment. It was exactly as bad as we all knew it was going to be. Friends was about growing up with the people you love, in the magical time between 20 and 30 when raves have become exhausting, careers get real, and babies make season-enders. Why on Earth would you then follow the one guy who stays single, is reaching his unassailable dream of movie-acting (very relatable by the way), and buggers off to L.A.? Lame, NBC.
Now if I’d been a studio exec…
Nora and Helena
Friends was weirdly sexist and homophobic. Not for its time of course, but (everybody feel old with me now) it was a very different time back then. The writers portrayed the idea of men acting femininely as a situation ripe for comedy, embarrassment for all men associated, and a healthy dose of shame. Despite a lot of the characters’ attitudes to Chandler’s dad however, the incomparable Miss Helena Handbasket – played with great class by the genuinely incomparable Kathleen Turner – totally held her own in every barbed conversation. Now imagine the world of a-few-years-later-than-twelve-years-ago, and its slightly better approach to LGBTQ+ peops working with a drag queen-led sitcom.
Add in the perfect foil in her ex-wife, Nora, and you have comedy gold. Nora Bing is a world-famous erotic novelist, keen wit, and, according to Chandler, a Freudian nightmare. How is this not already a series? I suppose you’d need a convoluted reason for them to be living near one another, but perhaps they started getting along a little better after their son’s wedding – the only episodes where they are seen together actually, and proof positive that they are characters at best together:
Monica: It-it’s so great to see you both here.
Helena: Yes! Although, I think we may be seeing a little too much of some people. Aren’t you a little old to be wearing a dress like that?
Nora: Don’t you have a little too much penis to be wearing a dress like that?
Nora: As I recall when we got married, I saw the groom in the wedding dress.
Helena: But that was after the wedding, it’s not bad luck then.
Nora: Honey, it isn’t good luck.
Imagine Nora learning to accept her ex-husband for who she is over the course of a season and a half. Tell me that wouldn’t break your heart!
David and Max
Have you ever seen the cast of the Simpsons talk to an interviewer? If not, it’s interesting to note that by far, the two most charismatic among them are Hank Azaria and Harry Shearer. Admittedly they did have the best characters, but I digress. Hank Azaria has great comedy chops, and you can see it in his timing as David, Phoebe’s lovable scientist beau.
When they first meet, she brings out his romantic side, while still letting him be the shy dork he is – something none of the friends ever seem to do for Ross – and whenever he returns, it’s a big deal for us as well as Phoebe. Every character who had the potential to be The One for any of the friends got to be funny and likeable, so he was always well written. Just listen to him try to trash-talk his competition…
David: All right… But… if I ever do come back from Minsk… well, you just better watch out.
Mike: Well, if I ever go to Minsk, you’d better watch out.
David: Oh, you’re going to Minsk?
Mike: Well, I might.
David: Really? Well, if you do, come in the spring. It’s just lovely there.
While his friend Max may have come off as a bit of a jerk in the only episode he’s in, we are seeing him through the eyes of Phoebe. And if you were to see Paul McCartney through the eyes of Yoko Ono (as Max not-so-subtly alludes to), you might think him a bit standoffish. This friction does at least give Max a chance to be funny, so we know his character has potential there. And just one last tirade:
Watch a bit of Two and a Half Men. Now watch some Friends. Which creative team would you rather be in charge of in a nerd-led sitcom? Because we got the worst-case scenario in the f*cking Big Bang Theory. Tell me you wouldn’t prefer Max learning to accept that David wants a life outside of his studies, and the pair of them making jokes about Stalin in Minsk rather than the Punch-and-Judy shambles we got out of Chuck Lorre.
My Shameless Brit-filled Fantasy
So there are four astonishingly big British actors shoe-horned into comparatively small roles in Friends. And two of them are married, so there’s really not a lot going on Tea-side. What is going on however, is really really funny. I wish I was as funny as Americans think all British people are, but I guess I’d also have to be really into pantomime dames and Ricky Gervais, so that’s not gonna happen.
Jennifer Saunders’ character, the step-mum of Emily (Ross’ second wife if you’re really this far into a Friends article, and have had no idea what’s been going on) is married to Tom Conti’s. As if that weren’t enough, the Walthams don’t get at all along, and as we have seen, bitchiness breeds hilarity – at least when it’s written as part of light entertainment.
Mrs. Waltham: (To Ross) We’re very sad that it didn’t work out between you and Emily, monkey. But I think you’re absolutely delicious.
Mr. Waltham: Excuse me, I’m standing right here!
Mrs. Waltham: Oh yes, there you are.
Mrs. Waltham: (To Ross again) Call me.
Mr. Waltham: You spend half your life in the bathroom, why don’t you ever go out the bloody window?
So they naturally split up, leaving Mrs Waltham to end up with… well why not Gary Oldman’s character? He’s a famous actor, good-looking, and fond of drink himself. The Shakespearean pedigree and… drizzly annunciation may not impress her, but the money they bring just might.
So it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine them all together now? Well I couldn’t get this far into thinking about all the great English cameos in Friends and not mention the best, could I? How on Earth would Hugh Laurie’s irritated-man-on-plane get embroiled in the lives of these bizarre characters? Well he’s on a Transatlantic flight, and seems to be used to it… maybe he visits New York a lot; could he work as a Jeeves-esque crazy-insightful assistant to Richard Crosby (Oldman)? It would be fun to watch Wooster play Jeeves, wouldn’t it? I could very well be stretching things here, but they got Laurie on an American sitcom in the end, so maybe not… And if you think I’m wrong, well:
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