Sunday, May 22, 2011

An Analysis of Friends (1994-2004)

An entire generation grew up watching the hit TV show Friends, aside from its attractive and hilarious cast, the show had many ground-breaking aspects that drew in viewers. The writing of the show stayed fresh and fun, because of constant re-writes of jokes and use of attention-grabbing dialogue. The extreme attention to detail in all aspects of production including camera work, set decoration, lighting, and sound contributed to the high quality of the sitcom.  But most of all, the creation of the six relatable characters is what appealed to a wide audience. 
Friends reached its peak of popularity in the late 1990’s, and continued to be a frequently watched show into the twenty first century. The TV show’s creators, Marta Kauffman and David Crane had the number one network sitcom for years. Consistently, reruns have also had high ratings. With thirty-one million viewers tuning in on September 13, 2001, the show served as a visual comfort food for Americans (Chidester, 2008).  
The show enjoyed both commercial and critical success while on the air. In his article written for the Critical Studies in Media Communication, about the “whiteness” of the TV show Friends, Phil Chidester states, “During its first four years of production, the sitcom received some twenty-seven Emmy and three Golden Globe nominations, a Screen Actors Guild Award in 1996 for ‘Outstanding Ensemble Performance in a Comedy Series,’ and three People’s Choice Awards” (Chidester, 2008).
A Friends special entitled “The One that Goes Behind the Scenes” was produced in 1999. This forty-two minute long segment goes behind the scenes of the show and analyses the first episode of season six: “The One After Vegas.” At that time, Friends had an average of twenty four million viewers every week. This segment gave an extensive look at what the crew went through to put the pieces of the show together after the summer hiatus (Enright, Alexander, 1999).
Marta Kauffman and David Crane explained how they met in college and wrote musicals together, but they weren’t making any money at it. So, they began writing TV scripts together and created the show Dream On which did well on HBO and ran for six seasons from 1990 until 1996. This success on cable opened the door to the networks, and together with their partner, Kevin S. Bright, Friends was up and running by 1994. Bright, who directed many of the episodes of Friends believes there are two necessities for working in half hour comedy which are speed and good shoes (Enright, Alexander, 1999).
The art department used pictures taken of the sets from previous seasons to help redress the sets, making sure everything was in its proper place. However, the art department had an added challenge, because they couldn’t know exactly what the set would look like until the script was finalized which was often not until the last minute. The sets had to be reassembled and dressed, and all of the pieces of the standing sets had to be put back together. This task included the props which are anything an actor touches. Majorie Coster-Praytor, the shows’ Property Master, explained the importance of props on the show citing how there were six of Phoebe’s Doll Houses made since it caught on fire during the episode it was used in (Enright, Alexander, 1999).
The Gaffers have the job of making sure that each part of the scene is uniformly lit. Since sitcoms are shot using multiple cameras; Friends typically used four cameras and sometimes even five, the uniform lighting was an important aspect. Numbered tape marks were placed on the floors of the set to show which camera went where for camera blocking (Enright, Alexander, 1999). 
The writers were very involved in every stage of production on Friends, since the script was constantly changing. During the production meetings props, costumes, and make-up were discussed as the crew went through the script. When rehearsals with the actors began for an episode, the script was tightened further. The script supervisor also timed the show with a stop watch to tell the writers how much more trimming needed to be made to the script during rehearsals. The writers were also present to watch the performance of the actors and decide which of the lines read funny or fell flat. Adam Chase, an executive producer of Friends believes that television is a writer’s medium, and that writers must be smart, funny and willing to work crazy hours. (Enright, Alexander, 1999).
With the popularity of Friends and its stars being what it was, the live audience that came to watch the taping of the show created an atmosphere to rival Beatle mania. It typically took the cast and crew about five hours to shoot one episode of Friends. Set changes would take as long as twenty minutes, so a comedian entertained the live audience in between takes. Also re-writing was constantly being done between takes to determine whether or not a joke worked, and sometimes the live audience was even asked for input. Filming in front of a live audience was much like live theater and the actors often play off of the audience members’ energy (Enright, Alexander, 1999).
The final cut of the episode “The One After Vegas,” included fifty-two takes of fourteen scenes, which amounted to thirty thousand feet of film and twelve hours of footage to be edited. At times, the editor had to bring down the audience’s laugh and put in shorter laughter so it didn’t cover up the actor’s next line. After three days of editing, the show’s producers looked at a rough cut and took notes. Then, Bright worked with the editor to make changes to trim the show down to the exact length of twenty two minutes (Enright, Alexander, 1999).
The audio for Friends was re-dubbed on a Foley stage to recreate sound effects. The Foley artists, Mike and Casey Crabtree, got into character and became another person while using various objects to make sounds. The Music Editor of the show, Merelyn Davis decided where to put music in an episode. Each show wasn’t scored, but a bulk of music was received each season to use. Davis picked the music that fit the mood and situation for the episode’s twenty cues, which were each three seconds long. Finally, once all the different sound elements had come together, the proper volume levels were set and any hiss or frequency was edited out of the final mix (Enright, Alexander, 1999).
Marta Kauffman, along with her other producers and cast were leery of calling Friends a “Generation X” show, meaning that it was made for viewers born after the Baby Boomer generation. Kauffman, who is a Baby Boomer herself, believes that what the characters are experiencing on the show is universal. One of the main reasons that the show appealed to a large demographic age group is because the characters are easy to relate to. On the surface, they may seem like a stereotype, but they prove to be deeper than that. The characters care about each other, which makes the audience care about them. Friends was the first show to prove that a show about young people, for young people doesn’t have to be stupid (Owen, 1997).
The producers of the show try to have three storylines per episode going unlike most sitcoms which have two. Therefore, Friends has more scenes which are shorter in length while still maintaining interest by using the ensemble of actors to their fullest capacity. Kauffman and her producers stay away from teaching morals and lessons, and instead focus on realism for the show’s storylines. This is the reason that Friends is a serialized show and has continuing storylines (Owen, 1997).
Friends tells you what the show is about in its title name, and many sitcoms do now revolve around the lives of friends, but it wasn’t always that way. Sitcoms used to be about family, but during the last twenty years a shift has taken place. TV shows of today often focus on friend groupings who hang out at work, caf├ęs, and apartments. The humor is based on wit and situational comedy coming from characters that have close relationships and see each other frequently (Brooks, 2010).
This change says something more meaningful about the differences of American friendships in today’s world. Young people are now spending a longer period living outside of a traditional family, often waiting until their thirties to marry and have children. This has caused young people to form friendship groups who often live together. These friendships, which are often deep and complicated, are the basis for great comedy. Sitcoms focused on friendships also appeal to a middle-aged audience who enjoy watching the characters participate in intimate connection with friends, which they have often had to sacrifice in their own lives. Comedy TV shows celebrate individual relationships within a complex group of people rather than just a one on one friendship. These friendships create differing types of social problems within the group because of their complicated nature (Brooks, 2010).
Friends helped change the face of television. A series with six twenty-something’s as the main characters, intensified an already growing interest in attracting a younger demographic. Advertisers saw Friends as the embodiment of a wrinkle-free series that could transfix viewers ages eighteen to forty-nine (Berman, 2004).
Since Friends was so successful, every network looked for its own imitation. These “clones” included The Single Guy, Central Park West, Dweebs, Caroline and the City, First Time Out, Simon, Union Square, Jesse, The Crew, Partners, Too Something, New York Daze, The Last Frontier,  Inside Schwartz, Townies, Guys Like Us, and Can't Hurry Love. Out of all of them, the only show that didn’t flop was Caroline in the City, mostly due to its time slot (Owen, 1997 and Berman, 2004).
Young adults became a more important demographic than ever before, regardless of all the unsuccessful Friends TV show clones. The achievements of the “golden six” still notified advertisers they should pursue the young adult audience no matter what. While it is a memorable fact that hair stylists in America tribute the sitcom with altering the hairstyles of women, the TV show Friends was influential in changing the way television is sold to advertisers (Berman, 2004).
Another aspect of Friends, that made the sitcom innovative, was the linguistics of the show. Sali Tagliamonte and Chris Roberts used eight seasons worth of scripts to analyze the character’s dialogue. According to them, the viewers had “absorbed Friendspeak like a sponge.” Rachel, Ross, Monica, Chandler, Joey and Phoebe were young middle-class characters living in New York City, who pushed the borders of the United States’ lingo. The language of the show could have taken credit for the show’s popularity since young viewers wanted to be funky and cool just like the characters. Friends' used many intensifiers, words such as “really,” “very” or “so” that are used to get a listener's attention. New attention grabbers were used during the series to keep the language from going stale (Tagliamonte, Roberts, 2005).
The hip use of “so,” has been proven to increase in popularity since being said frequently on the show. The intensifier “so” was compared with ratings and some startling outcomes were found. As Friends jumped from fourth to second place on American television in the year 1998, it’s characters were saying “so” more often than ever before on the show. A fall in using the word “so” on the show, mirrored a fall in Friends’ ratings, which proves the notion that intensifiers are implemented to grab attention and that viewers are lost when they aren’t used. Friends pioneered the use of the word “so” and used it more frequently than people did in their daily lives, paving the way for its pervasive implementation in the real world. Friends seems to have cultivated a grammatical change, not just a fad. Friends’ use of “so” didn’t track a typical guide but ebbed and flowed with the show’s ratings. When the show used the intensifier “so” the most, the ratings were at their highest (Tagliamonte, Roberts, 2005).
Friends’ lingo can provides a tip for sitcom writers; give the best lines to women. Apparently, females realize more quickly what is trendy than males. Linguistic change is employed by women perhaps because they pass it on to their children. They may be superior communicators to men or may use advanced language for gender discrimination compensation purposes. This may explain why Monica, Phoebe and Rachel used “so” as an intensifier a lot more than Ross, Chandler and Joey (Tagliamonte, Roberts, 2005).
In Phil Chidester’s article, May the Circle Stay Unbroken: Friends, the Presence of Absence, and the Rhetorical Reinforcement of Whiteness, he shares his reasoning as to how the TV show Friends maintains white exclusivity.
“I contend that Friends incorporates the closed circle as a core visual metaphor to represent whiteness as a marker of privilege, and that it does so in two crucial ways. First, the sitcom reinforces whiteness’s exclusive freedom to convert its public spaces to private ones; and second, it argues for whiteness’s continued right (and concurrent responsibility) to maintain its core sense of purity against racial outsiders by limiting and regulating contacts with the racialized Other. This process refuses to acknowledge the very real outcomes that accrue to racial difference in contemporary American society” (Chidester, 2008).
A closed circle is created amongst the characters of Friends visually because of the way they are situated in the furniture on the sets. In Central Perk, and the two apartments that the characters regularly hang out at, there is an exclusivity created by the nature of the physical set up. White exclusivity is maintained by not letting any characters of other races into the literal circle of friends (Chidester, 2008).
Ross is the only character who brings in people of other races into the show. These people are women that he is dating. Firstly he dates Julie, an Asian- American woman and then late in the series, Charlie, an African-American woman. Rachael dislikes Julie, presumably because she is jealous of Julie’s romantic relationship with Ross. Julie goes out of her way to be nice to Rachael, but after Julie exits one scene Rachael calls her a “manipulative bitch” under her breath. Both Julie and Charlie interact with the other regulars of the show, but are never included in the entire sextet of friends at one time. The characters seem to consciously avoid the subject of race and there is never any comment made about neither Charlie nor Julie’s race. Additionally, both Charlie and Julie have Americanized names and appear to have no cultural ties to their ethnic backgrounds (Chidester, 2008).  
Joey Tribiani is the only regular character who exhibits ethnic characteristics, yet he is still a stereotypical Italian. Being “not quite white”, he is portrayed as having low sexual morals, social awkwardness, and not enough intelligence to hold down a job (Chidester, 2008).
Critique of the show’s predominant whiteness raises a valid point that perhaps the show’s producers should have tackled the subject of race and incorporated more racial diversity into the series. However, this point cannot discredit the innovation and success of the show overall. A sitcom is not the right place to have conversations about race; it wouldn’t have fit in with the overall light hearted tone of the show. The appeal of the characters on Friends stems from the viewers’ ability to identify with them regardless of their race or gender.  As a situational comedy, Friends proved to have a high quality production value and was very well written. This is perhaps because of the use of intensifiers which maintained viewers’ attention and the constant re-writes of the script that occurred throughout the production of each episode. With two-hundred-thirty-six hilarious episodes, spanning over ten seasons, from 1994 to 2004, Friends will surely go down in history as a revolutionary sitcom.
Sources

Berman, Marc. "To Be Young Again." MediaWeek 14.18 (2004): 30. Communication &
Mass Media Complete. EBSCO. Web. 27 Mar. 2011.

Brooks, David.  "The Flock Comedies :[Op-Ed]. " New York Times 22 Oct. 2010, Late
Edition (East Coast): New York Times, ProQuest. Web.  27 Mar. 2011.

Chidester, Phil. "May the Circle Stay Unbroken: Friends, the Presence of Absence, and
the Rhetorical Reinforcement of Whiteness." Critical Studies in Media
Communication 25.2 (2008): 157-174. Communication & Mass Media Complete.
EBSCO. Web. 27 Mar. 2011.

Enright, Don and Alexander, Les. The One that Goes Behind the Scenes. Present
Tense Productions. DVD. 1999.

Owen, Rob. Gen X TV The Brady Bunch to Melrose Place. Ed. Thompson, Robert J. New
York: Syracuse University Press, 1997. Print.

Tagliamonte, Sali, and Chris Roberts. “So Weird; So Cool; So Innovative: The Use of
Intensifiers In the televisions series Friends.” American Speech 80.3 (2005): 280-300. Communication & Mass Media Complete. EBSCO. Web. 27 Mar. 2011.

           

5 comments:

  1. Joey "not quite white"? Whatever do you mean by that?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hey Laura, Did you know because of a bet between Matthew Perry and Bruce Willis, on the set of the “Whole Nine Yards”, (which Perry won), Willis did a two-episode guest role for free.Hehe..there is more trivia like that at http://www.endedtvseries.com . You should check it out Laura!

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  3. Did you know that because of a bet between Matthew Perry and Bruce Willis, on the set of the “Whole Nine Yards”, (which Perry won), Willis did a two-episode guest role for free. I found all kinds of trivia like this at http://www.endedtvseries.com You should check it out!

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