Friday, July 16, 2010

Friends vs. Seinfeld

Okay, I said I was going to do that Bronze Age Spider-Man post this week, but after my post about Seinfeld, I got to thinking about Friends…and I saw a way in which a brief discussion of the differences between them might actually help me in making the point I’m eventually going to make about Bronze Age Spider-Man. Honest! It’ll all pay off, trust me on this one.

So. Expanding on a comment I made in my own Seinfeld post:

…Friends takes the sort of "engine" of Seinfeld but replaces the neuroses with quirks. Different people can be a "Chandler" or a "Monica" type or whatever, but EVERYBODY is a "George" on their worst day.
Okay, first let me say I’m not going to hate on Friends, exactly. I watched it the same as anybody when it was on, when I was about in middle school and early high school, which I think is probably a prime Friends-viewing age. The group dynamic in Friends is based around everyone playing a role:

Rachel = The Popular One
Monica = The Uptight One
Phoebe = The Kinda Hippie One
Ross = The Square but Loveable One
Chandler = The Funny One
Joey = The Ladies Man

So the idea here is that you can match everyone in your circle of friends to one of these roles, right? Quite deliberate on the part of the showrunners, I’m sure. Figuring everybody knows “a Phoebe” and “a Joey” and the rest. It’s the same thing that happens with Sex and the City.

But just like Sex and the City, you also assign yourself a role, but because it’s hard to be objective about yourself like that, you latch on to a sort of an aspirational figure. That’s why I think Friends goes over well for high schoolers - because you’re still forming your identity (with all the messy dreadfulness that entails) and this show presents you with some basic options (plus, they’re cool adults who live in a cool apartment in a cool city, which adds to the aspirational aspect of it). Certainly I thought I’d like to be a Chandler. Perhaps...I might even be a Chandler?

But I got older and I found I might also be…what, bits of Ross? A Monica to boot? Of course in reality if I'm anything, I'm a mixture of a couple of them plus a bunch of other things that aren't there in any of the characters, and so if I didn’t correspond to one of the Friends gang 1:1, everybody else I knew probably didn’t either. *

Which brings me back round to Seinfeld.

I don’t think Seinfeld is as dependant on character types as Friends. Can you really call someone “a George” or “an Elaine”? Who’s Kramer in real life? (Except for, I guess, the real Kenny Kramer the character is based on.) They’re all distinctive personalities, and yet I don’t think you’re supposed to identify with one to the exclusion of others. We’re supposed to be all of them, right? In a single episode, I can identify with Jerry’s superficiality, George’s insecurity, Elaine’s frustration, and maybe even Kramer’s self-assured (but perhaps ill-deserved) contentment.

But these aren’t aspirational figures. Nobody really wants to be George, we just sort of are, at our worst. Oh, maybe being Jerry seems a pretty sweet deal on the surface for his confidence, success and prowess (I love that the AV Club describes him as “a sexual Jedi”) but of course, Jerry is also that part of you that’s kind of a creep sometimes.

So today I don’t watch Friends. I do fondly remember some funny jokes in it (well, I stopped watching somewhere before the last couple seasons, so I guess it could’ve gone downhill in that department for all I know), some fine crowd-manipulating (in the good way) character bits. But it’s not something I can really invest myself in anymore. I don’t really need what it used to do for me (if, indeed, it ever did; this all seems right to me, but it's possible this is me seeing something in hindsight that was never there to begin with).

Friends is a brochure for personalities and social roles you might enjoy, but Seinfeld is an unforgiving mirror into the personality you already possess. Friends is advertisement and Seinfeld is analysis, and self-analysis is something I think you always need.

Also: um, it’s funny too!

(* - Well, of course I'm using a bit of dramatic license to make a point, here; it's not as though I had some sort of epiphany on my 16th birthday and decided never to watch Friends again. But by the time the end of high school came around I'd lost interest in the show, so I maintain this was a reaction I was having on some level, maybe not conscious, and definitely not as self-aware and introspective as I make it out to be here.)


plok said...

I swear to God, I am going to comment at awful length on these ones...I am just in a twitchy sort of Internet area right now.


It's good stuff, some apt phrasing, I'm dying to get into all this.

plok said...

I woulda gone two sets of three: The Innocent One, The Funny One, The Smart One? Joey/Phoebe, Chandler/Rachel, Ross/Monica, respectively, although I dunno if those labels are any good. Anyway, Joey and Phoebe act and succeed, where Chandler and Rachel self-consciously spazz out and fail, where Ross and Monica can't even believe what just happened. My Dad used to watch this show in the first two seasons, he'd tape it and watch it after my mother went to bed: he called it "that Stupid show". So you know it was well-made, for a time: when my retired father enjoyed the gawky and hapless young-adult humour.

Then they ruined it!

I think because it did become a sort of brochure, an aspirational menu. But it worked better for me when you wouldn't want to be any of these characters, when they weren't obvious "types" but people struggling not to become what they didn't want to be, that it looked like they already were. Phoebe breaks up with Fisher Stevens because his rightness about the Friends won't permit any of them to change themselves without giving up on their struggle, e.g...


plok said...


Good, I woulda had to successfully finish that story otherwise. Don Draper said it in Mad Men, when Peggy tells him "sex sells". "Who told you that?" he says scornfully. Feeling something sells. The cast of Friends are all losers, they don't know how to do it all, they're faking it but they're not making it, and just like in Seinfeld that's where the comedy comes from, what makes them all bearable. When the show loses those bearings it becomes almost despicable, smug...I had a friend who refused to watch it until someone gave him tapes of the last two seasons. he asked "who do you think's the funniest?" I said, "In the last two seasons? Jennifer Aniston. David Schwimmer when Ross is dealing with "his rage" or when he's playing "his music" for Phoebe. Everybody else has stopped trying to make themselves work even though they don't. Ross has gone out the other side of himself into pure gag-based caricature; Rachel's still losing every which way, and getting humiliated, and soldiering on.


plok said...


Sorry, that's getting annoying, isn't it?

Anyway, I think Friends shows off a very interesting breakdown of comic principles. In the beginning, the "aspirational" thing was in effect in a goofy, subversive way -- by being a "Ross" (i.e. being a pathetic gets-the-ball-loses-the-ball kind of chronic fuckup) you could lodge your failings in his positive qualities: charming nervousness, well-meaningness, intelligence, compassion. If you were a Chandler you could call yourself funny, self-aware, and insightful as well as spastic and immature. Joey was giving, Phoebe was loving (as Ursula wasn't), Monica was protective, Rachel was earnest. This was all very forgiving, and funny. But when the Friends get "better", they mostly become as awful as people seem to think the Seinfeld characters were...the apologies become excuses, and the identifications become justifications. My Dad stopped watching.

Whaddaya think, true-ish?


Justin said...

True enough, definitely. I like live-action cartoon characters when they work (which I'll get to when I do something about 30 Rock) but the Friends characters do seem to go cartoony as the seasons go on because of that self-satisfaction.

Hey, you know, what's interesting about your three categories is that Friends do not date within their own category; Rachel can hook up with Ross OR Joey but not Chandler...Phoebe seems to be the only girl Joey's not interested in, Ross and Monica are siblings. Hm!

plok said...

Yeah, that works!

The cartoony stuff isn't always bad. Like, when you run out of ideas, why not just do a bunch of gags? Cheers did that after they finally shook the Sam/Diane thing: just wrote jokes. It worked. It can be good.

Much better than pretending you've still got a story to tell, when you don't! The latter-day Ross works because as a bagful of tics he can still be funny, and as a pursuer of romance, happiness, etc. he can't. Look what the Ross/Rachel thing eventually does away with, for heaven's sake: my God, he used to have a son! But eventually that old collection of character features he started out with just got made irrelevant to the Big Thing the show's producers committed to: who's gonna hook up, and when. Well, less texture is more, when you're locked into that particular strategy...