Now that the 25th anniversary of Smelly Cat and Marcel the Monkey is upon us, it’s become increasingly chic to trash Friends — that relic of an era where all broke 20-something New Yorkers had enormous adjoining apartments and personalities that could be described in one adjective.
However, there’s a reason that the NBC tentpole remains one of the most enduring of its time, so much so that it is still the most popular show on TV. Friends didn’t create the hangout comedy, but it refined the template for what nearly all sitcoms looked like in its wake. It was relatable but aspirational, creating characters and situations that vaguely reminded viewers of their lives but were removed enough to where tourists flock to New York to this day to share a coffee on the couch at Central Perk.
But even as the show shaped what television is, not all of the 85 hours of Friends has held up well. As a recent news item involving a squashed gay-themed storyline reminds us, Friends is still really, really homophobic.
According to a newly published look behind the scenes of the smash sitcom, Generation Friends: An Inside Look at the Show that Defined a Television Era, the show’s writers pitched a B-plot in which Chandler Bing (Matthew Perry) sneaks into a gay bar, not for the queer camraderie or the love of ABBA songs but because he likes the establishment’s tuna melts.
“Perry said no, and the story was shelved,” writes author Saul Austerlitz, as the U.K. newspaper The Independent first reported.
While Austerlitz doesn’t comment on the tone of the one-off storyline, it’s hard to imagine the scene would have gone well. The male characters on Friends showed a noted discomfort and disdain toward LGBTQ+ people during its 10 seasons — from Chandler’s aversion to his transgender parent (played by Kathleen Turner, still slaying the role) to a particular episode in which Ross (David Schwimmer) insists his male nanny must be gay.
Nearly anytime LGBTQ+ people are brought up through the show, it’s played for laughs — whether it’s the running joke that people think Chandler is gay or an episode where Joey (Matt Leblanc) convinces an acting student who he is competing for a role on All My Children to play the character “homosexually.”
In perhaps the most on-the-nose depiction of its tendency toward gay panic for cheap laughs, Joey and Ross freak out in the seventh season of Friends after they accidentally fall asleep together on the couch. “What happened?” Ross screams, before insisting: “We fell asleep — that is all.” The apparently traumatic cuddle is so integral to the episode’s arc that the installment is literally called “The One With The Nap Partners.”
While it would be easy to dismiss Friends as a product of its time, many of its contemporaries were well ahead on LGBTQ+ representation — from Blanche (Rue McClanahan) learning to embrace her gay brother on The Golden Girls to the groundbreaking same-sex wedding in Roseanne.
To its credit, Friends did air a lesbian wedding, between Carol (Jane Sibbett) and Susan (Jessica Hecht), but it primarily served to underscore how uncomfortable Ross was with his ex-wife’s new relationship. In addition to notoriously not allowing the newlyweds to kiss — in fear of upsetting censors — the episode also featured Chandler propositioning a lesbian wedding guest, and Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) blurting out, “Now I’ve seen everything!” during the ceremony. The outburst is allegedly because of a client who died on Phoebe’s massage table earlier in the episode, but it’s hard to ignore the pattern.
Interestingly, when creators David Kauffman and Mara Kauffman reflected on the storylines they regret, neither of them mentioned the show’s homophobic history. (It’s hard, though, to argue with that subplot where Phoebe dates her twin sister’s stalker — because yikes.)
Friends will always be an enormously influential touchstone of its cultural moment, one that paved the way for shows like New Girl, How I Met Your Mother, and Happy Endings. But while the two shows may feel lightyears removed in their politics, it’s almost physically difficult to remember that Will and Grace premiered in 1997 — just as Friends debuted its fourth season. That comedy, although itself imperfect, helped pave the way for LGBTQ+ acceptance, while Friends made queer people into punchlines.
None of that should stop anyone from binging Friends, but if your LGBTQ+ friends don’t join you, there might be a reason for that.