This week, exactly 20 years ago, a show launched on primetime US TV that would change the face – and world – of television forever. Over 236 episodes, and 10 seasons of laughs and one liners galore, “Friends” bought ensemble comedy to the mainstream, as we became engrossed in the lives and loves of six twentysomething flatsharers – Rachel Green, Monica Geller, Phoebe Buffay, Chandler Bing, Joey Tribbiani and Ross Geller.
It was a show that was as much a cultural phenomenon as it was a sitcom – with coffeehouses springing up in towns and cities from London to Lisbon, “the Rachel” haircut being a staple request of most beauty salons, and catchphrases like “How you doin’?” and “We were on a break!” becoming ubiquitous.
As a comedy writer myself, the show has greatly inspired me in my writing with the delivery of lines and the wit and warmth behind a show that is even continuing to find a new audience from repeated airings on Comedy Central. With this in mind, I’ve been watching my boxsets of the show all this week to ascertain what I think are the 10 best episodes from Friends’ 10 series. Shall we go get some coffee, guys?
10. THE ONE WITH THE CANDY HEARTS
(Season 1, 1994)
Phoebe: Ok, so now we need… um, sage branches and the sacramental wine.
Monica: All I have is oregano and a Fresca.
Phoebe: Um… that’s ok! Ok, all right. Now we need the semen of a righteous man.
Rachel: Huh. Okay, Pheebs? You know what? If we had that, we wouldn’t be doing the ritual in the first place.
When I watch all the series back, it’s often the first one that I find hasn’t dated the best, so I had a bit of a hard time deciding which episode from Season 1 was worthy of inclusion on my list.
So why ‘The One With the Candy Hearts’? Well, for starters it’s where we first meet Chandler’s notorious, nasally challenged ex-girlfriend Janice (“OH! MY! GAWD!!!”) on a double date with Joey that goes awry. It’s also where the girls plan an anti-Valentine’s ritual that quite literally goes up in smoke (with hilarious effect).
But props has to go to Ross in this episode, where he ends up forgetting his date at a sushi restaurant to spend the evening with ex-wife Carol with a final scene that is as touching as it is humourous – something the show would continue to get exceptionally good at further down the line.
9. THE ONE WHERE CHANDLER TAKES A BATH
(Season 8, 2002)
Monica: What do you think you’re doing?
Chandler: Leaving my troubles behind?
Though this episode was the start of the what to me, felt like it was slightly incestuous Joey and Rachel storyline, this was still a great one for its other, smaller storylines – namely that of Chandler and Monica, who just a few months into wedded bliss were still as riotously funny as ever in this series.
Chandler getting into the art of drawing baths (made a bit more ‘butch’ with the addition of a plastic navy ship – “so it’s a boy bath”, asserts Monica) was a nice little nod to the start of their relationship in the fifth series (more on that later) when they snooped around to keep it a secret from the others.
Props also go to Ross and a now heavily pregnant Rachel, who find out they’re having a girl at their latest scan and literally veto a bunch of potential names – among them Sandrine, Phoebo and Ruth (“I’m sorry, are we having an 89 year old?”)
8. THE ONE WITH THE DOLLHOUSE
(Season 3, 1996)
Monica: What’s this?
Phoebe: That’s a dog. Every house should have a dog.
Monica: Not one that can pee on the roof.
Phoebe: Well, maybe it’s so big because the house was built on radioactive waste.
Chandler (holding a tissue): And is this in case the house sneezes?
Most people usually go for the excellent ‘The One Where No One’s Ready’ from this series, but this particular episode holds a sentimental value to me, hence why it had to be this one. Namely because aged 8, this was the first episode I remember watching when Channel 4 used to air it on Friday nights.
Monica and Phoebe storylines are often hilarious because of their competitive streak and opposing points of view (see also storylines with Phoebe and Ross) and this is no exception, as Monica’s straight laced takes on home making with an inherited doll house from a recently deceased relative causes Phoebe to make her own wacky, bohemian doll house with a bubble chimney and an aroma room.
Also of note is the start of the hilarious storyline between Chandler and Joanna, Rachel’s snooty boss at Bloomingdale’s, who is utterly enamoured with ‘the Chan Chan man’, but who he refers to as a ‘big dull dud with weird mascara goop in her eyes’ – something that makes it difficult for him to break off their fling, which he learns to his peril when he ends up handcuffed to Joanna’s office chair at the start of series 4.
7. THE ONE WITH THE HOLIDAY ARMADILLO
(Season 7, 2001)
Ross (as the Holiday Armadillo): Merry Christmas. Oh, and Happy Hanukkah!
Ben: Are you for Hanukkah, too? Because I’m part Jewish!
Ross: Huh? You are? Me too!
Monica: Because armadillos also wandered in the desert?
Aka ‘The One I Put on at Christmas’ – especially when I’m wrapping presents or writing cards with a Mexican hot chocolate. Festive “Friends” episodes produced some great moments over the years, and this was one of them. As Ross ponders how to teach his 7 year old son Ben about Hanukkah in the face of jingling bells and flying reindeer, he ends up doing so in an oddly unique way, via his disguise as “Santa’s part Jewish representative for all the Southern states”.
Elsewhere, Phoebe discovers her apartment that was on fire in the previous series is ready for her to move back into – alas, Rachel’s new found fun living with Joey results in a series of hilarious Christmas presents for him (drums and a tarantula) to try and drive Rachel out the apartment and back to living with her again.
6. THE ONE WITH RACHEL’S OTHER SISTER
(Season 9, 2002)
Chandler: So let me just get this straight. So my two friends die; I get Emma; then my wife dies; then Emma, the one tiny ray of hope left in my life, gets taken away from me?
Phoebe: There’s your movie!
We’d met Rachel’s sister Jill in the 6th series (played by the brilliant Reese Witherspoon), but it wasn’t until three series later when her other sister, Amy, showed up unannounced (and some would say uninvited) to Thanksgiving with the gang.
In a move that proves to be, as Ross put it, ‘like when the Indians gave the Pilgrims syphillis’, Amy’s lack of tact or social skills at the annual dinner at Monica’s provides laughs-a-minute in this episode from Christina Applegate who plays her, culminating in a catfight even non-sitcom shows would find hard to top.
Elsewhere, there’s a hilarious storyline involving Joey as he and Phoebe try to come up with a good excuse for him not showing up at a downtown parade with the rest of the ‘Days of our Lives’ cast – and one that doesn’t involve a raccoon.
5. THE ONE WITH THE EMBRYOS
(Season 4, 1997)
Ross: According to Chandler, what phenomenon scares the ‘bejesus’ out of him?
Monica: Michael Flatley, ‘Lord of the Dance’!
Ross: That is correct!
Joey: The Irish jig guy?
Chandler: His legs flail about as if independent of his body!
Though this episode’s title derives from Phoebe’s quest to have her half brother Frank Jr and his wife Alice’s eggs placed in her uterus as a surrogate for them to have kids, this episode should really have been called ‘The One with the Apartment Game’.
Having been kept awake all night by Joey and Chandler’s rooster, Rachel and Monica challenge them to a furious battle of the sexes as Ross invents a quiz to test how well the friends really know each other – which for the girls, comes at the expense of losing their apartment to the guys.
This game reveals some amusing facts about the gang along the way – Monica’s high school nickname of ‘Big Fat Goalie’, Joey’s imaginary friend Maurice, the space cowboy, and the gang’s inability to remember what Chandler’s job is (according to Rachel, ‘he’s a transponster!’)
4. THE ONE WHERE HECKLES DIES
(Season 2, 1995)
Chandler: If I’m gonna be an old, lonely man, I’m gonna need a thing, you know, a hook, like that guy on the subway who eats his own face. So I figure I’ll be Crazy Man with a Snake, y’know. Crazy Snake Man. And I’ll get more snakes, call them my babies! Kids won’t walk past my place, they will run. “Run away from Crazy Snake Man,” they’ll shout!
I’ve chosen this episode because for me, watching this as a teenager it was the first time I remember being blown away by someone’s acting performance. And Matthew Perry puts on by far his best performance as Chandler here, in a comedic and dramatic sense.
When Rachel and Monica’s cranky neighbour Mr Heckles suddenly dies, he bequeaths his old apartment of strange posessions to them. Amongst them, Chandler finds his old high school yearbook, and realises, to his horror, some uncanny similarities.
Overcome with panic at the direction his life is heading in, he ends up calling – who else? – Janice, before the rest of the guys make him realise he’s not completely the same as their late neighbour, and that he has the chance to change for the better.
3. THE ONE WHERE ROSS IS FINE
(Season 10, 2003)
Ross: Okay, I guess it’s just flan for three. Hey! Hey, that rhymes!
And from one star performance to another, as David Schwimmer put in his craziest, most stooge like performance as Ross in this episode as he struggles to come to terms with Joey and Rachel’s budding relationship. His overreaction to events results in an awkward dinner party at his place with his new girlfriend (and Joey’s ex) Charlie.
Not only is it an episode that has forever altered the way I say the words ‘fajitas’ and ‘margaritas’, but Rachel and Joey’s reactions to his antics are just as hilarious – especially the final scene with Joey and Ross the following morning.
Elsewhere in this episode, Monica and Chandler make progressions to try and adopt a baby – with things going greatly awry when they meet a couple that Phoebe is friends with, and Chandler lets slip to their son that he is in fact, adopted.
2. THE ONE WITH THE ROUTINE
(Season 6, 1999)
Ross: Hey, when the snippy guy sees The Routine, he’ll wanna build us our own platform!
Monica: Was it really that good?
Ross: We got honourable mention in the Brother-Sister Dance category!
As I mentioned earlier, Christmas episodes provided some comedy gold on “Friends”. This however, for me, is the gold standard. As Joey and his dancer roommate Janine (played by Elle MacPherson) get dancing parts on Dick Clark’s Millennium Eve special, über fans of the show Ross and Monica tag along like puppies, and end up stealing the show with a dorky and side splitting high school routine to the Loreta song ‘The Trouble with Boys’, that has since spawned an internet craze for wedding first dance recreations.
Also in this episode, Phoebe and Rachel bribe Chandler into hunting Monica’s apartment for their Christmas presents – which results in finding some unusual presents for the gang from Chandler, and a rather puzzled look on his face (‘priceless’, suggests Phoebe) when he finds out what Monica has got him.
1. THE ONE WHERE EVERYONE FINDS OUT
(Season 5, 1999)
Phoebe: They thought they could mess with us! They’re trying to mess with us? They don’t know that we know they know we know! And Joey, you can’t say anything!
Joey: I couldn’t if I wanted to.
What other episode could I have picked as my all time favourite but this one? With all the gang at their comedic best in this episode, Monica and Chandler’s secret relationship finally comes out in the open as Phoebe attempts to seduce Chandler.
From the opening scene where Phoebe catches them having sex from the window at Ugly Naked Guy’s (soon to be Ross’s) apartment, to the awkward exchange between Chandler and Phoebe on their “first date” where she performs a hilarious dance and claims she’s “very bendy”, and the ‘They don’t know that we know” exchanges, every time I watch this particular episode I laugh just as hard as I did the first time I saw it.
And that, for me, is just one of the reasons that makes “Friends” one of the most timeless shows, let alone sitcoms, that there has ever been. Here’s to 20 years of laughs with our friends.