Sixteen years ago this week, NBC aired the final episode of "Friends" to a national audience estimated at 52.5 million. I was thinking of that television sitcom recently while looking at the results of the latest survey by RealClear Opinion Research.
John Della Volpe, our director of polling, got creative while delving into Americans' attitude about the deadly coronavirus pandemic and ensuing lockdown, both of which are taking place in an election year. The pandemic is shaping attitudes toward the election, as I noted in a story about the poll, but also toward how Americans view their own lives.
To explore that more fully, John asked some 2,100 registered voters what they are most looking forward to doing when the quarantines are finally lifted. About two-thirds of the respondents cited visiting friends and family. It seems that Americans miss their people twice as much as they miss their jobs: "Hugging loved ones you've been separated from" was cited by 64% of respondents -- exactly twice the percentage of those who listed "returning to work."
This wouldn't have surprised the characters on "Friends," a show that debuted on Sept. 22, 1994 and ran for 236 episodes. Although the main characters supposedly lived in Greenwich Village, it was actually filmed at Warner Bros. studios in Burbank (and the size of the apartment was more evocative of Southern California than New York City). The six young pals -- Joey, Ross, Rachel, Phoebe, Chandler, and Monica -- didn't seem to spend much time working. Or worrying about jobs and money. So, then, what was the show about?
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The long run of "Friends" on network television overlapped for several years with "Seinfeld," another NBC sitcom that had its own great ride from 1989 to 1998. In 2002, as "Friends" was nearing the end of its run, a poll done by TV Guide pronounced "Seinfeld" the second-greatest TV series of all time. ("The Sopranos" topped the list.)
This was a stretch, but so was the common complaint that "Seinfeld" was "a show about nothing." This became a cliché, and was even incorporated into a "Seinfeld" episode, but it always struck the show's co-producers, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, as off the mark.
It's certainly true, Seinfeld wrote, that "we never obsess over anything that isn't mundane." But that doesn't mean it was about nothing. Ostensibly, it was a show about how comedians get their material. And, like "Friends," what made it work was friendship.
So what if these weekly programs didn't revolve around life-and-death situations? Wasn't there enough of that elsewhere on television? Think for a moment about what was happening in American public life during the 10 years of "Friends." A president was impeached and later disbarred. A national election was held in which the winner of the most votes wasn't inaugurated. An act of war was launched against the United States, with frightful civilian casualties.
Now, in the opening two decades of the 21st century, it's all happened again -- and in a more compressed time frame -- with the same man in the Oval Office: a president who lost the popular vote. There's also been another impeachment, and a deadly attack from abroad by an unseen deadly enemy, this one a microscopic pathogen.
In this war, we've been told we must stay home, where many of us watch television. The president and his top health care officials have recommended it and our governors have ordered it. Any American who wants to ride out this storm by hunkering down and watching laugh-track-aided sitcoms about silly everyday social situations -- and groups of neurotic oddballs who truly care for one another -- won't get any argument from me.
"Friends" and "Seinfeld" weren't about nothing. They were about the humor that arises naturally with human beings' often-awkward attempts to find their social footing in an ever-changing culture. And about how friendship can help ease the way. In a dangerous world, what could be more reassuring?
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.