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An apology for Friends - Arvind Narayanan's journal [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]

An apology for Friends [May. 1st, 2006|12:00 pm]
Arvind Narayanan
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It is fashionable in circles that perceive themselves as intellectual to praise Seinfeld and bash Friends. Recently someone told me they found Friends "unbearable". That's it. I have to speak out in defense of Friends and against intellectual elitism.

The charge that Friends is unsophisticated is blatantly false. It is simply that the sophisticated humor in Friends as masked by more obvious humor at the surface. Wikipedia gives an excellent example: "they found a Paleozoic amphibian in the jaws of a Mesozoic mastodon — how did it get there?" Another such statement was "Australopithecus was never fully erect". This was on one level a great 'double entendre', but was also an exceptionally high-brow gag, which many viewers weren't necessarily able to recognize as humorous outside of it painting Ross as a "nerd".

Let me give one more. Much of the humor in Phoebe's character, as you should know, is the contrast between the airheadedness and the street smartness. The character often flips suddenly from one to the other trait to much comical effect. But there is one instance where both traits manifest simultaneously: "I bet they're doing it" in reference to the suspicious behavior of Joey and Rachel, when it is in fact Monica and Chandler who are "doing it". This coup probably makes the line my favorite one in the entire series.

Another way to look at the difference between Seinfeld and Friends is that in the former, the characters are intelligent but in the latter, the script writers' wit shows through the stupidity of the characters. Should this be a problem?

Then there is the charge of unoriginality. Again, my reply is the same. The existence of the crude surface humor only enhances the significance of the deeply original subtext. Compared to Seinfeld, Friends moves about 5 times as fast. It is quite obviously impossible that all of the humor can be original. But my contention is that there is as much original humor in Friends as in Seinfeld.

Friends is also surprisingly bold to address dodgy issues. Incest, for instance. And feminism. Another random example off the top of my head: the dialog between Ross and Pheobe on fossils, when read at a deeper level, contains insightful commentary on the evolution debate in America. Friends explicitly asks singificiant questions such as "why does a heterosexual male feel like his head is exploding when he sees two women kissing?", although it is unable to provide an answer. Unfortunately, race is never addressed. (On the other hand, Everybody Loves Raymond, which I usually find completely unremarkable, has an exceedingly good treatment of race in one of the episodes.)

Finally a word about the slow-motion spoofs (Joey as a perfume salesman, Denise Richards with her hair, etc): every one of them had me in splits.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: brokentooth
2006-05-01 02:48 pm (UTC)
I guess with Seinfeld, it's more about the fact that it's a very self-aware show - the characters seem 'know' they're on a comedy show, and it's a very 'one-step-ahead-of-comedy' thing. I, for one, love Seinfeld - but I find Friends bloody hilarious too, and I definitely don't agree with the 'stupid' tag.

Eletism is unavoidable. With the music I listen to, I've come across so many people who swear by the underground - the not-so-well-known band scene; they don't like the mainstream for precisely that reason - that's it's 'mainstream'. I suppose Seinfeld (atleast initially) was in that category - since it takes a little while to grow on you, so there's the feeling that you're 'getting' something that others aren't.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2006-05-01 03:03 pm (UTC)
I guess with Seinfeld, it's more about the fact that it's a very self-aware show - the characters seem 'know' they're on a comedy show, and it's a very 'one-step-ahead-of-comedy' thing.

I completely agree. Also, Seinfeld has a lot of self-reference. For these reasons it's unique. No contest. I am simply arguing that Friends doesn't deserve all the criticism it gets.

Eletism is unavoidable. With the music I listen to, I've come across so many people who swear by the underground - the not-so-well-known band scene; they don't like the mainstream for precisely that reason - that's it's 'mainstream'. I suppose Seinfeld (atleast initially) was in that category - since it takes a little while to grow on you, so there's the feeling that you're 'getting' something that others aren't.

I guess that's true. Well, if people don't like the mainstream simply because it's mainstream, I don't have much to say about that -- they're just missing out. But if they try to advance logical arguments against (in this instance) Friends, then I want to rebut them, just for the record.
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From: (Anonymous)
2006-05-01 08:16 pm (UTC)

Elitism

Ah.. Elitism... the mask that IITians, grad students and geeks hide behind to mask their utter lack of social skills. Who cares if I can't keep a straight face while talking to women. I've got l337 h4x0r linux skillz, can draw ligers and think that Friends is soo 'mainstream'.
- SocialGeek
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2006-05-03 01:12 pm (UTC)

Re: Elitism

Anti-Friends elitism is hardly limited to geeks.

"I like Friends. I especially liked it back when I first saw it... and it was called Seinfeld" -- David Spade.
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From: (Anonymous)
2006-05-05 04:31 pm (UTC)
People can find Friends not funny, for a variety of reasons. Not necessarily because they feel its not intelligent enough or not sophisticated enough.

Just for the record let me list a few possibilities for $X$'s reactions to Friends.

1) X could find it funny and humorous.
2) X could find it too cheesy and much too thrown over the status of the actors - not the acting - to the extent of making it more of a pink and blue show than what, perhaps, can be considered unavoidable for an american show.
3) X could find it more repetitive (in jokes or themes etc.,) than what is perhaps not objectionable etc.,
4) X could plainly not find it funny often enough, for him to classify it to be a comedy.
5) X perhaps could find it not `intellectual' enough.

It seems like almost everyone who supports Friends assumes that any one who doesn't like Friends does so because of an elitist attitude and also that (4) and (5) can never be independent. A Y for instance could find it to be (2) , (3) - though not to the extent of finding it `unbearable' to watch by itself and (4) - again not to the extent of making it `unbearable' by itself.

P.S: After looking at the preview, the word `cheesy' does seem ambiguous, but it probably fits better than others.
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From: kupamanduka
2006-05-02 09:11 am (UTC)
Does intellectual sophistication of humour matter ( I am not contradicting any of your statements )?
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2006-05-02 09:17 am (UTC)
How does intellectual sophistication differ from vanilla sophistication?
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From: kupamanduka
2006-05-02 09:34 am (UTC)
Sorry, what is vanilla sophistication?
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[User Picture]From: kadambarid
2006-05-29 05:58 am (UTC)
Finally a word about the slow-motion spoofs (Joey as a perfume salesman, Denise Richards with her hair, etc): every one of them had me in splits.


And hey, Rachel with Ralph-Lauren...
Also, Seinfeld can be pretty racist at times (the dates of Elaine, or Seinfeld)- but Kramer absolutely rocks. Neurotic obsessions seem to fly around, especially with Elaine and Costanza (considering that Jerry Seinfeld is mostly the passive-seinsible observer!)
(According to Freakonomics - despite being one of the most popular sitcoms ever on TV, Seinfeld doesn't rank even under the top 50 favs of African-Americans!)
Some Friends episodes absolutely rock- the Thanksgiving one with Brad Pitt, the one's with Ross shuffling across from class to class...I really do abhor CAS, at home!
I also used to really enjoy The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Mind your Language, Full House, Caroline in the City, My Wife and Kids et al.
Boy, do I love humor!
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2006-05-29 01:58 pm (UTC)

"And hey, Rachel with Ralph-Lauren..."

There was a slow motion spoof there? I can't recall one.

"Also, Seinfeld can be pretty racist at times (the dates of Elaine, or Seinfeld)"

Care to explain that? Do you mean their dates are racist or they only date white people? Costanza's pretty racist, but that's because the character is narrow minded in every possible way, not specifically racist.

"(According to Freakonomics - despite being one of the most popular sitcoms ever on TV, Seinfeld doesn't rank even under the top 50 favs of African-Americans!)"

Yup. Although I thought it was top 10. Either way, I can't see that as being Seinfeld's fault.

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[User Picture]From: kadambarid
2006-05-30 10:08 am (UTC)
Seinfeld and Elaine date only "whites". Actually, there was this episode where Elaine nearly does form "an inter-racial couple"- nearly, because it turns out that the guy is actually white and he'd thought that she was "Hispanic". That particular episode highlights Elaine's discomfort with "boyfriends who aren't white". But it was hilarious nevertheless. And, I've almost never seen Seinfeld hang out with a colored person, barring the "waitress" at their hang-out...
Regarding Rachel- she is approached for "fashion fundas" by Joey, his sis,... that eventually turn into "pregnancy fundas"...
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[User Picture]From: kadambarid
2006-05-30 10:11 am (UTC)
Btw, Mind your language is something you oughtn't miss- if comedy happens to be your fav genre.
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