Neither of the shows, way back in their infancies, seemed likely to survive one TV season, never mind make it to the next millennium and the comedy pantheon.
"Friends" was an aggregation of attractive twentysomethings in a fantasy Manhattan, exactly what you might imagine as a network executive's version of "Seinfeld." It came off, at first blush, as extreme makeover "Seinfeld," teeth whitened, attitude improved, entire corpus stripped of Larry David's famous dictum, "No lessons, no hugs."
Yet, perhaps because the mid-1990s were a sitcom heyday, perhaps because each show stumbled into the television alchemy laboratory, they became huge hits, successes with the critics, the public, the Emmy voters and the accountants.
Maybe they didn't embody contemporary social trends as directly as did a " Mary Tyler Moore Show" (feminism) or even a "Seinfeld" (naked self-interest), but they have stood, in their time, for the enduring power of good writing and acting and of the sitcom format. And along the way, the sophisticated "Frasier," especially, proved the reverse of Mencken to be true: You can get very, very rich having faith in the intelligence of the American public.
"If you're in any way part of either one of them, you're in the Comedy Hall of Fame," says Warren Littlefield, who, as NBC's chief programmer through much of the 1990s, was part of both: He put "Frasier" (1993) and "Friends" (1994) on the air. "They're both in such an elite, elite place."
"We have shows on TV that you know are there because they're always going to be part of our social history," says Linda Voorhees, who teaches screenwriting at UCLA. "Then we have shows that are progressively belittled as time goes on. These will be part of our social history.
Voices of 2 generations
"Both of them have done something significant. `Friends' really became the voice of a generation in a funny, smart, sexy way and said something about a generation that had sort of been labeled slackers. `Frasier' did the same thing, only for us middle-aged people, for the Boomers."
And now, of course, in the next 11 days "Friends" and "Frasier" will end their runs of original episodes after 21 collective seasons, leaving voids in the lives of their most devoted fans, gaping holes in the NBC schedule that the "Friends" spinoff featuring Matt LeBlanc's Joey character will struggle to fill, and, in a larger sense, holes in the dike of network television that will likely be plugged by still more "reality" series.
"For people who write comedies, it's kind of a scary time," said "Friends" co-creator David Crane during one of the telephone conference calls organized for the show's departure.
Yet with "Sex and the City" (six seasons), which also departed this year, and "Everybody Loves Raymond" (eight seasons) likely to leave after next, it seems inevitable that, no matter what reality dross arises in the interim, there will soon enough be a clamoring for new situation comedies, or room for an underappreciated great like "Scrubs" to gain favor.
In the 1980s, recalls Littlefield, "I was in comedy development at NBC, and at least once a week I was doing interviews on `Why comedy is dead.'" The new genre crowding out sitcoms was newsmagazines rather than reality shows.
And then NBC put "The Cosby Show" on. " The Simpsons" soon followed.
"There will be quite a void," he says. "Out of that void will come new voices."
Before the vacuum, however, comes the publicity deluge, especially in the case of "Friends." The more commercially successful of the duo is getting a sendoff that mimics the white heat of its arrival, an effusion of prefab buzz so distasteful in its intensity it could stand in for Ipecac.
TV Guide and Entertainment Weekly have done special issues on the "Friends" departure, which will take television form as a one-hour retrospective Thursday followed by a one-hour finale (8 p.m., WMAQ-Ch. 5).
Get ready to cry
NBC, in its mawkish on-air promos for the final batch of episodes, is acting as if it's got "Dr. Zhivago" on its hands, and we should all prepare to cry or rejoice -- but not laugh; does anybody remember laughter? -- as Ross ( David Schwimmer) either gets back together with Rachel ( Jennifer Aniston) or he doesn't.