Why 'Friends' mattered

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."

"Frasier" was, of all things, a spinoff, a seemingly desperate attempt to keep "Cheers" alive by taking a supporting character, the fussy psychiatrist Dr. Frasier Crane, and reinventing him as an opera loving, wine-tasting Seattle radio shrink, the unapologetic forefather of metrosexuality.

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.

(There's no preview tape available, but creators David Crane and Marta Kauffman have said repeatedly they want to leave everybody in a good place, as befits their essentially optimistic show.)

And before it forgot that "Friends" is, in fact, a comedy, the network put together for the media an official "Friends" finale binder, featuring such subject tabs as Fast Facts, Trivia and Awards. There's also Impact on TV, with laudatory quotes not only from noted television scholar Pat O'Brien, the co-host of "Access Hollywood," but also from Nancy O'Dell, the other co-host of "Access Hollywood."

O'Dell: "`Friends' is most definitely the `friendliest' sitcom in television history."

O'Brien: "Something else will come along . . . but I guarantee you, it won't be this friendly."

As for "Frasier," I think we can agree that the tabloid co-hosts would praise its "Frasierly" qualities, wax rhapsodic over just how "Frasierable" it always will be.

The "Frasier" sendoff, happening in the same retrospective-then-elongated-finale format the following Thursday, is much more subdued. To some observers, that's a reversal of the actual order of things.

"I think `Frasier' is actually the bigger story," says Robert J. Thompson, director of Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular Television.

Yes, it won five best comedy series Emmys, the most ever (to "Friends'" one). But it was always overshadowed by the success of "Friends," and not only in the ratings, where it didn't get much chance to compete because it spent most of its life on less-watched Tuesday nights, while "Friends" took the glory assignment of Thursdays.

`Friends' was a lifestyle

"`Frasier' was a meticulously written drawing-room comedy, the kind of thing that could easily be written in French with subtitles," Thompson says. "`Friends' was always the brassier, prettier, louder sibling. That show became a factory for a generation of People magazine covers. `Frasier' was a really fine sitcom. `Friends' was a good sitcom but it was also a lifestyle."

"Friends," in other words, was kind of obvious: young, sexy people trading clever innuendo in the leading network's most potent prime-time bloc. But the success of "Frasier" suggested that easy assumptions about American viewers weren't necessarily true: "It proved jokes about Schopenhauer can actually work," Thompson says.

Yet for all of "Frasier's" brilliance, its very European ability to blend high-toned talk and classic, slamming-bedroom-doors farce, "Friends" was better at maintaining its high quality.

"Frasier," until a recent rejuvenation, was beginning to seem played out, especially as Frasier's brother Niles ( David Hyde Pierce) and inamorata Daphne (Jane Leeves) kept almost finding romance and then, maddeningly, not doing so, and as Frasier kept being frustrated in his own attempts at courtship. Slamming doors on itself, the show would not or could not move forward.

"Friends" was better at continually making its soap operatic stories -- marriage, divorce, surrogate motherhood -- continue to work on both emotional and comedic levels and at deepening seemingly shallow characters by having them pass life milestones.

The show tried to "jump the shark" repeatedly, beginning with the pet monkey and moving on through such overused notions as Courteney Cox's Monica having once been fat, but its writers always pulled it off.

And the cast grew, too, over the years, especially Matthew LeBlanc, who went from playing one, Tony Danza-inspired note, to at least three, and Courteney Cox, who shed some of her early shrillness.

The will to turn away from the show was never stronger than during the time of its cultural coronation, when the theme song was a hit (clap-clap clap-clap) and "the Friends," as they were called, were on every magazine cover, together, talking about how they really were friends. But any honest watching of it would leave you admiring its bright, pop blend of spare, clever dialogue and character hooks, and the series' success in DVD sales has proven its durability.

The show was born, Littlefield says, because NBC executives kept believing there was a series in the post-collegiate city life, when people room together to cut living expenses. But all the scripts the network developed "were really bad," he says.

Then Kauffman and Crane, who had created HBO's occasionally clever nudity vehicle "Dream On," came in the door with their idea for a series based on their own 20s in New York City, and unlike NBC's previous efforts in that area, "it felt real," Littlefield remembers. "It had some weight to it."

Talk of young Hollywood

The pilot script backed up the pitch and, well before the buzz among the public, the show was the talk of young Hollywood, as actors clamored to be cast. The legendary James Burrows ("Cheers") directed the pilot and, before it aired, took the cast to Vegas for what he promised them would be their last grasp of anonymity.

Everything seemed to be coming together, but "it wasn't until about four episodes in that we went, `Wow. This thing is really emotional. They're doing a soap opera with great comedy,'" Littlefield says.

The "Frasier" success Littlefield credits to its very difficult birth. All the principals from "Cheers" were as reluctant to do a spinoff as the network was eager to have one.

"Their reluctance is what brought us such a brilliant show," says Littlefield, "their fear of not wanting it to feel like `Cheers' lite."

The writers believed in Grammer's gift for comedy, his Jack Benny-like ability to insist on dignity even as it was being stripped from him, and they believed in the Frasier character.

A key was the inspiration to make Frasier more palatable as a lead by creating the extreme version of him in brother Niles. And adding John Mahoney's Martin as their blue-collar father, befuddled at how he got such effete sons, turned it into, at core, a family comedy.

"Both of these shows . . . were really fresh," says UCLA's Voorhees. "They did not recycle `Lucy,' recycle `Laverne and Shirley.' They really came up with story lines that were character driven and very fresh and very funny.

"That's why I think they will remain with us forever in reruns."

Final curtain: The Central Perk couch will sit empty now that the "Friends" gang is bidding farewell. The "Friends" finale airs at 8 p.m. Thursday, the "Frasier" finale airs at 8 p.m. May 13, both on WMAQ-Ch. 5. Illustration by John Corbitt.

Recommended on Baltimore Sun