The One With Joey’s Colonoscopy

Nobody wants to see Joey get his colonoscopy. Nobody wants to see that. –Matt LeBlanc

We won’t do a reunion [] because this is a show about a time in your life when your friends are your family. And when you have a family, that changes. –Marta Kauffman

(Images from here and here.)

1

Today marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the series premiere of Friends in 1994, and the internet has been abuzz with nostalgia and the possibility of a reboot. The latter was basically shut down in a New York Times article by pop culture critic Saul Austerlitz, who released his book Generation Friends: An Inside Look at the Show that Defined a Television Era this month. The apparent general consensus among the show’s producers is that a reboot, in addition to inherently violating the show’s basic premise, would never live up to the original, and thus could only mar the show’s legacy. 

(And yet we have Jennifer Aniston fanning the flames with her new Instagram account, whose very first post was a cast reunion pic that broke the internet, so perhaps all hope is not lost.)

Inundated with 25th-anniversary coverage thanks to Google’s filter bubble, I first read an excerpt of Generation Friends that might instill even in skeptics a new appreciation of the show’s writing. I’ve always fantasized about working in a writers’ room for a television show, but have serious doubts about the long hours, high stakes, and big egos. Despite Austerlitz’s anecdotes about the Friends writers’ room reinforcing many of these fears, as I read them in the course of procrastinating work on my own novel, I was seized with the desire to dive into the rabbit hole of writing a reboot script. Because I firmly believed that Matt LeBlanc was wrong. People would fucking love to see Joey get his colonoscopy.  

So, my Friends 25th-anniversary pilot reboot script is here. Like any piece of creative writing, it should be read on its own without commentary from the writer. But since this blog is about analyzing the craft of creative writing, I am going to comment on some of my narrative decisions and on what I’ve learned about sitcom-writing by trying to write a sitcom.

But you should read the script first.

2

Friends obviously means a lot to a lot of people. Part of the media’s 25th-anniversary buzz has covered the appeal of the show to today’s teens, a demographic not yet born when the show originally aired. I first noticed one of my freshmen at PVA wearing a Friends t-shirt a couple of years ago, and then started noticing other students in the hallways in Friends gear at the high school and at the college where I teach as well. (New Yorker writer Michael Schulman analyzes the show’s continued appeal by talking to some of the people who flock for selfies to the front of the famous building at Bedford and Grove that served as the exterior shot for Monica’s apartment.) 

I was nine years old when the show premiered in 1994, and I watched it more or less from the beginning–this despite the fact that a lot of the jokes were far over my head, and that my mother is religious to the extent that all televised content I consumed was heavily policed (“inappropriate” was a consistent buzzword of my youth). Generation Friends describes how creator David Crane had to contend with NBC’s Standards Division, leading to the show taking the approach of looking askance at sexual content specifically to keep things appropriate for younger viewers (in a way that Seinfeld, airing in a later time slot, specifically did not). The strategy certainly worked in our household. My mother let me watch the show, but, watching it with me, she never failed to comment on how I should not look up to its three female leads as role models, or think that the lifestyle it depicted was realistic. This gripe mainly pertained to the characters having casual premarital sex, since we were Catholic and believed you were supposed to save yourself for marriage. My response to my mother’s harping was always an irritated, “I know, I know.” (Which, for the record, I did not.) So I watched the new episodes, and, by the time I was a teenager, the reruns that aired every weeknight at 10:30pm. I got the DVD box sets of each season as they were released, enjoying the luxury of watching the show whenever I wanted. 

The show’s arc in real time is punctuated with memories from my formative adolescent years. I watched Ross say Rachel’s name during his wedding to Emily in the season four finale while making posters to run for president of my junior high’s student council, a race I would lose to a more popular slacker whose campaign speech revolved around a clever metaphor that he would serve as dependably as toilet paper (proof of how utterly I’d failed to internalize the show’s writing style to my own advantage). I waited months in agony between seasons seven and eight for the reveal of who was the father of Rachel’s baby, and had an ongoing argument with my grandmother over whether Jennifer Aniston was really pregnant, which for some dumb reason I believed that she was. I watched the Brad Pitt Thanksgiving episode still reeking in uniform from a depressing shift at Sonic Drive-In, my mother, recovering from chemotherapy, next to me nibbling a foil-wrapped burger I’d brought her. And I watched the series finale in my dorm room at Rice at the tail end of my freshman year of college, my stuff packed and ready to return home for the summer, a few weeks shy of nineteen years old.  

As an adult with a Netflix password I’ve pretty much been watching the show on a loop ever since (a Guardian article addresses this particular phenomenon, hardly unique to me), and I guess I’ll have to demand my old DVD box sets back from my brother when it’s pulled at the end of this year. But I’d never actually given much thought to the show’s writing until I tried to write an episode myself.

3

An Atlantic article about sitcom structure lays out the use of A, B, and C storylines using an episode of Parks and Recreation as an example, but points out that the use of the model is more or less ubiquitous across sitcoms. This is definitely true for Friends, though it is interesting to see in their particular case how they deploy and divide these storylines across their cast of six main characters. 

Take “The One with the Stoned Guy” from the first season. The episode, as a majority do, employs three different storylines: A. Chandler is offered a promotion that causes him to quit his job; B. Monica receives an opportunity to interview for a job that would put her in charge of her own kitchen; C. Ross dates a woman who wants him to talk dirty. This is a case of three solo-character storylines, into which the other three characters who aren’t involved directly in any of the three storylines are interpolated peripherally. In Ross’s storyline, he repeatedly turns to Joey for advice. In Monica’s storyline, Rachel serves as a waitress for her interview, and Phoebe is the one who gets Monica the opportunity in the first place because the guy looking to open a restaurant is a massage client of hers, so Rachel and Phoebe are both present during Monica’s actual interview, when the potential restaurant opener (Jon Lovitz) shows up stoned and would prefer to eat Sugar-O’s and gummy bears instead of wait for the elaborate delicacies Monica is preparing.

lovitz
(from here)

For Chandler’s storyline, there’s really no other character that’s a consistent part of it (like Joey is in Ross’s); rather all the characters serve as what might be termed “floaters” for him, listening to his complaints about his situation and providing advice (and of course, mockery). 

Seinfeld is frequently credited with changing the sitcom game, and one thing that show did unbelievably well was how its disparate storylines more often than not all intersected and affected each other in surprising ways by the episode’s end. Friends does not seem to feel a similar obligation to have its storylines intersect or interact; frequently all three are completely independent. In “Stoned Guy,” Ross’s dirty-talk storyline has nothing to do with anything else going on, and can pretty easily be designated the episode’s C storyline (side note: the woman who wants Ross to talk dirty is played by Melora Hardin pre-Jan from The Office).

But this plot, though minor, still has a developed narrative arc: first Ross has trouble dirty-talking, leading to his only cuddling instead of having sex with his date; after getting Joey’s help, he gets so good at the dirty talk that he does it so long they still end up just cuddling instead of having sex.

For “Stoned Guy,” it’s more difficult to classify whether Monica’s or Chandler’s is the A vs. B storyline (though others designate Chandler’s as the A story). Chandler’s situation comes up earlier in the episode, but Monica’s situation gets the climactic sequence. (Monica’s also dictates the episode’s title, but this is a relatively meaningless marker of importance, as it’s not uncommon for episode’s titles to be pulled from C storylines.)  

At any rate, what “Stoned Guy” has that other episodes don’t always (or even usually) have is a thematic overlap between its two primary storylines–career advancement. What’s especially great about the A and B storylines in this episode is that the career theme subsumes more than just the primary characters involved in these plots, and that this theme connects both the teaser opening and the credits tag scene. In Friends, the credits scene is generally a conclusion to one of the storylines from the episode, but the teaser opening is sometimes the introduction of a storyline and is sometimes just a completely independent joke that has no real bearing on the rest of the episode. In “Stoned Guy,” the teaser opening shows Rachel serving Monica coffee in her capacity as waitress, but with a pencil in it instead of a cinnamon stick, a joke that emphasizes something established by this point–how bad Rachel is at her job. The scene initially seems to play no direct role in advancing the action of any storyline, but by commenting on Rachel’s job it ties into the A and B themes, and one could argue it actually is advancing storyline action because Rachel’s skill at her job becomes relevant when Monica initially hires a different waitress for the interview, then has to use Rachel when the waitress backs out (though Rachel’s skill, or lack thereof, plays no actual role in affecting Monica’s interview, her lack of skill leads to a pre-interview conflict with Monica that helps further the rising action). Then we have Phoebe, who gets Monica this job opportunity through her own job, emphasized in the credits scene when she avenges Monica by torturing Lovitz on the massage table with her elbows. 

Another episode exhibiting this thematic overlap between plots is an even earlier one from the first season, “The One with the East-German Laundry Detergent,” in which one storyline has A. Chandler and Phoebe breaking up with their respective signifiant others together (notably, Janice’s first appearance on the show entails Chandler’s dumping her); B. Ross doing laundry with Rachel in what may or may not be a date; and C. Joey tricking Monica into going on a double date that is not actually a double date, but turns into their conjoined effort to break up another couple. This episode neatly divides the characters into three pairs for the three storylines, with each being integral to the plots rather than peripheral or floaters, and with all storylines involving the potential end and/or beginnings of relationships. 

And an even earlier first-season episode, the third of the series, “The One with the Thumb,” does more direct interaction across storylines than just thematic. Our three storylines here are that A. Monica is dating a guy everyone actually likes, B. Chandler has started smoking again, and C. Phoebe has to deal with accidentally getting money from her bank that she shouldn’t have. So here we have three solo storylines, with the other characters actually serving as floaters for all three. The storylines interact when Monica’s new boyfriend is able to convince Chandler to stop smoking when no one else is able to; then, when Monica dumps the boyfriend and Chandler goes back to smoking, Phoebe gets him to stop by offering him the money she’s ended up with thanks to the chain of events from her dealing with her bank. This direct interaction between stories is satisfying, but rare, and even thematic overlap probably drops off significantly after the first season. 

Then there are episodes that have more unique structures than the traditional three storylines, the first example of which is probably the seventh episode of the series, “The One with the Blackout.” This one has two storylines instead of three: five of the six are hanging out together in Monica and Rachel’s apartment during the blackout, while the sixth, Chandler, is trapped in an ATM vestibule with a supermodel. The story with the five primarily revolves around Ross’s asking Rachel out being interrupted by her meeting Paolo. The first episode with only a single storyline is also in the first season, “The One Where the Monkey Gets Away”; Rachel loses Marcel and the scenes see different characters dividing up to look for him. 

A classic episode from the third season, “The One Where No One’s Ready,” showcases the three-storyline setup in a unique setting. With the exception of the credits scene, the episode takes place entirely in Rachel and Monica’s apartment. One would think a single setting would mean a single storyline, but that’s not the case here. Yes, the main plot is that Ross needs everyone to get ready to go to his museum benefit by a certain time, but within this framework there are in fact three separate plots interfering with people’s getting ready: A. Joey and Chandler are fighting over a seat, B. Monica is preoccupied with an answering-machine message from her recent ex Richard, and C. Rachel’s inability to settle on an outfit drives Ross to yell at her. Phoebe is initially part of Joey and Chandler’s storyline in this one, since her being the only one who’s actually ready is ruined when Joey and Chandler stain her dress in the course of fighting over the seat, but then Phoebe floats over to Rachel and Ross’s storyline when her needing a new outfit becomes a distraction from Rachel finding an outfit. All characters are floaters for Monica’s storyline, commenting on her interpretations of and reactions to Richard’s message.

Basically, the characters and their variable configurations seem to largely determine the action in the series, and I would posit that it’s the action being character-based that has in large part generated the show’s fierce generation-spanning loyalty. Another thing Generation Friends comments on is how the show pushes past humorous one-liners into deeper emotional territory, enabling viewers to get more invested. An emotional through-line throughout the show, probably leaned on most heavily in the earliest seasons of the series, is the on-again off-again relationship between Ross and Rachel.

4

It seemed to me that a contemporary version of Friends would have to comment on some of the problematic issues the original version had in being overwhelmingly white and heteronormative (issues that make its continued popularity all the more baffling). One of the show’s creators, David Crane, is gay, and the first-season episode depicting a lesbian wedding (which includes appearances from LGBT-activist Candace Gingrich as the wedding officiant and a young Lea DeLaria pre-Big Boo from OITNB as a stereotypical butch hitting on Phoebe) may have been lauded as groundbreaking, but the show was casually homophobic in ways that probably mingled with my Catholic upbringing to keep me closeted even from myself until after it was off the air. And yet I can’t shun the show like I did the church. The writing is too clever, and I love the white heteronormative characters too much. 

But in an experiment where I had total freedom to write my own version of the show in a no-stakes situation, the show could reflect my world more. Hence, Phoebe in my version has realized that she is gay, has left Mike and married a woman (Paul Rudd is obvi too busy to be on the show regularly now anyway, and while one could probably get away with him playing Phoebe’s husband in infrequent guest appearances, I’m bored with that idea). And to balance the scales even more, both Monica’s and Rachel’s daughters would also be gay.  

The experiment is to check in with the Friends at the time of the 25th anniversary in 2019, which would make Rachel and Ross’s daughter Emma seventeen, and Monica and Chandler’s twins Erica and Jack fifteen. Were a reboot really made, it would probably make the most sense to wait until the kids were all grown and gone so they wouldn’t have to be incorporated as regulars but only as occasional guests, and unless a reboot is already secretly in the works, by the time one is actually produced, they inevitably will be. But as of 2019, the kids are still here. (It would have been cool if Emma was a year older and thus could be shown watching the videotape Ross and Rachel made for her eighteenth birthday in the final season’s “The One with the Cake,” but alas the math doesn’t work.) 

Another element of the show that’s long interested me is its incorporation of the characters’ careers, which the Atlantic article here dissects nicely. The characters were all on fulfilling career paths except for Chandler (and possibly Phoebe), but Chandler got his own fulfilling upward trajectory when he changed tracks to advertising in season nine. Were NBC really to air a reboot now, I have a feeling the characters would be even further along in their careers, reaching the tops of their respective ladders, the majority probably even rich. But that idea also bores me. And inspired by the creators’ excuse about the characters being in a fundamentally different place in their lives, I thought that an impetus that might bring them all back together would be a return to a place in their lives where they again needed to depend on friends, which would entail job loss and financial struggles. A reboot could theoretically show the characters in different environments from the original show–following Monica and Chandler’s suburban life in Westchester, for instance–but I wanted my version of the show to be in its original setting(s), as the most appealing version of the reboot would probably be. Hence most of the action in my version of a reboot pilot is dictated by the arrangements that return the characters to their familiar former living situations: Monica and Chandler are announcing they’re moving back to their old apartment (which they’ve been subletting this whole time) so the twins can go to Emma’s school; Joey is attempting to persuade the guy who’s moved into his old apartment to give it up so he can move back in; Rachel, Ross and Phoebe have more or less been where they always were. 

The three storylines in my pilot are: A. Monica and Chandler are moving back into their old apartment; B. Ross and Rachel find out Emma is gay; and C. Joey is about to get a colonoscopy. The A and B storylines probably interact the most here, since it’s Monica and Chandler’s moving back into the old apartment that enables Ross and Rachel to see Emma hooking up with a girl through the window. Joey’s storyline probably has the least direct interaction but involves him doing the same thing Monica and Chandler are in getting his old place back (his having a colonoscopy is in fact what ends up leading to him getting the apartment back).

There’s also more thematic overlap between the A and B storylines here that doesn’t really extend to the C storyline (similar to “Stoned Guy”). That theme would be secrecy. At the beginning of the episode, Ross and Rachel tell Phoebe they don’t want her to tell Monica and Chandler that they’ve lost their respective jobs. Over the course of the episode it’s revealed that Monica and Chandler have also lost their jobs, that this is the real reason they’re moving back, even though they’ve pretended otherwise. The mutual secrecy emphasizes the distance that’s grown in these relationships in the intervening years, and the exposure of all the secrets by the episode’s end indicates a return to openness (and unemployment) that puts them on par with where they were in the early years of the original series. And of course, Emma’s also been keeping a secret that’s now exposed.

5

Per Generation Friends, 

The writing process was intensely collaborative. Writers might be assigned to craft a first draft of a given script, but by Adam Chase’s estimation, 98 percent of the work was actually done in the [writers’] room. Often, an idea would be filtered through numerous writers, who would add their own flourishes.

There’s collaborative effort to determine the gist of what will happen in an episode before an individual writer is assigned to map out the scenes for it, and collaborative effort after that individual script is drafted, largely to sharpen the jokes, but often resulting in a complete overhaul. Having written my script almost completely alone (except for getting general feedback from my partner), there’s going to be much room for improvement, especially for the joke-writing, which is more or less completely new to me and not something that’s going to transfer over from fiction-writing the way that structuring a narrative arc of rising action does. Trying to be funny, it turns out, is hard. (One will likely derive more enjoyment from reading the script the better one is able to imagine the original actors performing it, as humor more often than not resides as much, or more, in a line’s delivery as in its writing.)

And on the subject of this script not being the product of collaboration, the result of this experiment did not end up commenting on the show’s whiteness the way it comments on its heteronormativity, or commenting on the show’s whiteness much at all, really (except for making Emma’s love interest a person of color). Which just underscores how important it is that writing for television incorporate multiple perspectives rather than just one worldview (and perhaps more novels should do so as well).

This is a pilot script, meaning it’s supposed to set up at least a season’s worth of episodes rather than be an independent stand-alone piece. (Apparently there’s also been talk of a Friends movie, which Jennifer Aniston claims the producers would never let them do, and I can’t even imagine what that might look like, apart from the absurd concept trailers fans have spliced together from disparate footage of the show’s actors.) My pilot is set up to more or less return the friends to their starting/leaving-off points so that they’re all as tightly within one another’s orbits as they once were, and also struggling in their careers in a way that’s simultaneously similar to and different from the ways they were struggling at the beginning of the original series. Thus, the new version has all the same narrative engines for future plots that the original series did–that is, except for romantic entanglements. The original series had them all starting as single, and here we’re starting with them all in committed relationships. So, Ross and Rachel are now in an open relationship, Monica and Chandler’s marriage has become a committed hate-fest, and Phoebe’s same-sex marriage ought to be narratively fertile enough to serve the romantic-entanglement engine.

Then of course there’s whatever the kids are getting into, and there’s also the characters’ relatively advanced age, references to which it seems like would likely be a recurring gag. The producers aren’t saying it outright, but the excuse about the show being about “that time in your life when your friends are your family” is more or less another way of saying it’s about the time in your life when you are young and attractive (and before life has broken you). It might be depressing for audiences to see their favorite young ensemble cast reassembled in their 50s. Or, it could be just what we need to grow the hell up….

Then there’s the genre of the reboot itself to consider, which is not something I can claim to be overly familiar with. (I caught one episode of the new Will & Grace on a plane and felt like I was melting into that screaming guy from the Munch painting.) As I said, to me, commentary on the original seems like it ought to be part and parcel of the reboot package, but of course being able to execute this is easier said than done. Ross and Rachel’s open relationship is meant to represent an evolution past the insane monogamous jealousy that plagued Ross (and at times Rachel) throughout the original. Phoebe’s marriage represents an evolution past bland heteronormativity, and Rachel’s resistance to her daughter’s sexuality is something that perhaps comments on the original’s heteronormativity more than Rachel’s being immediately accepting of it would be, though if I’m again imagining what a reboot overseen by corporate executives would look like, they might well make one of the kids gay without making anything of it–the character would just be gay and everyone would accept it as completely normal without commenting on it, so we could pat ourselves on the back for how progressive we’ve become as a society. Such a version might seem like it would represent progress, but it would be more like a band-aid on a bullet hole. So Rachel’s going to have to work through this process a little bit more, just like the show needs to work through the sins of its past transgressions. But it’s difficult to find the line between facing the transgressions and simply repeating them. I don’t know how many jokes there were in the original about the appeal of having sex with women so young they were barely legal adults. Now two of our three male leads have daughters approaching this age, and yet, in my reboot pilot, they’re basically still as misogynistic as ever. Ross at least, having been fired for his relationship with (another) student, has had to face some consequences for his outdated attitudes in our post-MeToo era, but how our male leads might internalize and grow from our predominant cultural shifts remains to be seen and is generally a tricky thing to negotiate, since a lot of the appeal of a reboot would probably be the comfort of watching the characters do the same things they always did. So is having the guys spout the same misogyny they always did a way of pointing out how outdated that misogyny is now, or is it just perpetuating it? Perhaps Chandler’s fondness of Game of Thrones, the biggest cultural juggernaut since Friends, is a way of showing that misogyny is not as outdated as we like to think…

And finally, the reboot genre offers the opportunity for callbacks to the original that as a superfan I found hard to resist and probably overused, though I will note for the record that I did go back and cut some out because I was using them too much as a crutch instead of writing my own jokes.

At any rate, it is what it is at this point, for better or worse. Happy anniversary.

-SCR

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