But “Friends” never really went away. All one has to do to understand the amazing global impact the show has had over the past three decades is to join its legion of obsessed, line-citing fanatics. And oh. MY. GOD. Could there be any more of it?
“It became a show of the world – it wasn’t just a little TV pilot set in New York,” says Todd Stevens, a 10-year producer of Friends, as he ponders the moment of those involved in the show realized they were making a global juggernaut.
“It seemed (to us) that the lightning strike from Friends could be seen beyond the United States,” he says. “It came from the neighborhood.”
Maybe he’s underestimating it. “Friends” was the first and only sitcom to really hit the world – and the world isn’t ready to let go of it.
“I doubt we’ll ever see sitcom appeal like ‘Friends’ did and still do,” says Pete Allison, whose Friends with Friends podcast delves into each of the show’s 236 episodes in our lives than most popular culture. “
Fake Central Perks are still popping up in cities on every continent; Online communities analyze every episode, scene and joke; streaming services like Netflix have made the show a convenience for a new generation; and all over the world there are people who learned English by watching Ross, Rachel, Joey, Phoebe, Chandler and Monica.
For these uberfans, seeing them again this week was an emotional milestone. “I don’t cry often, but my eyes were full of tears,” says Elin Nikolov, a 35-year-old Bulgarian who poured his love for the show into his work by building a replica Central Perk Café in the city of Plovdiv.
But it was far from the end. “I still watch it every day,” says Nikolov. “They are my friends. A lot of ‘Friends’ fans will say that, but it’s the truth and it’s great to see you every night and every day.”
“We keep the show alive”
“You can imagine that I’m a huge Friends fan,” Nikolov told CNN, speaking from the Central Perk replica cafe he founded eight years ago. And he says he is not alone: ”You have no idea. (There are) so many fans in Bulgaria.”
For him, building a friends-themed café was the natural next step in his fandom – and he describes the project as “the best I’ve ever done”.
“We try to do every detail,” he says. It took quite a bit of work to recreate the world famous Central Perk interior. “The couch was sent from Belgium because I couldn’t find an identical one here and we set it up straight away because the color was wrong,” he said.
“When we made it orange, it was an incredible feeling,” says Nikolov.
In the meantime, the site has become something of a Mecca for Eastern European fanatics.
“Every day people come from different parts of the country to take pictures on the orange couch,” he says.
“Also in the neighboring countries – from Romania, Greece, Macedonia, Turkey. We have so many visitors who just sit on the orange couch.”
The cafe is one of many recreated Central Perks in the world – the original is probably the most copied television ever built – and its existence testifies to the show’s continued reach and money-making potential.
A British “friends” madness
Britain’s ever-hungry Friends fan base has spawned an entire subculture of millennials who grew up watching the program repeatedly. “It was ‘the thing’ everyone went to see after school,” podcast co-host Dave Cribb told CNN.
“I think the fact that quoting ‘Friends’ in 2021 is still one of our friendship group’s most important ways of communicating tells you everything you need to know about how much impact it’s had.”
And that particular relationship encouraged the show’s bosses to bring Friends to London to film the fourth series finale – one of the first times a major American show had moved its entire production across the Atlantic.
“The whole experience was amazing,” says Stevens, the producer, as he remembers upset an entire pub by mentioning that the show was going to be shot in town. “The way it got around the pub, it was a riot. It was contagious. “
“I don’t think I’ve ever been to the United States like this – ‘Friends’ was part of people’s families and made me feel welcome,” he says.
“The crowd that was out there and the paparazzi that followed us was amazing.”
Stevens fondly remembers a long night recording the episode.
“It was a little late, production didn’t go quite as planned. So we said to the warm-up guy, ‘Do some’ friends ‘trivia with the audience’ – and the fans have a couple of baffling the writers, ”he said.
“The fans in the UK have been amazing,” he added. “We felt like rock stars.”
Nowadays, the British can fix their “friends” through one of the many immersive experiences on offer. When British retail giant Primark wanted to bring new customers to its flagship store in Manchester, UK, they too built their own Central Perk inside the outlet.
“It was a natural extension” of the chain’s “Friends” apparel, said Tim Kelly, new business development director for Primark.
And there’s FriendsFest, an annual touring festival that visits parks and arenas across the UK and attracts 100,000 people each year. The event is one of many around the world to announce guest appearances from the show’s broad network of ensemble members, producers, and writers.
“Every year it’s a mix of people who come to the event for real nostalgia and the younger generation seeing it for the first time,” says Amanda Brown, Head of PR at Comedy Central UK, who owns the syndication rights to “Friends” and organizes the festival.
But for real mega fans like Nikolov, the profitability of “Friends” is – as Joey might say – a “moo point”.
“It’s profitable, but not so much. But it’s not about the money, it’s about the love of the show,” he says. “It’s about promoting this great show and keeping it going for a lot longer.”
Given the worldwide diaspora of “Friends” addicts, this is not difficult. “Your eyes are wide open when you see it building,” he said of his clients.
“You notice all the details – the arrows, the board the drinks are on, the shape of the bar, the menus … It’s a great feeling to meet other Friends fans and discuss our favorite scenes.”
“It helped me understand English”
“Friends” taught fans in all parts of the world to laugh and occasionally cry. But it can also claim a particularly unique phenomenon – it taught English to a generation of non-native speakers.
“It helped me a lot to understand English,” says Nikolov. “You learn real everyday language. When you go to school you may learn the right grammar to pronounce – but (on ‘Friends’) they speak real language, real street language, ”he said.
“If you understand every word on it, you will be able to speak the language,” he adds.
“When I became a huge fan, I looked at it hundreds of times and if I didn’t understand something I Googled it. I know it word for word now.”
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp is among those who say they honed their English by watching the six man’s romantic mishaps.
“Many of my non-native English friends told me it helped a lot,” added Dutta Shibalika, a Friends fan in Kolkata, India, where the show has continued to be popular.
“I used to watch with subtitles. It helped me a lot to understand the dialogues, ”added Shivesh Chauhan from Bangalore in southern India.
Melissa Baese-Berk, associate professor of linguistics and director of the second language learning and teaching program at the University of Oregon, previously told CNN that the show meets three key criteria for teaching English – it’s engaging, it has subtitles and its storylines about life as well the love of its six stars repeats itself enough to allow viewers to easily follow.
And it gave countless viewers a very special, relaxed language training.
“The script supervisor put some of those ‘ums’ and ‘bugs’ in because the actors said that,” Stephens recalls. “You tried to put the actors’ cadence in the script.”
He added, “(The show) kind of had its own language – that kind of casualness in the cafe that was just coming into society.”
Almost two decades later, people around the world still speak the language of “friends”. And this week they had the chance to listen to the six actors again.
Many fans indulge in the journey into the past.
“I just thought it was really well done, a really nice mix of nostalgia and emotion, and it was great to see that they were all so genuinely touched when they met again,” said Cribb, the podcast host.
“Our podcast listeners really loved it based on the news we received.”
And for some it came after 17 years of yearning for fresh material.
“I really wanted to have something new, and when I looked at it, I knew it was it. It really is,” says Nikolov. “And now I have nothing.”
But to those involved in the show, the global shock it is causing – even in 2021 – is no surprise.
“There’s a cross-generational affiliation that has taken advantage of the show,” says Stevens. “I think everyone on the show is moved by how badly it hit a nerve,” he adds.
“It is nice.”