Evolution Of The Sitcom: How Friends Invented The Hangout Comedy

September 22, 2014

Twenty years ago today Friends debuted with a pilot that might as well have been called “The One Where that Show Became the Biggest Thing on the Planet.” It’s crazy to think that it’s been two decades since Rachel first moved in with Monica, and a lot has happened since. The TV landscape that Friends was born into was a very different place from the one we live in now.

Sitcoms were still almost exclusive to the broadcast networks—the Big Three and FOX, which was just graduating from experimental outlier to mainstream juggernaut. Sitcoms themselves were barely recognizable from the form they take today. For half-hour comedies (and really, all media), 1994 was the calm before the storm, a gray area where old met new and when everything was about to change. And it was Friends that sat right in that gray space, on a leather couch with an oversized cup of Central Perk coffee.

Sitting on that precipice of twenty-first century entertainment, Friends represented both the old and the new. It was old in that on its surface it seemed like every other sitcom that graced the airwaves for thirty years previous—multi-camera and backed by a small-screen Greek chorus: the studio audience. Though it wasn’t just another brick in the wall—it was the top of the heap, occupying the same throne once ruled by Cheers and I Love Lucy. It was one of the last Nielsen megahits, before Internet and smartphones and digital cable divided ratings into smaller and smaller pieces of the pie, a water cooler show when everybody at the water cooler still actually watched the same show.

But Friends was also something new, something different a generation that had grown up on sitcoms hadn’t seen before. Friends introduced the modern hangout comedy. Now, hangout comedy is a loose term, a subgenre of sitcoms. Since the dawn of television, almost any sitcom to date can be classified in one of three categories: family comedy, workplace comedy, or friends comedy. Go ahead, try to think of a show that doesn’t fall into at least one of those three genres. Can’t do it, right? Obviously Friends belongs in the latter category, but it also introduced something more specific, something generational.

Unlike Cheers (which was more friends than workplace) or The Golden Girls, Friends allowed viewers to watch a bunch of goodlooking twentysomethings literally hang out (and one got the feeling that the screenwriters were doing the same). Just chill. Shoot the shit while sitting in a café, bouncing snappy sarcastic one-liners off and occasionally having sex with one another. Even more revolutionary, while previous sitcoms had you sit and watch these characters, Friends made it feel like you were there in the coffee shop hanging out with them, something a show could only get away with once enough of the key demographic had actually grown up with TV. It was the next logical step for the entire medium, and it was Ross, Rachel, Chandler, Monica, Phoebe and Joey that took that step.

Obviously it worked, because the show became such a phenomenon. Like any hit show, every network tried to replicate its success by directly copying the idea with new pilots. Friends suddenly occupied the same TV listings as shows like The Single Guy and Caroline in the City, both of which might as well have been titled Other Friends. Most of these shows fizzled as these attempts to recapture lightning in a bottle tend to, but the hangout comedy did become its own tried and true subgenre, finding another hit a few years later in Will & Grace and existing today in the recently departed but critically adored Happy Endings and the very much alive New Girl, among others. But while shockwaves of Friends’ explosive debut still ripple throughout the TV-sphere, twenty years is a long time. Sitcoms today are different in many ways, catering to people who grew up watching TV and made for people who grew up watching TV. Today, half-hour comedies are edgier, more meta, sometimes not even a half-hour. And most of them, unlike Friends or its contemporaries, are single-camera.

Come back tomorrow to read the second part in this series charting the evolution of the sitcom.