In the late 90s, viewers in the United States and around the world spent countless hours watching the cult sitcom Friends. This year it turns 30 years old, but you can still find those who relive the lives of six young people who make friends, fall in love, and build careers in Manhattan episode after episode.

The first episode of the Friends sitcom was aired on September 22, 1994 on the American TV channel NBC. In total, 10 seasons and 236 episodes have been released, and a whole generation has grown up watching them.

The Friends series has become a pop culture phenomenon, an all-time favorite sitcom, and has received 62 Emmy Award nominations. When in October 2023 Matthew Perry, who played the role of Chandler, died, almost half the world took it as a personal loss.

What is the secret of the show’s success, what is the plot based on, and how did six friends manage to win the hearts of millions?

Set of characters in the show

First, it is worth explaining that sitcom is a situational comedy in which several regular characters act in an environment that practically does not change. A distinctive feature of this genre is off-screen laughter, which is recorded during the filming or superimposed separately.

The plot of the sitcom Friends centers on three young men and three women. They live in Manhattan, share apartments with friends, gather on a couch at the Central Perk coffee shop, and learn to live an adult life.

30 years of Friends: how the cult sitcom conquered generations

Rachel Green

Jennifer Aniston’s character is a spoiled daddy’s girl who didn’t know where her money came from until she ran away from the wedding. She moved in with her school friend Monica and started working and looking for herself for the first time.

30 years of Friends: how the cult sitcom conquered generations

Monica Geller

The heroine Courtney Cox is Ross’s younger sister, who was fat as a child. She is very organized, has a thing for cleanliness and order, and loves to gamble.

30 years of Friends: how the cult sitcom conquered generations

Phoebe Buffay

Liza Kudrow’s character. A girl with a strange family and past. She works as a masseuse and sings extravagant songs, such as “Smelly Cat.”

30 years of Friends: how the cult sitcom conquered generations

Ross Geller

David Schwimmer’s hero. He is a paleontologist with a PhD. He divorced his wife, who left him for another woman. He likes to brag about his work, which annoys others: 

– Last week you thought Ross was going to kill you.

– I’m sorry, but it was impossible to believe that he was telling such a boring story just to tell it.

30 years of Friends: how the cult sitcom conquered generations

Chandler Bing

Matthew Perry’s character. Ross’s best friend from his student days who “makes jokes when he’s uncomfortable.” For a long time, he worked as a clerk in the statistics department, but later started building a career in an advertising company.

30 years of Friends: how the cult sitcom conquered generations

Joey Tribbiani

Matt Le Blanc’s character. He is a poor, uneducated, naive actor who is constantly looking for work. Joey “doesn’t share his food” and is popular with women. 

It took the producers about six months to develop the characters. They shuffled them between the actors, and each took the character they felt closest to. For example, the role of Monica was initially prepared for Jennifer Aniston, and Rachel was to be played by Courteney Cox.

The first season was filmed at the Warner Bros. studio in California. Interestingly, NBC executives were worried that the interior of the coffee shop depicted on the screen was too “trendy” and asked to place the series in a diner. But in the end, they agreed to the coffee shop concept.  

Each 22-minute episode took six hours to film, which is twice as long as most sitcom recordings. The live audience was an integral part of the series.

Often the situations covered in the series may seem idiotic at first glance. This is understandable, since only Ross could shine with intelligence there, and moreover, he often became the object of ridicule.

However, a detailed analysis reveals that the scriptwriters have done a good job of studying human psychology. They actualized the problems of the younger generation of the 90s and presented them with humor and ease. 

The sitcom became a hit almost immediately: the first season was watched by 30.2 million viewers, and the last season, which aired on September 22, 1994, by 52 million.

The secret to success is several factors

The producers identified young-adults as the target audience for the Friends series, and they were right. The writers literally hit every problem they care about: friendship, career, love, sex, marriage, relationships with parents, and even paying for utilities. Each episode of Friends ends with a life lesson.

30 years of Friends: how the cult sitcom conquered generations

In general, many psychologists have studied the cultural impact of a sitcom. They have determined that there are several reasons for the sitcom’s enormous popularity:

  • The urgency of the problems — Americans learned to live alongside the heroes and faced similar, often trivial, situations and problems in everyday life;
  • Emotional attachment to the characters — the audience often associated themselves with some of the characters, found their traits in themselves or considered them their friends;
  • Fashion The characters were simply fashion icons of the 90s, especially Rachel Green. For example, the haircut she wore in the first two seasons of the series was copied by girls around the world. Later, it was even named after the character. In terms of style, Friends showcased the best of the era: blazers, dresses, denim, turtlenecks, dad’s sneakers and platform flip-flops;
  • A way to ignore stress — immersing themselves in a 22-minute episode, viewers could escape from reality and feel how the characters live their lives;
  • Iconic song I’ll be there for you, was written by the duo The Rembrandts especially for the sitcom. When you hear it, you can’t help but think of Friends, and then you can’t get it out of your head for a while. 

The airtime also played a role. From the very first episodes, the sitcom was broadcast at 20:30, between two NBC hits, Seinfeld and Crazy for You. The popular neighbors helped give the newcomer a good start. 

The sitcom’s famous guests, who periodically appeared in different episodes, also made their mark on the show. Brad Pitt, Danny DeVito, Kristin Davis, Alec Baldwin, Winona Ryder, and many others have appeared there.

The influence of Friends could be seen in a number of shows that followed. For example, How I Met Your Mother and The Big Bang Theory used a similar format. And the Central Perk coffee shop, one of the main locations of the series, has inspired various imitations around the world.

The first reviews of the series were mixed, but became increasingly positive as it developed. Critics have praised the series for its consistently sharp writing and the chemistry between the main actors. The stories were called “original and innovative” and the jokes “will make you laugh out loud several times in each episode.”

Revenues from the Friends sitcom

Forbes estimated the total revenue of Friends since its debut on television in 1994 at $1.4 billion. Of this amount, almost $816 million was shared by the six stars – about $136 million each.

30 years of Friends: how the cult sitcom conquered generations

Sandwiched between the aforementioned series, the sitcom earned $25 million a night. Each episode had 23 million viewers.

The actors’ incomes gradually increased from a modest $22,500 per episode in the first season to $1 million per episode in the last two years. This made Aniston, Cox and Kudrow the highest paid actresses of the time.