Friends moments that make us cringe today

A smash hit and cultural phenomenon when it first aired, there had never been (and probably never will be) a sitcom quite like Friends. The funny, charming series concerned six, well, friends, living and loving in New York City. Joey, Monica, Chandler, Rachel, Phoebe, and Ross entered the TV canon with their often relatable adventures, not to mention their indelible catchphrases (especially “We were on a break!” and “How you doin?”), as well as Jennifer Aniston’s inescapable haircut, “the Rachel.”

Friends still draws big audiences in syndicated reruns and on Netflix, despite it often feeling like a time capsule of the era of its original run from 1994 to 2004. Ten years is a lengthy spell, and in exploring the lives of six main characters in that period, Friends didn’t always produce universal, timeless comedy gold. Some of its plots and bits have aged very poorly, as things that were funny or acceptable 20-odd years ago just seem uncomfortable in the present day. Here are some of the most awkward, cringeworthy moments from Friends.

Six dorks in a fountain on Friends

As fresh and different as Friends may have felt upon its premiere in 1994 — a sitcom about cool young people was a nice alternative to treacly family shows — it’s still a product of its time. Like almost every other comedy of the ’80s and early ’90s, it used a braying laugh track and was shot on an unrealistic-looking sound stage, not unlike Family Matters or Home Improvement. Also like its contemporaries, Friends featured a cheesy opening credits sequence set to a corny song. In fact, Friends‘ thesis is best expressed with a line from Courteney Cox’s Monica in the pilot episode: “Welcome to the real world. It sucks. You’re gonna love it!” 

That cautious cynicism clashes with the beginning of each episode, in which the six friends — seemingly jacked up on sugar, caffeine, or something stronger — maniacally dance, frolic, and mug for the camera in an outdoor fountain. What adult would do this, especially, as is the case with Ross and Monica, with their fellow grown-up sibling? Making it all even weirder is the Friends theme song, the Rembrandts’ “I’ll Be There for You.” It features such ham-fisted couplets as “I’ll be there for you / when the rain starts to pour” and “I’ll be there for you / like I’ve been there before.” Yikes.

Ross must be 'on a break' from not having fragile masculinity

The 2010s are no longer the “macho man” era. Men are expected to be more sensitive, while acting like a tough guy with a narrow conception of manliness is not as hip as it once was. From that cultural viewpoint, the behavior of David Schwimmer’s Ross Geller on Friends is shocking. 

On several occasions, the paleontologist aggressively pushes his idea of maleness on others, demonstrating that his own masculinity is ever so fragile. Ross freaks out when his toddler son, Ben, wants to play with a Barbie doll, and devotes a ton of energy to getting the kid to play with so-called “boy” toys, like trucks and dinosaurs, instead. Another time, Joey (Matt LeBlanc) parades around with his $350 leather tote — just a regular messenger bag millions of guys now carry — and explains there’s a spot for his wallet, keys, address book, and, as Ross quips, his “makeup.” (Ah, because it’s like a purse … which are only for women?) Joey later explains he’s going to take it to an acting audition. “What’s the part,” Ross asks, “Auntie Mame?” Ha. And then there’s “The One with the Male Nanny,” where Ross is openly hostile to Sandy (Freddie Prinze Jr.), a terrific childcare provider, because he has a job traditionally held by a woman. Come on, Ross.

The one where an assault is framed as infidelity

In Season 1, Rachel’s hunky Italian boyfriend, Paolo, is introduced almost exclusively as a romantic rival to Ross — someone the lovelorn-for-Rachel paleontologist (as well as the audience) can loathe and resent because he gets in the way of what’s obviously the true love/endgame of Ross and Rachel. Friends writers present Paolo as a very sexual, open-with-his-body, sensual kind of guy, and he crosses the line when he “[makes] a pass” at Phoebe. Rachel summons the strength to dump Paolo, because she refuses to be cheated on. 

That’s all well and good, but what Paolo did went way beyond an act of infidelity. The incident went down when Paolo went to see Phoebe at work for a massage. He drops his bathrobe almost immediately, exposing himself to her. Phoebe gets him to cover up, and proceeds with the massage, during which time Paolo strokes her leg and grabs her rear-end with both hands, and then rolls over to once again expose himself. This is all presented as comedy, when really, it’s sexual assault.

They're hip, they're cool, they like … Hootie & the Blowfish?

It’s hard to explain to someone not yet or barely born in 1995 what it was like. Rather than Netflix binge a whole season of Friends in one sitting, fans had to wait until each Thursday night for just one installment. Similarly, there were so subscription music streaming services, so if you liked a band, you had to drop about $15 on their compact disc. In the mid-’90s, around seven million people so loved Hootie & the Blowfish that they purchased Cracked Rear View, an album of country-laced, fratty dad-rock. 

Hootie was a flash-in-the-pan of the highest order, and the band serves as a painfully dated reference in the ’95 Friends episode, “The One with Five Steaks and and Eggplant,” when the gang gets ridiculously excited about attending one of the group’s concerts. Hootie & the Blowfish was a popular band, but it never enjoyed the cred or critical acclaim of contemporaries like Pavement or Pearl Jam … which are the kinds of bands the friends on Friends probably should’ve been listening to.

Why are these Friends so mean to Ugly Naked Guy?

One of the best parts of friend circles are inside jokes, and one of the best parts of city living is observing and interacting with its many quirky local characters. Those two concepts realistically converge in one of Friends‘ best-remembered running jokes: the saga of “Ugly Naked Guy.” 

As Friends ran on network TV, viewers never fully caught a glimpse of Ugly Naked Guy: Rather, he lives in a building across the way from Monica and Rachel’s apartment, and the whole group gathers at the window to see what the unattractive, unclothed man is getting up to. Granted, the guy apparently doesn’t use curtains, but it’s his business to do what he wants to do in the privacy of his own home, and for UNG, that means using his Thighmaster, dancing, or making Thanksgiving dinner in the buff. But for some reason, six conventionally good-looking people get their kicks off mocking him — nicknaming him the truly mean “Ugly Naked Guy,” for example. 

The Central Perk gang are essentially peeping toms and smug bullies all rolled into one, and there’s no way this would be acceptable on TV in the 2010s.

Could the jokes about Chandler's transgender parent BE any more offensive?

Up until literally the last five years or so, “gender-bending” was unfortunately an acceptable and common source of humor in mainstream entertainment. A man dressed as a woman? Um, funny! A transgender person who identified as a woman but still exhibited traditional male characteristics? Well, that was apparently downright hilarious. Oy. Also supposedly humorous for some reason once upon a time? Anyone who fell under the LGBTQ+ umbrella, particularly stereotypical portrayals of gay men as lisping, mincing, overdramatic “queens.” The ’90s and early 2000s were the Stone Age as far as sensitivity to gender and sexual identity went, and Friends has a character that seems, in retrospect, extraordinarily insensitive. 

The parents of Matthew Perry’s Chandler divorced when he was young, in part because dad Charles Bing had a same-sex affair with the pool boy and embarked on a life as a gay man. Flash forward to Season 7, when Chandler reconnects with his father, now starring in a Las Vegas drag revue called Viva Las Gaygas (ugh) under the stage name “Helena Handbasket” (double ugh). And starring as Chandler’s parent: deep-voiced female actor Kathleen Turner, who later told the Gay Times of Friends and some of its depictions of queer and trans people, “I don’t think it’s aged well.”

Monica learns an important lesson while her credit gets ruined

The internet was a relatively nascent thing when Friends premiered in 1994, largely accessed through regulated portals like America Online or CompuServe. Going online is a regular part of life now (obviously), and with that comes an awareness about the possibility of identity theft. Companies leak private data like Social Security numbers or credit card info all the time, which can easily upend thousands of lives. It’s an extremely sickening and scary thought at the time of this writing in 2019, but back in 1995, identity theft was the wacky impetus behind a Friends first-season episode called “The One with the Fake Monica.”

Monica goes over her credit card statement and finds a bunch of charges she didn’t make for exciting things like dance classes and decides not to cancel her card, but instead to stalk — and then befriend — the woman posing as Monica Geller. Sure, make pals with the lady intent on destroying your life. Ultimately, this fake Monica goes to prison for her crimes, but not before imparting on real Monica the notion of living life to the fullest and taking chances. That’s the lesson she gets out of this?

The one where Monica dates a teenage virgin

For readers working their way through the entirety of Friends and haven’t yet finished yet, spoiler alert: Monica winds up with Chandler. But before that crucial pairing is locked down, Monica dates a lot of guys, the way a woman in her twenties is wont to do. 

One of her boyfriends is Ethan, a man younger than Monica, who is in her mid-twenties at the time. How much younger? Well, he tells Monica he’s a senior, which she takes to mean “senior in college.” Ethan also reveals that he’s a virgin, but after they sleep together for the first time (as in his actual first time), he admits he’s not a senior in college, but in high school. Having enjoyed an encounter that would make her “a felon in 48 states,” it’s no wonder this Monica-centered episode was called “The One with the Ick Factor.”

Chandler catfishes a lady before it's even a thing

Chandler is famously awkward with women, but in the episode, “The One with Five Steaks and an Eggplant,” he gets over a dry spell via some elaborate manipulation and trickery of an emotionally vulnerable woman. After receiving an answering machine message from a woman named Jade, who’s looking to reconnect with a guy named Bob, Chandler picks up the phone and pretends to be the man in question. Jade mentions she’s an aerobics instructor and leg model, and Chandler (as Bob) asks her to meet him at Central Perk. His plan, as he reveals to Ross: He’ll lurk in the shadows and offer comfort to Jade when Bob doesn’t show up, and then go home with her. This is all despicable, and to his credit, Ross calls Chandler’s ploy “pure evil,” but to Chandler, that’s preferable to being “horny and alone.” Wow.

Indeed, the meeting goes according to plan. Chandler spots Jade at Central Perk looking sad and swoops in. Later on, back at his apartment, Chandler tells Ross he just bedded Jade, and that he was so good she had to bite her lip “to stop from screaming.” Then the phone rings, Chandler answers as Bob, Jade tells him off for standing her up, and also lets him know that she had to bite her lip to stop from screaming … Bob’s name. Chandler is humiliated, which is hardly enough punishment for his creepy, if not criminal, behavior.

The friends on Friends try to sabotage an alcoholic's sobriety

While they live in the Big Apple, the situations explored on Friends are generally innocuous and insular. The six pals deal with awkward romantic situations, unfulfilling work prospects, and their interactions with one another. But on the rare occasion that the Central Perk crew does interfere with someone not in their special little clique, the results can be disastrous and misanthropic. 

For example, there’s the one where Monica dates a gregarious guy named “Fun Bobby.” The gang loves the guy … but then realize that the reason Fun Bobby is so “fun” is because he’s a heavy drinker, if not an alcoholic. The good news: Fun Bobby quits drinking. The bad news: Without booze to fuel him, he becomes very dull, and Chandler rebrands him as “Ridiculously Dull Bobby.” Monica packs a bunch of booze for a weekend trip with the guy so as to anesthetize herself against what looks to be an incredibly boring time, only for Bobby to dump her in order to focus on his recovery. In summary, the Friends gang mocks an alcoholic who tries to get sober. (Of course this nastiness is all relative, because this also sounds like the plot of a great episode of Seinfeld.)

Rachel should have stayed on the plane during Friends' finale

The story of Friends ultimately becomes the love story of Ross and Rachel. Viewers learn that Ross has had a crush on Rachel, his sister’s best friend, since they were in high school, and they’re romance veers between on and off multiple times over the course of the series. Ross and Rachel even have a daughter together, but still can’t decide whether or not they’re meant to be. That’s okay, because they clearly want different things.

Friends, one could argue, is really the story of Rachel. In the show’s initial episodes, she flees her wedding, moves in with Monica, and gets her first job as a waitress at Central Perk. By the end of Season 10, she’s advanced so far in the world of fashion that Louis Vuitton offers her a great job in Paris. That’s a happy ending for Rachel … but one that doesn’t resolve the “will they or won’t they” with Ross in an audience-satisfying way. And so, Rachel heads to the airport, a finally ready-to-commit Ross pours his heart out, and he’s left heartbroken when she chooses Paris over him. But then she shows up at his door, revealing that she “got off the plane.” 

Basically, Rachel gives up her dream job for what looks to be more relationship drama with Ross. That’s not exactly a “woke” decision from a 2019 perspective, especially since Ross could have easily followed her to Europe.

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