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TV friendship before ‘Friends’

"Friends" was only the latest sitcom to attempt to define friendship. By Wendell Wittler.
/ Source: contributor

For as long as situation comedies have peppered the TV landscape, they have tried to define friendship. Many earlier comedies featured two best friends: Ralph and Ed on "The Honeymooners", Lucy and Ethel on "I Love Lucy", Dobie and Maynard on "Dobie Gillis." In fact, Lucille Ball's on-screen friendship with Vivian Vance lasted longer than her on-screen marriage with Desi Arnaz; Viv co-starred on the post-divorce "The Lucy Show."

Much of the 1960s were dominated by family sitcoms, but friendships were born among the juvenile actors on shows like "Leave It to Beaver" and "Dennis the Menace" that foreshadowed future adult sitcom relationships. Did Dennis' pal Joey grow up to be Jerry's pal George? For a while, the best friends on sitcoms were a man and his talking horse ("Mister Ed"), an earthling and a martian ("My Favorite Martian") and two astronauts trying to hide a female genie ("I Dream of Jeannie").

As workplace comedies evolved, so did sitcom friendships, finally breaking away from the two best friends model to more complex relationships, whether in the pressure-cooker environment of war ("M*A*S*H"), the streets of New York ("Taxi") or a radio station in Cincinnati ("WKRP"). In fact, that evolution occurred right before our eyes on "M*A*S*H", which began with Hawkeye & Trapper John facing off against Frank Burns & Hot Lips. Time and well-handled cast changes resulted in all the characters in the 4077th becoming comrades in arms by the end of the series (which did last longer than the real-life Korean War).

The issue of minimally-compatible friends being forced into close quarters was addressed, by way of Broadway and later TV, on "The Odd Couple." One friendship-based comedy that overcame an unlikely premise was the cross-dressing "Bosom Buddies," but then it's hard to criticize anything Tom Hanks has done. But since Lucy and Ethel, there has been such a dearth of female buddy comedies that the most successful one, "Laverne and Shirley" had to time-warp back to the '50s.

Mary Tyler Moore's eponymous series tried to balance her relationships at work and at home, but her closest non-work friends, Rhoda and Phyillis, were torn away from her by one of TV's most destructive forces — the spin-off. "Cheers", while based in an automatically social location "where everybody knows your name," always seemed to display a more superficial kind of friendship. As classic as the characters of Norm and Cliff are, together they were no Ralph and Ed.

Friendships about nothing?Finally, Jerry Seinfeld made a breakthrough by focusing on his central character and three decidedly different relationships: childhood friend George, ex-girlfriend Elaine and wacky neighbor Kramer.

It became a template for other shows: Drew Carey and his three friends were "Seinfeld in Cleveland" (at least until comic enemy Mimi stole the show), Ellen Degeneres and her friends were 'sex-changed Seinfeld', and even "Friends" was originally defined by some as "Seinfeld without the stand-up and with more Elaines."

"Friends" itself has become a new template for a short-lived generation of sitcoms. Even before the romantic relationships between Ross and Rachel and Chandler and Monica took off, this interlocking group of six characters seemed more than just friends — they reflected a quasi-family unit that some analysts call the urban tribe.

Yet the inevitable flock of Friends' clones were almost universally failures: in "Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place", the best performance was by the Pizza Place. The only success is the show occasionally labeled "high school Friends": "That '70s Show" (and yes, one could imagine Kelso growing up to be Joey). But "'70s" also owed some of its pedigree to past teen comedies, from "Happy Days" to "What's Happening!" to "Saved by the Bell," all of which built multi-friend networks when sitcom adults were usually limited to one best friend each.

One kind of friendship TV comedy has had a special problem dealing with is the platonic male-female friendship. Sexual tension has been such an omnipresent problem that even Jerry and Elaine became "lovers of convenience" on one episode of "Seinfeld."

However, in the odd sub-genre of live-action sitcoms targeted at kids, the teen or pre-teen star having a best friend of the opposite sex is surprisingly common, and the rise of raging hormones are either totally ignored or dismissed, like on "The Adventures of Pete and Pete" where Big Pete explains his relationship with a girl named Ellen: "She's a girl and she's a friend, but she's not a girlfriend." In prime time, they have finally found a solution to the sexual tension problem: "Will and Grace."

But if you're looking for more new insights into friendship from TV sitcoms today, don't bother. The pendulum has swung back to dominantly family-centered shows, and for that trend, Everybody Blames Raymond.

is the online alias of a freelance writer from Southern California.