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October 9, 2015

TV 101: How Friends caused the current financial crisis (OR: Say it ain't so, Joe the Actor)

by Jay Black, posted Nov 12th 2008 2:06PM
That bed cost $18,000.If you haven't heard, the country is in a recession and things are getting bad. I spend every afternoon watching CNBC and weeping. My father, who deals in real estate, calls me every night just to scream and babble incoherently. My wife splits her time between loading up the Model T to head out west Californee-way and burning our quarterly financial statements for warmth.

We're on an economic roller coaster right now, and I don't mean a reputable roller coaster like at Six Flags. We're talking one of those death-trap coasters that even the carnies won't ride. The depressing thing is that the whole bag of crap we're in right now just seemed to come out of nowhere, like the last season of Roseanne. How did we get here? Why is this all happening now?

You might be tempted to blame the usual suspects: the president, the congress, the Stone-Cutters. But you'd be wrong. The real culprit behind this whole problems is Friends.

First, a little economic history (and before your start criticizing the accuracy of this information, please understand that I spent three months as an Economics major at a New Jersey state school, so I think it's pretty obvious I know what I'm talking about).

Some time during the late nineties, our economy, built for much of the last twenty years on the shaky foundation of credit-fueled consumer spending, accelerated from light-speed to ludicrous speed:

-- Families that were stretched thin financially in a 2000 square foot house suddenly, inexplicably, decided that they needed a 5000 square foot McMansion.

-- Part-time adult book store booth-scrubbers were given eleven million dollar mortgages.

-- A college student would, by his 19th birthday, own, on average, sixty iPods, twenty-two MacBooks, and three Mac Pros.

-- It was commonplace by 2005 for the standard four bedroom family home to have a basement completely covered in fur.

And the list goes on.

To fund this spending, banks set up increasingly easy-to-obtain credit. The requirements for a line of credit went from "having a steady job and a good credit history" to "the ability to sign your name" to "having DNA." Some banks went so far as to give everyone who opened a new account a million dollar adjustable rate mortgage.

The money flew in just about the time the sense flew out.

Getting stupid stuff we don't need with money that we don't have is as American as buying a $40 Martha Stewart branded apple pie. As the late 90s became the early 00's, however, we took this idea to its final, most ridiculous extreme.

The great big American balloon is now deflating faster than the ratings for Heroes.

There are probably several reasons why all these terrible things happened. Those of you who studied economics for longer than three months at a slightly more respectable school will probably post something about (anyone?) something d-o-o economics ..."Voodoo" economics that I won't understand (but will read out loud in a Ben Stein voice ). Those of you who studied politics will call me a typical lefty elitist (or a right-wing tool), talk about why this is all your least favorite politician's fault, then fall into a boring argument with people who have differing views.

Since I only really understand pop culture, I'm going to put it in terms that make sense to me: Friends caused the current financial crisis because it sent the message to impressionable young Americans that you can lead an upper-Middle class lifestyle without having any visible means of income.

It was by following Friends' example that led the people of my generation to purchase sixty thousand dollars' worth of Sharper Image electric CD organizers with our credit cards even though we were still working at the milk-bottle booth on a Jersey Shore boardwalk. Or, more to the point, led us to buy houses we couldn't afford with money we didn't have.

It's right about now that you'll start screaming at me. "But Jay! TV is an idealized reflection of our lives. It doesn't show us the bad things! It's a magical land where good looking people don't worry about things like money (like the parties, Jay, you were never invited to in high school). How can you blame Friends for something that every TV show does?"

I would argue that, at least where money was concerned, the TV of the '60s, '70s, and '80s, dealt with the idea of class and the restrictions of having very little money in a much more realistic way than did the free spenders on Friends. It was a simple equation on those shows: if you had money, you could do certain things, if you didn't, you couldn't. There was a reason why the set of All in the Family looked so much different than the set of the Jeffersons -- George Jefferson was rich, Archie Bunker wasn't.

Even the lily white suburban Pleasantville-type shows of the 50s at least gave explanations for why their characters lived so much better than you did. All the fathers wore really sharp grey sack suits and went and worked in places that looked like the offices of Sterling Cooper. The money came from somewhere.

Now, let's think about Friends.

In the early years of the show, Monica is a barely-working chef and Rachel is a coffee shop waitress. Joey is an out of work actor. Phoebe is essentially a crazy bag lady. They're typical 20-somethings just coming up in the world, trying to make it in New York City. Their apartments, clothes, and attitudes toward money should remind us of Lucky Louie or Good Times.

Instead, they live in apartments that would cost, without resorting to hyperbole, four hundred quadrillion dollars per month. They don't just wear nice clothes, they're fashion trendsetters. They do things no normal people in their 20s would do (seriously, if one of your friends tried to get you to come to a destination wedding in England, like Ross did in the fourth season, you'd punch them repeatedly in the face, wouldn't you?)

Though money issues were touched on briefly in the show's very early going -- I'm thinking about the episode where they go to a restaurant that's out of the price range of some of them -- by the end of the second season the characters on Friends treated money with the same half-hearted magical realism of The Simpsons: it always seemed to appear when it was needed, and then it was never worried about again.

Just like -- wait for it -- the $800 billion Wall Street bailout. If that isn't cartoon money, I don't know what is. (Did you hear that? That was my "Webby award for most insane leap of logic on a blog" being engraved).

Even if you could prove that Friends wasn't the first show to ignore the incongruity between what its characters earned and what they were able to purchase, you'd have to admit it was certainly the most influential.

For those of us born in the '70s -- the people, incidentally, most at fault for all the stupid spending of the last ten years -- Friends was a defining show of our generation. It was a big, bright, contemporary show about twenty-somethings that we watched just as we were entering our twenties. Further, with the divorce rate in the '80s running at something like 113%, and our parents ignoring us in favor of their Jane Fonda Betamax aerobics tapes, we were abandoned in front of the TV earlier and with more vigor than any generation up to that point. Our brains were therefore soft and receptive to the message Friends was sending us.

And that message? No matter what your income, you can live an upper-middle class lifestyle. Where does the money come from? Who cares, let's listen to the Rembrandts!

Is it any wonder that we're in the mess we're in right now?


Just a brief note: TV 101 in its previous incarnation was a column that I wrote with the same regularity as a pre-oatmeal eating Wilford Brimley. That is to say, not very regular at all.

Joel Keller, our fearless leader and tough but fair disciplinarian (he spanks, but never hard enough to make me cry), asked me to revive the column on a semi-monthly basis. His innovative use of forward thinking Web 2.0 philosophies like "deadlines" and "getting things done when you say you will" and also "finishing columns by a certain time and date" have inspired me to undo the previous irregularity of the old column. Look for these adventures in strained (but hopefully interesting) logic to appear every other Wednesday starting today.

(Jay Black is writer and comedian who spends much of his time devoted to perfecting his home-built artificial hearts. If you're inclined to see him perform live, check out his website www.jayblackcomedy.com.)

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Ugh, I'm reminded of when friends of mine have said to me, when I declined to buy something, "But you DESERVE it!" I think I deserve more to be debt-free. And I am, which is a damn good thing because I (and my entire company) got laid off last month in a corporate takeover. I'm not freaked out like my colleagues are because I have no debts.

November 17 2008 at 1:15 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply


November 17 2008 at 12:51 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

really great post! one of the best on tv squad in a while i would say.

remember when monica bought the $600 boots that she couldn't walk in and Chandler made her throw them out....

November 13 2008 at 10:25 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

All too true. Americans have been living such a hedonistic lifestyle for so long, basically because we thought we were 'entitled to', and a lot of that thinking came from shows like Friends.

November 13 2008 at 10:03 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Everyone knew, at some level this was coming. Everyone has credit cards, everyone knows the temptations, everyone has the mentality to buy now and worry about it later, the interest rates are so low, who cares.

The majority of americans have overextended themselves in one way or another. Even the sensible ones, who have decent jobs and reasonable mortgage, are still counting on keeping said job. Now they too have to suffer, because those who took idiotic loans cannot pay back. The people giving the loans are also the culprits, but so is our greed and extreme optimism.

So we all knew this was coming, especially when you watch oprah and see a myriad of housewives balling on TV cause they owe $10,000 in credit card debt and cant afford to pay the car or mortgage payments.

I wish Oprah would bail us all out.

November 13 2008 at 1:35 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Now that I don't have a job and am living in the current financial crisis, I sit at home all day and watch my Friends DVDs:-)

November 12 2008 at 10:12 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Gordon Boddington

Spot on. I'm a social worker and when we talk about generational poverty and the corrupt media, we talk about just the things you mentioned.

November 12 2008 at 7:37 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

And as for whoever had friends who moved to NYC because of Friends/SITC

...your friends are idiots!

November 12 2008 at 6:00 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Some of this has been said already, but I'm gonna say it again.

Monica & Rachel lived in an apt inherited from Mon's Grandmother (Great-Aunt?), and as such it was still (illegally) subject to the Rent Control Act of 1932 (or some year like that), meaning they were still paying rent @ 1960s levels.

Chandler had a well-paying job and footed the bill often for Joey

Ross had a PHD and therefore could afford a great place

Plus there's a whole episode celebrating the tension that wage disparity amongst friends can create...

In short... try again!

November 12 2008 at 5:42 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Sancty's comment

The rent control explains Monica's apartment, but Chandler and Joey's apartment did not have that as far as the show said. New York City apartments are EXPENSIVE, so even though Chandler was settled in a steady paying job, what he was doing in the beginning most definitely couldn't have paid for that apartment, much less often covering the rent for him AND Joey. This blog exaggerates, of course, but i did read an article a while back that analyzed the cost of TV homes/apartments, and their Village apartments would have been in the neighborhood of five grand a month at least.

November 13 2008 at 9:53 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

At the risk of sounding sexist, but I personally know about a half-dozen young women who moved to NYC, mainly because I know they were influenced by Friends and Sex and the City.

November 12 2008 at 4:46 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Franklin's comment

No, Scotty, you're not being sexist (girl, btw). I'm guilty of being seduced by the NYC charm, but I know the difference between reality and fantasy. The few people that I know who actually lived in NYC laugh when they see TV shows like "Friends" and "Sex in the City." They know how unrealistic they really are.

November 12 2008 at 4:53 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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