Friends – or, to use its proper stylisation, F.R.I.E.N.D.S – was a cultural phenomenon so powerful that a decade after its launch thousands gathered in parks across New York to watch the finale on big screens. The show, which ran for ten seasons, featured six quirky friends who acted as mirrors for your own gaggle of pals and associates. Stupidity, sarcasm, anxiety, ditziness, paranoia, affability. These are the Friends, your friends, all of our friends. Friends.
I never really got Friends. To me it was just a TV show with some OK jokes. I imagine, when it comes down to it, that's what it was for most people. So I didn't really understand the logic of FriendsFest – an exhibition on East London's Brick Lane featuring real-life recreations of the apartments and coffee shops that Ross, Rachel, Bilbo, Mr Floppy, Trev-Trev and Marmalade used to frequent, like an IKEA that had suddenly been deserted sometime in the mid-90s.
I went down to talk to some friends, people, lovers, cohorts – I lie, they were all strangers – to find out what all the fuss is about.
VICE: What brought you here?
Becky: We are massive Friends fans.
I see. When did you first start watching it?
Florence: I dunno.
Becky: I think I started watching it in 2004 when it ended. That's when I got into it because it was the whole hype about the ending, so I started watching it.
What do you like so much about it?
Becky: It's timeless and it's relatable because they do actual things!
Florence: It's kind of the dream New York apartment.
So did you all start watching it after it had finished?
Jody: But it started in '94, didn't it? So we were kind of 0 [years old].
One thing I've noticed is that there are an obscene amount of women here, they probably outnumber men by 10 to 1. Why do you think that is?
Becky: I have no idea, it's just funny. I don't view it as such a manly thing, but I think it would appeal to men. I feel like there are other things you would want to watch if you were a guy.
Florence: I think guys still like Friends but they are not massive, massive fans.
Becky: They would never be like, "Let's get tickets straight away!"
Jody: Yeah, they are not as organised.
So you think it's better than Seinfeld then?
[None of them had seen Seinfeld.]
It was undeniable, the place was absolutely chock-a-block with women. It was what the world would be like if it were exclusively populated by white women in their twenties. I had to find a man among the throng, so I switched my senses to testosterone-seeking mode and found…
VICE: What brought you here?
Ross: Er, a friend.
Yeah, my friend just said, "Do you want to come?" and I was like, "Yeah."
What do you like about Friends?
I just love Friends, I think it's awesome. I just wanted to come and see the sets and this bit [the set of Monica's apartment] is fucking awesome. Oops, sorry I swore!
That's alright. So who is your favourite friend?
Chandler from the start but Joey towards the end. The more stupid he got the better he was.
Like a dog or a murder victim. Which one do you identify with more?
Chandler, probably. The lack of ability to talk to women.
There are quite a lot of women here tonight, why do you think that is?
I think they are better with their friends than guys are with their friends. Whereas blokes would much prefer to go down the pub, girls would rather sit and have a chat.
Too true, mate, too true. Do you not think it's as good as Seinfeld?
Nah, I think it's better than Seinfeld. I mean I love Seinfeld. Seinfeld and George Costanza? Who's one of the greatest TV characters of all time? But yeah, Friends was awesome, it was good for ten years solidly. That's the thing I love about it; there was never a bad season, never a bad episode, it was great.
VICE: So what brings you here?
Alan: Good memories of Friends, watching it on TV.
Did you start watching it when it started?
Alan: No idea, I can't remember what I had for breakfast yesterday!
What do you think of it so far?
Alan: Yeah, I thought it would be more, you know… The coffee shop isn't that great, it's just a couch. I thought it would be more like the set.
What is it about Friends that you identify with?
Dunia: It's just a group of friends hanging out.
Alan: Yeah, it was fun, you know, they had a carefree time, but even in their trials and tribulations, everything seemed to be fun. It was good escapism, I guess, and it was funny.
Which of the Friends are you guys?
Alan: I'm a hybrid of Ross and Chandler.
Dunia: I think maybe I'm Rachel!
I was starting to wonder if anyone really knew why they themselves liked Friends. The answers were all quite vague; "It's funny"; "I like it"; "They're just a load of mates who hang out, I dunno, leave me alone" – how did this show, a show less about nothing than Seinfeld, but still essentially about not much at all, reach what is basically the pinnacle of Western culture in modern times?
I mulled it over for a while. And then I saw these guys. The true Friends.
VICE: What brings you here?
Sian #1: Er, it's a bit different, isn't it? It's interactive and it's not here for very long! It feels quite exclusive. We just wanted to see what they were going to do with it. All the souvenirs and all the merchandise.
Righto. What do you like about Friends so much?
Sian #2: It's that it kind of goes through every stage of your life. Like, there's something that you could probably relate to in every episode? It's kinda like your twenties and thirties?
When did you guys start watching it?
Sian #2: I started watching it about a year ago. My friends made me watch it at university and I didn't really understand it – 'Why is it so funny?' I used to ask myself. 'Why do so many people like it?' Then there was nothing else on the telly so I started to watch it at tea time and that and then all of a sudden it clicked in my head and I understood why it's so brilliant so I suppose I became a fan about a year ago. I'm still catching up on the die-hard geek knowledge.
Which one of the friends are you guys?
Sian #2: Err…
Sian #1: We were just talking about that?!
Sian #2: I'd say you're Phoebe.
[Sian #1 looks upset by this.]
Sian #2: You are! Because you're like… I don't know.
Sian #1: You're just reining it back in now.
Sian #2: No, but do you know what I mean? Like you're the more quirky one who's always like, "Oh, let's do this!"
Sian #1: Yeah… Who do you think you are?
Sian #2: Chandler.
Sian #1: Chandler! [laughs] I'd say you're like Monica. You like to feed people and you're a perfectionist.
How long have you planned ahead? When did you get your tickets?
Sian #2: My boyfriend organised it. He's a good organiser, but he's the bigger Friends fan; I think he has like a Friends radar.
What does he like about Friends so much ? Is he here?
Sian #2: Yeah, Dan! They want to interview you about why you like Friends!
Jenni: Are you being interviewed?! What's this for?
Jenni: Tom Jones?
All: VICE, not The Voice.
They're very similar.
Sian #2: What do you like so much about Friends?
Dan: They made like 210 episodes and each one is amazing. The best thing is when you're watching it at the first credits and then 30 seconds in you're like, 'I've never seen this one before!' For about 30 seconds that's pure bliss.
Why do you identify so much with it?
Dan: We grew up with it. It's just like mates, isn't it? Just friends, together.
Is there any other other programme that you have such an affinity with?
Which Friend are you?
Sian #1: He thinks he's funny.
Dan: Could I be anyone else?
[Everyone laughs again]
Do you think it's better than Seinfeld, then?
Jenni: What's Seinfeld? I don't even know what that is.
And with that they invited me outside so I could take their picture next to the famous intro credits fountain, in the drizzle, on a Wednesday night. Though these people may not have come together through Friends, their friendship simply is Friends, and all the schmaltzy, hackneyed fun that comes with it.
Friends is you and your friends. It's sticking together, for better or for worse, laughing, crying, smiling, fighting, kissing, sharing, loving. It's the genesis of a hundred feel-good memes, tumblr image macros of chilling with your bros and broettes. It's what we turn to when we need to make sure our shaky quarter lives are steadily on track. These people showed me that, and for that I thank them.
I'll be there for you
(When the rain starts to pour)
I'll be there for you
(Like I've been there before)
I'll be there for you
('Cause you're there for me tooooooo)