The enduring popularity of the nineties TV show “Friends” is a cultural riddle.Photograph from Warner Bros. / Everett
When I moved to a new apartment in the West Village, two summers ago, one of the first things that I noticed about my new micro-neighborhood was how the northwest corner of Bedford and Grove was never empty. People were there at all hours, taking pictures of one another or posing for selfies. It’s a nondescript corner, comprising the concrete back side of a public school. At some point, I realized why the pilgrims were there: for the best possible view of the southeast corner, the site of 90 Bedford Street, otherwise known as the “Friends” building.
The six-story residential building is made of tan bricks. According to records from the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, it was built between 1898 and 1899, by the architecture firm Schneider & Herter, and is typical of late-nineteenth-century Eclecticism. Its distinguishing feature is the round-arched windows on the third and sixth floors, with a “handsome unifying foliate band course.” On the ground floor is the Mediterranean restaurant Little Owl, which has a cheery firehouse-red façade and blue awnings. The building made its television début on September 22, 1994, on the pilot episode of “Friends,” in a three-second shot establishing the location of Monica’s apartment, and remained a regular cast member until the finale, a decade later.
The building seems to have been anonymous until 1997, when a neighbor revealed its location to the Times. Tours, guidebooks, blogs, and now Instagram have brought more visitors each year. At some point, the “Friends” building appeared on Google Maps, likely luring some confused Quakers. Tourists linger in the crosswalk, doing jumping jacks for the camera or wielding selfie sticks. New York, of course, is littered with accidental pop-culture destinations: a few blocks north, on Perry Street, is Carrie Bradshaw’s brownstone, and up in Morningside Heights is Tom’s Restaurant, made famous on “Seinfeld.” Tourists seem not to care—or not to know—that “Friends,” like “Seinfeld,” was shot in a studio in Los Angeles, and that the Friends’ favorite coffeehouse, Central Perk, exists only as a stop on the Warner Bros. studio tour, in Burbank. They keep coming anyway, seeking a fictitious location in an idealized version of the West Village and often feeling disappointed to find a real place instead.
Passing by the building on the way to my laundromat, I sometimes think of myself as an extra in a “Friends” episode: Guy with Laundry Bag. In 2017, Matthew Perry wrote and starred in an Off Broadway play a block away. One night, at ten or so, I was walking home and stopped to talk to someone taking a picture on the corner. He was from Israel and was there, of course, because of “Friends.” I told him that Matthew Perry was down the street. “Who?” he said. “Chandler!” I said. “Chandler Bing! He’s going to be right over there in ten minutes.” The guy looked at me like I was completely nuts. I walked him to Christopher Street and left him in front of the stage door, where a crowd was forming. Lord knows what kind of New York magic trick he thought I had pulled.
The enduring popularity of “Friends” is a cultural riddle. The series still makes a billion dollars a year in syndication, earning the six lead actors twenty million dollars annually in residuals. In December, Netflix reportedly paid a hundred million dollars to keep the streaming rights for one more year, after thousands of fans signed a petition to keep it on the platform. The show is watched around the world, and, curiously, by people currently in their twenties or younger. Despite its nineties cool factor, which included a trendy haircut (“the Rachel”) and an earworm-y theme song, the show holds up remarkably well—better even than “Seinfeld,” which seemed at the time like the more durable work of sitcom art. “Friends” was pioneering in defining people’s twenties, often aimless and uncertain, as a distinct phase of adulthood, in which platonic friendships can provide a kind of structure lacking in romances or careers. In significant ways, though, the show is conspicuously dated: it’s set in a world with no iPhones or Facebook, shockingly little diversity (“I’d like y’all to get a black friend,” Oprah Winfrey told the cast in 1995), and a laugh track. To some, its gay jokes feel queasy at best, and its progeny—“New Girl,” “Broad City,” “The Big Bang Theory”—are more contemporary in their depictions of urban single life. So why are people still so into it?
At eleven-thirty one recent morning, I stationed myself on the “Friends” corner, determined to get an answer. About a dozen people were there, including Rebecca and Tom, a young married couple from Southampton, England. They had found the building in a Lonely Planet guidebook. Rebecca, who is thirty, had watched the show on box sets. “I like how relatable it is to growing up in your twenties and early thirties,” she said. “It’s iconic, really. I know people who hate it. I think it’s like Marmite. Back home, everybody loves it or they hate it.”
Tom, who is thirty-three, said that he watched “Friends” on Channel 4 when it originally aired. When I asked why it still appealed in 2019, he said, “It’s nostalgia, isn’t it? It was like what we had when we were growing up.” He added, “You used to do silly stuff back in the day, like when Joey gets his head stuck with the turkey. Nowadays, I don’t think you’d do it yourself. You’d watch someone else do it on a smartphone.”
“But I also think loneliness,” Rebecca added. “Loneliness is a massive problem in big cities. So, I mean, maybe you feel like they are your friends, as well, which is really sad to say.”
When I was a teen-ager, in the nineties, I watched “Friends” religiously. I would usually go to my friend Charles’s place to watch the entire Must-See TV Thursday-night lineup on NBC, which included “Seinfeld,” “E.R.,” and “Friends” knockoffs such as “The Single Guy.” Charles had a massive crush on Courteney Cox (who recently exhilarated her Instagram followers by posting a video of herself outside 90 Bedford Street, yelling, “Goodnight, guys! I’m going home.”) I was obsessed with Phoebe, played ingeniously by Lisa Kudrow. The first Web site I ever visited was called Phoebe’s Songbook, a fan’s collection of her song lyrics, which I read about in Entertainment Weekly and visited in my high-school computer lab.
I suppose I saw myself as the kooky eccentric of my friend group, but my identification with Phoebe was self-negating: if I had been that eccentric, I would have been into something weirder than “Friends.” To a teen-ager, the show was aspirational: it’s what I imagined my twenties would be like, offbeat and eventful and hip. But the stronger pull was the sense of belonging; everyone’s personalities fit together, like a friendship jigsaw puzzle. By my actual twenties, I’d mostly forgotten about the show, even if I was living it in superficial ways. In the pilot episode, Monica says to Rachel, “Welcome to the real world. It sucks. You’re gonna love it.” She was right: being in your twenties in New York is excruciating, but often fun. I had bad dates and crazy roommates (sometimes I was the crazy roommate), plus constant, low-grade anxiety. I did not feel that it was my day, my week, my month, or even my year. It was not until my thirties that I could afford a rental in the West Village, mostly because I had a boyfriend and could split a tiny one-bedroom. (An apartment in the “Friends” building now goes for $3,495 a month.)
Around noon, a tour group passed through with some forty people. The guide loudly explained that Monica and Rachel’s apartment had a terrace, but, “if you notice, there’s no terrace right here.” (He presumably did not understand the concept of courtyards.) A second tour group arrived with another twenty people, causing a tourist traffic jam, as a guy walking two dogs tried to squeeze through. A French man told me that he had come to see “ze house of ‘Friends.’ ” I talked to a girl named Mollie, who was celebrating her eighteenth birthday. She was visiting with her parents from Stratford-upon-Avon, which she complained has “too many tourists.” (One person’s Shakespeare is another’s Jennifer Aniston.) I also met Libby, a sixteen-year-old Londoner, who was there with her friend Clara and their mothers. She watched the show on Netflix and has competed in live “Friends” trivia contests. “It’s just nice for younger people to see what life was like,” she said, as if describing Pompeii. “Before we just had, like, devices all the time, and we were always on iPads and stuff.”
In Little Owl, I met the chef and owner, Joe Campanaro, who introduced himself, amazingly, as Joey. “I opened Little Owl in 2006, and I didn’t even know it was the ‘Friends’ building,” he said, in a chummy New York accent. “The only way I found out it was the ‘Friends’ building was when hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people would gather across the street. And I was feeling quite vulnerable. You know, you’re opening a restaurant, you’re broke, and there’s a hundred people across the street watching me build a joint.” He considered capitalizing on the location, and occasionally sells coffee cups with the building emblazoned on the side. “In reality, to open up something along the lines of the concept of Central Perk, with big orange sofas and dollar coffees—that’s not going to pay the rent in Greenwich Village,” he said.
Campanaro added that people often come in expecting to find the real Central Perk, and sometimes get mad that it’s not there. “They think that I’m a bad businessman, and they don’t understand why they can’t buy a coffee for a dollar.” The crowds ebb and flow throughout the day. “It’s kind of like the tide,” he said. “There’s a high tide of tourists there, and then there’s a low tide of tourists there. But, speaking of tides, there’s always water.” He leaned his arm on a bar stool and recalled, “One time, David Schwimmer was sitting on that table in the corner, and I politely suggested that he move to a more discreet table.” When Schwimmer declined, “I pointed to the hundreds of people that just got out of a bus on Hudson Street that were walking this way, and I said, ‘You know this is the “Friends” building?’ He had no idea.”
About six years ago, a street-artist friend of Campanaro’s wrote “i love joey” in chalk on the side of the building. Tourists, not realizing it was a message for Campanaro, started scrawling “Friends” catchphrases in marker all over the wall, including “We were on a break,” “How you doin’?,” and “Pivot!” “My landlord is not happy about this,” Campanaro said, showing me the graffiti wall, “and ultimately I’m going to have to clean it up.” Nearby, a young girl was taking a picture. She was Emma Gonzalez, and she was visiting from Miami with her family, for her thirteenth birthday. “I love ‘Friends’ a lot,” she said. “It’s my favorite show, for sure.” She had watched the series on Netflix eight times through. “I like how it’s just based on the real world, like how people would actually be. It’s not like those fantasy stories.”
The family was on a makeshift “Friends” tour: Bloomingdale’s (where Rachel worked), the NBC store (for merchandise). Emma was the second girl I’d met celebrating a birthday, and I wondered if visiting the “Friends” building was a new teen-age rite of passage, like getting your ears pierced. I realized that Emma was the age I was when “Friends” premièred, and she was born two years after it ended. When I asked whether the show reflects the era she lives in, her brother, Nathaniel, jumped in: “I feel like the nineties was a simpler time. If you wanted to talk to somebody, it was usually face to face or on a phone call, which I feel is much more personal.” He was born in 1999, he said, “so I can’t speak to the nineties, but I was there for the transition.”
“Fun fact,” their mother, Maria, interjected. When she was pregnant with Emma, she and her husband, Carlos, couldn’t decide what to name the baby. “I remember watching the episode, him and I, me plopped up on the bed eating ice cream and watching it, and all of a sudden the big reveal that the baby’s name was going to be Emma.” She was referring to Ross and Rachel’s baby, born in Season 8, Episode 24. “We just looked at each other, and we said, ‘Emma!’ So that’s her name.” Emma’s fandom had just taken on a whole new meaning: she was literally a “Friends” baby. They had not been on the Warner Bros. tour yet, Maria said. “Maybe for her fourteenth birthday, if she’s still that obsessed.”
“Oh, I’ll still be that obsessed,” Emma said.
Moments later, a guy in jeans and a white T-shirt walked out of the front door. His name was Justin, and he had been living at 90 Bedford Street for nearly a year. “It’s never really a nuisance, to be honest,” he said of the tourists. “I’ve probably appeared as an extra in thousands of Instagram pictures.” Some people have tried to follow him through the front door, hoping to see Monica and Rachel’s apartment, and he’s had to explain that it isn’t in there. Justin is twenty-eight and lives with his girlfriend and their dog. He works as a product manager at a tech company in Chelsea. When I asked if he thought he was living the “Friends” life style, he said, “In a way. But the real misleading thing is that their apartment is absolutely massive, and my apartment’s a shoebox.” Besides, he added, “I’m a ‘Seinfeld’ guy.”