You’ve got to have “Friends.”
The hit NBC sitcom continues to shape perceptions of New York City — sometimes accurately, sometimes not — and serve as a boon to local tourism 25 years after its premiere.
It introduced us to a half-dozen besties — Monica, Rachel, Phoebe, Ross, Joey and Chandler — all finding their way through adulthood in the big city in 1994. Decades later, we’re still hooked, binging reruns on Netflix and flocking downtown for the chance to snap a photo in front of Monica’s Greenwich Village apartment.
“‘Friends’ is just special. It’s enduringly funny,” Maggie Wheeler, who played Janice, tells amNewYork. “It’s a family everybody still wants to be a part of.”
Local tourism experts say the “Friends” hot spot, at the corner of Bedford and Grove streets, continues to summon fans like a magnet from around the world seeking their chance at reliving a piece of the sitcom.
A desire for bragging rights — and a peek inside
Pop culture “is such a driver of tourism,” says Chris Heywood, executive vice president of NYC & Company, who lives “half a block” from the buzzy “Friends” corner. “People are just fascinated and intrigued by pop culture. They want to be part of it. They want bragging rights — ‘I was there.’ ”
More importantly, they want to pose with that well-known backdrop.
Though the series was filmed in Los Angeles, the corner spot — which is actually home to a Mediterranean restaurant, The Little Owl — has the same address as Monica’s sprawling apartment and Central Perk.
Stick around long enough on any afternoon and you’ll be able to spot the crowds of fans passing by who stop for selfies in front of the iconic, albeit fictional, coffee shop that was practically its own character in the series’ 10-season run. Complaining of the crowd, local residents told the New York Post in August an estimated 400 tourists come by per day.
Jorge Ramirez, the maitre d’ at The Little Owl, says sharing an address with Central Perk has brought the crowds, but it hasn’t exactly caffeinated business at the real-life restaurant — “except that we’re answering questions about it all day long.”
He adds: “People tend to be disappointed that it’s not Central Perk — and that they can’t get inside the apartment.”
While the recurring interest in the series may not have translated directly to dollar signs for The Little Owl, it has for the local tourism groups that use the location as stops on “Friends” tours.
Alan Locher, senior director of public relations for On Location Tours, says the “Friends” stop, which is part of its TV and film tour that goes out in limos and 54-passenger buses, is very popular — and has remained so since they launched the business 20 years ago.
Next month, inspired by the show’s 25th anniversary, On Location Tours plans to launch a private “Friends” tour that will visit other locations mentioned in the sitcom, including Bloomingdale’s, New York University and the American Museum of Natural History (which is the model for Ross’ job).
“‘Friends’ continues to be a popular part of the tour,” says Locher, “even though it was never actually filmed here.”
An appeal crossing ages and nations
“I see crowds taking selfies and singing the ‘Friends’ theme song [‘I’ll be there for you …’] all the time,” adds NYC & Company’s Heywood. “It’s a phenomenon. It has a multigenerational appeal. You hear all sorts of accents all the time. The ‘Friends’ apartment is on Google Maps.”
No wonder why: “Friends” remains popular in over 200 countries around the world — particularly in the U.K., where reruns air almost around the clock and as of 2016, series ratings were on the rise, according to author Kelsey Miller, 35. Netflix, in 2018, paid a reported $100 million to keep showing “Friends” on its streaming site through 2019.
“Friends” presents “very aspirational friendships, the same way that everything else on the show is aspirational,” says Greenport-based Miller, who published “I’ll Be There For You.” “Everything is just a little bit sweeter, a little bit brighter, a little bit better on ‘Friends.’ ”
Several of these Instagram-moment seekers in their teens and 20s willing to shell out $30 for the chance to snap a “Friends”-related photo (last month’s pop-up Central Perk recreation sold out within three hours) were introduced to the pals by way of Netflix and social media. Newer fans may not have even been alive when the series first premiered — or when it went off the air.
It’s not a mystery why “Friends” magnetism leaps generations.
The impact continues thanks to streaming sites and the internet, which helped create a new, ever-evolving fan base for “Friends” and contributed to its resurgence, according to Brooklyn-based Saul Austerlitz, author of “Sitcom, A History in 24 Episodes” and “Generation Friends.”
“Younger fans don’t visit ‘Friends’ as a classic they have to only admire. It’s not like watching ‘I Love Lucy’ where it’s like revisiting television history,” Austerlitz tells amNewYork. “Younger audiences feel ‘Friends’ belongs to them — that it’s not the property of an older generation. It gives them the leeway to love it, but also argue with it.”
Fudging reality, forging a legacy
“Friends” created its own version of New York. It painted a picture of the Village where you’d run into your friends (and celebrities) on street corners; a world where money seemingly isn’t a concern. On the brink of a time in New York City where crime and homicide rates hit a record high in the early ‘90s, “Friends” popped into the picture to give the big city a safe, small-town appeal, Austerlitz adds.
“I don’t think you can overstate the impact and influence ‘Friends’ has had on foreign attitudes toward America and New York in general,” echoes Miller. “It presents a fantasy version of New York City.”
Case in point: Monica’s rent-controlled, two-bedroom apartment, which was spacious enough to accommodate the pals and cheap enough to afford on a waitress’ salary.
“Everyone wants the West Village,” says Natalia Padilla, a native New Yorker who’s an agent for CitiHabitats. “The Village could be its own city.” The series cements the neighborhood as a wonderful place to live and to hang with, well, friends, but fudges the reality of the size and cost of the apartment.
Courteney Cox (Monica) even played tourist in March and visited the apartment building where her fictional apartment was supposedly set. She joked: “The one where my rent went up $12,000.”
She may not have been far off. Real estate experts suggest Monica’s unrealistic apartment setting may run upward of $8,500 per month today, and be split between as many as four residents.
“I’ve gotten people who’ve asked if they could find something like on ‘Friends,’ ” Padilla says. “Usually, when they ask that, they’re not from New York. The show is where they’re getting ideas from.
“In reality, apartments in the Village are molecular. They’ve been chopped up. They are tiny, tiny, tiny. Most young individuals who are bartending or waitressing are living in a three-bedroom share and splitting the rent of an apartment that’s probably 800 square feet at the most. They’re on top of each other.”
But fans go with the fantasy, and that includes actors from the show.
“It still has that magic, you know. It’s lightning in a bottle,” says James Michael Tyler, who played Central Perk’s snarky Gunther in the series’ 10 seasons. “People enjoy being able to kick back, have a good time and re-watch.”
And while the cast and series creators have shut down plans of ever doing a reboot, “Friends” will continue to be there for you, in reruns.