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The one with the friends who will neverleave

Years ago, the Mail Tribune would subject copy-editing applicants to a three-part skills assessment to measure their ability to work in a newsroom.

There was a story that was filled with grammatical mistakes to be edited, a spelling test — I asked to use a dictionary when I took it, on the grounds that the paper certainly would not want me to guess when I worked there — and, for reasons lost to the annals of history, a cultural quiz designed to see what the job-seekers knew about Oregon, currents events and popular culture.

Over time, this third part of the exam was revised (by yours truly) to include the following question:

“Who are Gellar, Gellar, Greene, Buffay, Tribbiani and Bing?”

Extra credit was accorded to anyone who answered, “The last names of the main characters on the TV show that originally was to be called ‘Insomnia Café’.”

It’s been 15 years since Monica, Ross, Rachel, Phoebe, Joey and Chandler left their keys on the kitchen counter of Nana Gellar’s sublet and headed off into the mystical land of perpetual syndication, yet “Friends” — the generic but comforting title settled upon after “Insomnia Café,” “Six Of One” and “Friends Like Us” were rejected — remains remarkably popular.

How popular? One study found the series (which ran for 236 episodes from 1994 to 2004 on NBC) to be the most binge-watched show in 2018. Netflix, which is in the final year of holding its streaming rights, reports that “Friends” was the second most downloaded title (after “The Office”) and accounted for 32.6 billion minutes (22,638,889 days) of streaming time.

The show will pivot to HBO Max, a new streaming service, which recently paid $425 million to Warners Television for five years of exclusive rights to a sitcom that can still be watched over standard cable provider TBS. Warners, meanwhile, makes about $1 billion a year from the sale of rights to the show worldwide.

Meanwhile, this week came word that in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the series’ first season, Fathom Events will be screening a dozen memorable episodes over three nights (Sept. 23, Sept. 28, Oct. 2) at more than 1,000 movie theaters across the country — including Tinseltown in Medford.

Now word whether there will be hairstylists providing “the Rachel” or a koondis-removal station available for moviegoers.

And lest you think this is just a case of the typical American need for wallowing in nostalgia, consider that not only is “Friends” is the most popular show for British children aged 16 and younger (even after how shoddily Ross, and the show, treated poor Emily) but when the series was pulled off the video portal known as Sohu last year, millions of fans demanded the return of their favorite Central Perk denizens by swarming the internet to protest ... in China.

What in the name of Fun Bobby and the Ugly Naked Guy is going on here?

The study in the British journal Childwise Monitor attributes the appeal of “Friends” to younger media consumers to the values embodied by that generic, comforting name.

So much of the friendships establish by today’s children are based through social media, that seeing a half-dozen relatively normal people hanging out together — without their heads tech-necked to scan their phones — strikes an emotional chord for young minds (which they’ve dubbed “Generation Scroll”) battling “online fatigue” and the need to communicate one on one.

Add to that the availabilities to binge shows that resonate, researchers say, and it creates a longing for that vision of community — even if the show stopped making original episodes before the majority of them were born.

But, the question remains ... why “Friends”???

If you’ve watched any episodes recently, you can’t help but realize that the show is locked into its time period. It’s as much a touchstone of the late-90s/early-00s as “The Brady Bunch” is stuck in the 1960s.

Even if this weren’t the #metoo era, the show’s overt sexism and gender disparity would be somewhat alarming – as can its depiction of a nearly all-white New York City and groan-enducing jokes at the expense of the LGBTQ+ community (despite the once-radical lesbian wedding) or religious affiliations. These days, Helena Handbasket or the Hanukkah Armadillo are harder to swallow than a roast beef trifle.

Even if you were to accept the show as being of a time and place, and live with those moments that would make millennials squirm, there’s another reason that even those of us who never missed an episode would wonder about the enduring nature of “Friends.”

It stopped being funny.

Somewhere between seasons seven and eight, the show hit the comedic wall.

Stunt casting (Danny Devito as a stripper, Denise Richards as the genetically impossible cousin to Ross and Monica, Brad Pitt because he was dating Jennifer Aniston), weaker storylines (Joey loves Rachel?), and the inevitable slowing down of a series on its last legs took its toll.

The show slogged on through 10 seasons — after all, there was money to be made (by the way, you know all those dollar signs I tossed about earlier? Here’s another one: Each of the six principal actors made $20 million from “Friends” ... in 2018.)

Those lonely 12 year olds in England watching the gang stick turkey carcasses over their heads and battle for The Gellar Cup don’t care about that, eventually, a lot of people got rich or that their beloved characters grew out of the time when they were stuck in second gear, their jobs were a joke and their loves lives were D.O.A.

As each new generation discovers Gellar, Gellar, Greene, Buffay, Tribbiani and Bing, they’ll just know that they’ll be there for them — until it’s time to move onto Hofstadter, Cooper, Wolowitz, Rostenkowski, Fowler, Koothrappali ... and Penny’s never-mentioned maiden name.

Mail Tribune copy desk chief Ms. Chanandler Bong can be reached at rgalvin@rosebudmedia.com

Robert Galvin