I hate easy entertainment match-ups, pitting one band or show or celebrity against another. They often catch traction because we latch onto them as opportunities to signal the superiority of our taste, which renders the whole conversation fairly insufferable.
Such is the case with Twitter’s debate du jour over “Seinfeld” and “Friends.” “Seinfeld” fans love this match-up as an opportunity to signal their superior taste, and “Friends” fans love it as an opportunity to signal their in-group taste. Comparing taste is something everyone does to feel cool in high school, and some do to feel cool long after that. But comparing the shows is as useful as comparing apples to oranges.
My strong bias is towards “Friends,” but “Seinfeld” fans are obviously correct to argue it was smarter and edgier. “Seinfeld” was ahead of its time, comedy for comedy fans, but in network primetime with broader appeal thanks to its likable cast and relatable plots. That’s a rare formula, and it took brilliance to pull off.
“Friends” wasn’t trying to be clever. It was a traditional sitcom, albeit one that mastered the traditional sitcom recipe. That’s a feat on its own. “Seinfeld” has warmth, but like most sitcoms, “Friends” used it as essential packaging—and between the cast and the writers, the show did that masterfully, which takes its own brilliance.
If you don’t think it’s funny, fine. But you not finding “Friends” funny doesn’t render it unfunny. With viewers streaming 32 billion hours of a comedy in one year, more than a decade after its finale, clearly the writers knew how to get a lot of laughs out of a lot of people. This isn’t to say mass appeal necessarily makes something good (see: “Big Bang Theory”), but comedy is a fairly democratic art form, and “Friends” excelled in that lane, delivering comedy with compelling feel-good arcs better than just about any show has ever done.
I’m perfectly willing to concede “Seinfeld’s” comedy operated at a higher level. It’s still a better way to spend 20 minutes if you’re looking for smart humor and sharp writing, as “Friends” is a better way to spend 20 minutes if you’re looking for comedy with a side of emotional fulfillment. If you want to do either, you won’t find much better options than either of those shows. They’re both great in their respective lanes.
Put “Friends” up against “Will & Grace.” There’s just not much to be gained from pitting it against “Seinfeld.” Comparing the two shows is like comparing desktop computers to laptops. These comedies serve different purposes, and both fulfill those purposes well. If you must measure them against each other, at least admit it’s really a proxy war over taste—a pursuit that’s often foolish and almost always fruitless.