In honor of the 25th anniversary of "Seinfeld," HuffPost TV pitted a fan of "the show about nothing" against a fan of "Friends," to determine which was truly the best '90s sitcom:
Lauren: So, it's the 25th anniversary of "Seinfeld"! And that is super special to me/anyone who is alive and cares about comedy. There are a lot of cool features analyzing the show's importance, but on a much less complex note, I'm wondering how someone could not like "Seinfeld," or, more precisely, like it less than another little show that was on around the same time. I think it was called "Friends."
Lily: Okay, so that's a good question, and I've been trying to pinpoint exactly what it is that I like about "Friends" that "Seinfeld" doesn't have. And the main thing I can put on my finger on is that "Friends" really has an emotional non-sitcom-esque aspect to it -- some threads of it almost play like drama -- that I like and that gets me emotionally invested in its characters.
Lauren: This is fair! I think this is what people are talking about when they gush over "Friends." There's some kind of connectivity that feels like it might be missing from "Seinfeld." Although, I don't think "Seinfeld" was a specifically non-emotional show. In a lot of ways, it taught us how to cull through the moors of relationships. Think of Jerry and Elaine laying out the specifications of how they might sleep with each other in a platonic setting in "The Deal," for example. "Seinfeld" dealt with a lot of those same issues we saw on "Friends," but in a way that was was maybe more detached. Maybe that's why it draws such different types of people?
Lily: Yeah, I think that's exactly it. And I don't necessarily think one way is better than the other, it's just about the shows' different mission statements. Matthew Zoller Seitz just wrote in Vulture that Larry David always told the "Seinfeld" writers that there should be "no hugging, no learning" in the scripts. And we see that in the way "Seinfeld" approaches its situations -- whether its the moors of relationships you mention, relatable scenarios, or even high-stakes emotional situations (like, as Zoller Seitz mentions, George's fiancee dying from the envelope licking) -- there's always that lack of sentimentality. And I think that's really great, and keeps it from being a shmaltzy sitcom -- the idea that we can like these characters even though they can be awful. It's not all about hugging at the end and being a perfect family.
Lauren: Sure, and "Friends" is also influenced by that idea. "Seinfeld" pioneered this idea that characters don't have to be likable in the traditional sense of objective goodness. They can be offbeat or have outright dark shit buried under the stuff that makes them great comic figures (like being kind of relieved that, say, your fiancee died via envelope).
Lily: Right. In "Friends," it's not like Rachel starts off in the pilot as a rich shallow girl and then by the end of the series becomes this perfect genuine soul. I just watched an episode in Season 9 where she says to Phoebe something like "I love that you have principles! I certainly don't have any." All of the friends have character traits that are also not objectively "good" that they hold on to for the whole series, and those flaws are huge sources of humor for the show. (Think Rachel's aforementioned selfishness, or Monica's extreme competitiveness.) But "Friends" intertwines that kind of humor with a grounded emotional side that adds a layer of depth. We see genuine explorations of feeling all throughout the Ross/Rachel love saga (which OMG another reason in itself to love "Friends" -- THE ROMANCE!), and we also see other scenarios played to provoke feeling rather than laughter like later in the series when Monica/Chandler find out they can't have children.
Lauren: So, then I think it boils down to what you need in order to process these tougher realities. Obviously, there's an awesome absurdity to "Seinfeld" that kind of places the two shows in different universes, but both take on a sort of later stage of growing up. "Seinfeld" offers up a kind of cynical view of that version of adulthood that skewers the lesson-teaching nonsense of the traditional sappy sitcom, whereas, even in its more offbeat moments, "Friends" kind of runs with this moral about, well, friends being the most important thing. After all the issues get culled through, there's a safety net, where you have pals, and you play around in a fountain, and you get a theme song. "Seinfeld" fans don't need all that. The twang of an unidentified mid-range brass instrument is enough of a cushion.
Lily: Yeah, I think that's true. At the core of "Friends" is this theme song in the fountain, we-really-care-about-and-love-each-other sentiment. But the show also still has a cynical side and a rawer humor than a traditional family sitcom would. So it's kind of like the best of both worlds -- really great, edgy jokes but also grounded emotional friendship and love!
Lauren: That's all totally valid, but ...
Lily: We still don't have a winner!
Lauren: Maybe it's not a question of which show is "better." I mean, there are plenty of reasons that they emerge as the Coke and Pepsi foils of '90s sitcoms, but why we like one or the other boils down to a nexus of factors that probably says more about us than it does about "Seinfeld" or "Friends."
Lily: Totally. I think the differences between the shows are what made each able to stand out and build its own loyal fan base, to the point that you and I still want to have this conversation 20 years later.
Lauren: Agreed, but we better stop. As Larry David once said: "no hugging, no learning."