So different. So dominant.
“Seinfeld” and “Friends,” two 1990s sitcoms that became among the most popular television shows of all time, have made headlines again by scoring some of the biggest streaming deals for a new generation.
Netflix paid more than $500 million to secure for rights to airing “Seinfeld” reruns for five years. HBO Max coughed up $425 million for the same deal with “Friends.” The shows were about a group of pals living in New York City. And then the similarities fade.
Seinfeld is a self-described show about nothing with characters who are overtly deplorable. Everything eventually goes awry in the show, which often feels more like Larry David, who co-created the groundbreaking program with Jerry Seinfeld. Relationships with your besties are everything on “Friends,” which brims with optimism about the future. Which show is more relevant and is well, better? The S-R discussed various aspects with NPR TV critic Eric Deggans.
Condran: There are definitely differences between “Seinfeld” and “Friends.”
Deggans: One show is optimistic about friendship and the other is honest about how terrible the characters are.
Condran: “Seinfeld” is sardonic, selfish and hilarious. “Friends” is warm, upbeat and full of great post-grunge hairstyles.
Deggens: That’s superficial. Jerry Seinfeld dresses pretty good.
Condran: I don’t know. Look back at some of Seinfeld’s shirts, sweaters and sneakers.
Deggans: Elaine is good-looking.
Condran: In 2004, Seinfeld said during an interview that the folks behind “Friends” appropriated elements of his show and featured better-looking actors.
Deggans: Jerry may think that “Friends” stole his show’s thunder, but the bottom line is that the shows are different. “Friends” is optimistic and “Seinfeld” isn’t optimistic. “Friends” are about characters, who are at their best when they’re working together. “Friends” are in that period after you finish college and before you start building a family. “Seinfeld’s” cast is older. They’re not into having families. Do you think “Seinfeld” is better than “Friends?”
Condran: Yes. “Seinfeld” is funnier and remains hilarious today.
Deggans: Let me psychoanalyze you. “Seinfeld” is closer to who you are.
Condran: It’s true, but I just believe “Seinfeld” was a better-written show.
Deggans: It’s easier to say that “Friends” is less innovative. It was so popular and it was so earnest. “Friends” was the ultimate ’90s sitcom.
Condran: But “Seinfeld” had better ratings when they ran concurrently.
Deggans: I don’t know about that.
Condran: I checked. It was almost always “Seinfeld” or “ER” for the top spot from 1994-1998.
Deggans: “Friends” grew in popularity after it aired. It’s relatable.
Condran: A lot of 20-somethings love “Friends.” They live that life in New York. My daughter is living that life in New York. At 23, she lives in the city with her two best friends, who are her family. But my daughter’s apartment is like a shoebox. My biggest issue is the “Friends” characters’ luxurious New York apartments. Part of why I love Whit Stillman’s films, “Metropolitan” and “Last Days of Disco,” which were shot during the ’90s, is that even the wealthy characters reside in tiny railroad apartments in the city.
Deggans: But the “Seinfeld” characters live in apartments they couldn’t afford. How could Jerry afford to live in his apartment as a comedian?
Condran: Jerry was often working and he portrayed a midrange comic, who appeared on “The Tonight Show.” Comics make more than you think and Jerry had a development deal. I can see how he affords his apartment. Elaine worked. When George lost his job, he moved back with his parents. Kramer was a shady character. Who knows how he made his money?
Deggans: It’s different than “Friends,” which is an optimistic, aspirational show.
Condran: I understand. After “Friends” became popular, it was imperative to have a nice, spacious apartment. When I interviewed Louis CK a month before his “Lucky Louis” show debuted on HBO, I asked him about his spare set. I told him it reminded me of “The Honeymooners” set. Louis said he was inspired by “The Honeymooners.” I told him that would be an issue. I watched the pilot screener with some friends and 4 out of the 5 hated the set. They said they were distracted by it. I dubbed it “The Friends Effect.” We’ve become used to the aspirational setting. You can’t have a backdrop like “Taxi,” or “Sanford and Son” anymore.
Deggans: I believe “Friends” and “Seinfeld” are equally good at what they did.
Condran: I won’t argue that, but I give “Seinfeld” the edge for humor, edginess and how the series added words to the lexicon. Shrinkage, man-hands and pop-in elicit laughter or at least an amused acknowledgment.
Deggans: “Seinfeld” is a show that’s difficult to copy.
Condran: But some shows have tried. Do you remember that short-lived ABC “It’s Like, You Know,’ which tried to be a West Coast “Seinfeld?”
Deggans: Was that the show with Ryan Reynolds?
Condran: No. Jennifer Gray starred. It wasn’t very good. One more “Seinfeld” note. The show is known for being about nothing, but it’s really about everything. It’s about all of the annoying aspects of life.
Deggans: It’s true. Larry David once said the show is … not about sentimentality or being role models. So you have shows where Jerry has to deal with a woman walking around the apartment with no clothes on. That couldn’t last because Jerry is much too rigid. Jerry couldn’t make allowances for other people. He and Larry David admit that they’re so messed up, but they made comedy out of it.
Condran: The bottom line is that both “Friends” and “Seinfeld” remain popular today. Both have audiences and even with their similarities, they’re like apples and oranges in many ways and both can be enjoyed via streaming services.