It’s the 20th anniversary of Friends on Monday, which means it’s been two full decades since we first whined that no one ever told us life was going to be this way (clap clap clap clap clap), Jennifer Aniston charged into Central Perk in a wedding dress, and we turned six gifted comedic actors into very rich, very important parts of our pop-culture lives.
To commemorate the god-we’re-old milestone, a spate of lists and tributes and essays and rankings have been written remembering all the “bests” that made Friends so good: the best episodes, lines, guest actors, scenes, and more. But let’s not forget, Friends was on for 10 years. It aired 238 episodes. And when a comedy produces 238 episodes over the span of 10 years, some of them are bound to be weird. Really freaking weird.
This is not to criticize Friends. In fact, this is as much of a love letter to the series as anything else, because we are so enthusiastically enamored with it that we’re willing to celebrate it when it was at its most absurd and, occasionally, misguided. As further testament to how good Friends was, it’s also likely than any of these plot points being singled out as “weird” or “silly” could easily be trumpeted by other fans of the show as some of their most favorite story lines or episodes. Because, hey, strange isn’t always a bad thing. In many cases, and certainly in many cases on Friends, strange can be very good.
So while we remember the best of Friends, let’s also remember that not every moment was as perfect as “we were on a break,” “I take thee Rachel,” or The One With the Prom Video. Here’s our loving look back at the show’s weirdest episodes, plots, and story arcs.
“The One With the Sharks” Monica walks in on Chandler masturbating, and he freaks out and changes the channel from porn to a shark documentary. Rather than recognizing that Chandler was just embarrassingly covering his ass—not to mention other unmentionables—by changing the channel, Monica convinces herself that Chandler has a shark fetish. Worse, she obsesses over this with all of the friends and then tries to incorporate shark imagery into their sex life. Because that’s what someone would obviously do.
“The One Where the Stripper Cries” Incest, betrayal, and Danny DeVito stripping: classic ingredients to a great sitcom episode, right? The story line that gives this episode its title, of course, has Rachel and Phoebe hiring a stripper for Monica’s very staid bachelorette party—only to be dismayed when Danny DeVito shows up, weeping that he is old and lost his mojo. But would you believe that Danny DeVito taking off his clothes isn’t even the most disturbing part of the episode? No, that would be the flashback revelation that Ross and Monica accidentally kissed once at a party. Yay, incest! To add insult to injury, we also find out that Chandler and Rachel made out once, too, a cruel betrayal to Ross, who famously pined after Rachel for years, and actually a rewrite of the entire Friends’ history, as an earlier flashback established that Rachel and Chandler didn’t meet for the first time until after that.
“The One With Ross and Monica’s Cousin”Because one incest storyline is never enough! Cousin Cassie comes to visit Ross and Monica. They haven’t seen Cousin Cassie in a few years. Cousin Cassie is now 25. Cousin Cassie is now hot. Like, played by Denise Richards hot. Ross can’t stop flirting wildly with her. It’s icky. The other two story lines in the episode, however, are actually as highly entertaining as they are odd. Joey is offered a role in a rising director’s film that would require full frontal nudity, but his character isn’t supposed to be circumcised so Monica crafts some foreskin for him out of bologna for his audition. (Weird! But really funny!) And Phoebe and Rachel forget that they’re supposed to throw Monica a bridal shower until the last minute, scraping together a guest list of laughably random people but ultimately forgetting to invite the bride. Oh, the hijinks!
“The One With Phoebe’s Rats” Phoebe raises rats in a shoebox. The phrase “rat babies!” is shouted dozens of times in this episode, and is absolutely gross each and every one of them.
“The One After Rachel and Joey Kiss” Creative risks should be admired and the need to make bold narrative choices late in a long-running series’ run is totally understandable. And so it is with admiration and understanding that we are still violently furious over the pairing of Joey and Rachel. Forget the random-seeming rush of its introduction and the unshakable feeling that these characters would never risk their friendship or their relationship with Ross by getting together, there was an almost nauseating lack of sexual chemistry between Jennifer Aniston and Matthew LeBlanc as this arc assaulted viewers. (The reason this show is so wonderful is that even its silliest and most cringe-worthy story lines are impeccably acted and peppered with legitimately strong writing. Just watch Jennifer Aniston milk every second of potential laughs from not being able to find Joey in this clip. “We kissed for 10 minutes and now we’re talking to our friends about it so I guess this is sixth grade!”)
“The One With the Monkey” We can all mostly agree that Marcel was a beloved addition to the Friends gang, and that his episodes were endearingly goofy. But let’s not pretend that it wasn’t really freaking odd that Ross would adopt a monkey and that everyone would just be OK with it.
“The One With Ross’s Tan” As a testament to what a gross misfire the Rachel-Joey storyline was, what should have been a monumental and shattering moment in its grand arc is actually long-forgotten and overshadowed by an annoyingly silly plot in which Ross botches a fake tan. As quickly as their relationship began, Rachel and Joey’s romance ends when, on the night they decide to try to have sex, Rachel keeps slapping Joey, leading Chandler to give them a “when you know, you know” monologue about falling in love with Monica that makes them realize that they’re doomed as a couple. (Ed. Note: OBVIOUSLY!) But somehow that all plays second fiddle to Ross not being able to understand instructions and accidentally getting a spray tan that makes George Hamilton look pale (maybe Snooki is a more modern reference point)…but only on one side of his body. Ross is an esteemed paleontologist and university professor. But don’t ask him to count to five and then turn around!
“The One Where Ross Meets Elizabeth’s Dad” Ross dates Elizabeth, who is a student of his. (Questionable.) Elizabeth’s father obviously doesn’t approve of the pairing. (Naturally.) Paul, Elizabeth’s father, is played by Bruce Willis. (Amazing.) Rachel falls in love with Paul, and now exes Ross and Rachel are dating a daughter and her father. (Weird.)
“The One With the Baby on the Bus”This one is both one of the most unbelievable and yet maybe one of the most traditionally sitcom-y episodes Friends produced. Ross needs to go to the hospital after having an allergic reaction, leaving Joey and Chandler to watch Baby Ben. They end up flirting with some girls while traveling with Ben, and are so distracted that they leave him on a city bus. They pick up Ben from Human Services, but only after guessing which of two similar-looking babies he was.
“The One With Russ” We lied. This is the most traditional sitcom-y episode. Rachel starts dating a guy named Russ, and would you believe that he bears a striking resemblance to Ross? And would you still believe that David Schwimmer also played Russ? Wild.
“The One With the Giant Poking Device” Ugly Naked Guy was a brilliant running joke on Friends. Anyone who’s ever lived in New York City and had your apartment window face directly into another person’s apartment knows well the alternate perverse joys and terrors of being, essentially, a forced voyeur. In this really strange, kind of delightful entry in the Ugly Naked Guy legend (second only to when Ugly Naked Guy gets gravity boots), the gang notices that he’s been quite still on his new hammock for far too long, so they fashion together a super-long stick to poke him with to make sure he’s alive. As you do.
“The One With the Ballroom Dancing” The building’s janitor makes Rachel cry, and after Joey yells at him for it he threatens to evict Rachel and Monica—who are illegally subletting her grandmother’s apartment—unless he agrees to practice ballroom dancing with him.
“The One Where Ross Hugs Rachel” Ross decides, without consulting Rachel, that he’s not going to get an annulment for their marriage because he doesn’t want to be the guy with three failed marriages. This is actually a really cute episode, landing the show’s signature heartwarming-ludicrous balance. (Monica tells Rachel that she must move out, and Ross is the one that confronts her, questioning the earlier denial he made to Phoebe about whether he still was in love with Rachel.) But that doesn’t totally absolve the preposterousness of Ross thinking he will get away with not annulling his marriage with Rachel never finding out.
“The One With the Mugging” This is one of the episodes that is pretty blatantly, “We’ve been running for nine seasons, for god’s sake, and we’re running out of ideas.” Phoebe and Ross get mugged, but it turns out Phoebe actually knows the mugger from her days on the streets when she would mug people sometimes, too. (Writers must have counted their blessings that they decided to make Phoebe so weird and her backstory so vague—in later seasons they could just write anything for her and we would trust it made sense.) Worse, all of this mugging business reminds Ross of when he was mugged as a child. Turns out it was Phoebe who mugged him, too. The madness of it all!
“The One Where Chandler Doesn’t Like Dogs”For 10 years, Thanksgiving episodes of Friends trumped actual Thanksgiving dinner as the most important and most anticipated holiday tradition. They were that good. Well, most were. “The One Where Chandler Doesn’t Like Dogs”…ehhh. Basically, Phoebe sneaks a dog named Klunkers into Monica and Rachel’s apartment on Thanksgiving. But Chandler doesn’t like dogs. That’s the episode! Yes, there are several, arguably illuminating revelations in the Chander-dog saga, but the endgame is the same. Oh, and Rachel kisses Tag for the first time. Remember Tag? (It’s best not to.)