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Throwback TV: Friends or Seinfeld?

By Rachel Segal
 Getty Images / Handout
*Updated 2023
If you’re a Gen Xer, you probably spent every Thursday evening in the 1990s and early 2000’s watching Friends and Seinfeld, two shows that broke – and re-set – the mold for “Must-See TV.” With constant reruns of both today, especially with streaming options on Netflix and a much-hyped Friends reunion, fans of all ages can get in on the debate about which laugh-out-loud sitcom is better. Both shows invited us into an intimate circle of friends whom we collectively got to know, though it is up for debate as to which group was more cynical and neurotic. Either way, the characters in both shows consistently drew big laughs – and still do today, even 29+ years (Friends) and 34+ years (Seinfeld) later.
Here are three arguments as to why Friends is the better sitcom and another three why Seinfeld should earn the distinction.


Why Friends is better than Seinfeld


Friends is the epitome of a classic sitcom


Friends wasn’t as innovative as Seinfeld, but it took on the possibly harder task of reinventing the wheel. The humor in Friends managed to appeal to a much broader audience. The show’s writing and production teams turned a simple premise into one of the most successful shows ever produced as it was relatable on many levels; audiences could see themselves in the main characters as they navigated their path into adulthood. (It was also fun to aspire to Monica, Rachel and Phoebe’s beauty and style, Joey’s coolness, Chandler’s wit and Ross’s sweetness.)


Sure, many aspects were unrealistic (whose NY apartment is as big as Monica’s?), but issues of dating, connecting and falling out with friends, job stress, the fears of becoming independent and settling down, etc. are all universally familiar. And the producers tackled all of these subjects candidly, with light, topical humor and clever dialogue that never offended viewers. Plus, the cast’s genuine rapport and excellent comedic timing made the show an enduring – and endearing – legacy. It is the quintessential classic sitcom, which is why it remains so popular today.


The show’s character development showed depth and heart

Unlike Seinfeld, which purposely scoffed at character development, Friends let viewers grow with its characters. We followed and rooted for them as they matured, fell in and out of love, got pregnant, made mistakes and learned from them (how many divorces did Ross have?). Friends was skillfully unique in that it was a fun, light comedy that succeeded to have its characters evoke feeling about life’s struggles rather than just laughter (A perfect example is Monica and Chandler’s fertility issues).


Friends is easily translatable and therefore more influential

The fact that Seinfeld is almost impossible to replicate renders Friends the more influential series, given that it has set the bar and path for the creation of more successful sitcoms. Without Friends and its focus on friendship (as opposed to career or love – not to mention its redefining the concept of family), there would be no How I Met Your Mother, New Girl or even The Big Bang Theory, among others. Given the premise of Friends (see argument #1), which had 40-50 more episodes than Seinfeld, the show has also aged better than Seinfeld. Besides, the numbers don’t lie: Netflix paid some $100M to stream the series for 12 months, citing that it was the second-most watched program among American viewers in 2018.

Why Seinfeld is better than Friends


Seinfeld is innovative

Seinfeld revolutionized television, which is quite impressive for a show “about nothing.” But it’s precisely because the show’s story lines were about different aspects (and complaints) of everyday life, ranging from the mundane to the controversial, that Seinfeld made such a lasting impact. The show was especially groundbreaking by boldly and sophisticatedly turning taboo issues, never before addressed on television, into comic gold. (Before Seinfeld, had anyone ever dared discuss in public “being a master of their domain”?)


It redefined the use of characters

Seinfeld was unique in that it made its secondary characters a central part of what viewers loved about the show. The (blessedly) long list of secondary characters that had recurring appearances are so funny and memorable that they feel as if they are regulars. Unlike other sitcoms before and since, Seinfeld’s secondary characters weren’t necessarily just about advancing the story but also about providing laughs, which is equally important.


The show was also the first of its kind to go against the grain of typical feel-good sitcoms to nurture the rise of the antiheroSeinfeld pioneered the idea that main characters don’t have to be good or likable. They can be superficial, peculiar, painfully honest or downright immoral and still make audiences laugh and root for them (like being relieved when your fiancé dies.) Because the show didn’t have emotional glue, it needed to – and succeeded at – being funny at every turn.


Seinfeld had a distinctive and rich world that fueled a fandom culture around the show.

Seinfeld’s rich catalogue of unique references served as a cultural hotbed for viewers to bond with each other over the show. For example, before the actor Michael Richard’s racist rant in a comedy club changed public opinion, his character of Kramer was a cult figure. Also, no other sitcom in TV history has produced such a long list of catchphrases that have made such a lasting, cross-generational impression on pop-culture lexicon. The show not only invented new concepts (“low talker” and “double-dip,” among many more) but also gave us phrases and terms that have contributed to our modern-day vernacular, like “yada, yada, yada.”


The Bottom Line: The Friends vs. Seinfeld debate boils down to the following question: Which is more commendable – inventing something new or successfully reinventing a classic sitcom formula?

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