NBC’s “Must-See TV” line-up in the ‘90s was dominated by two sitcoms about a group of pals in New York: Friends and Seinfeld. There’s been a long-running debate ever since about which was the better show. Friends might be more accessible and mainstream, but there’s a strong argument to be made that Seinfeld is the superior show.
Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David’s hit show had more of an idiosyncratic voice, it was more innovative – it has its own identity. There’s a lot of things that make Seinfeld the better show. So, here are 10 things Seinfeld did better than Friends.
Friends fans hate Seinfeld fans – they see them as stuffy comedy snobs. So, before we delve into what Seinfeld did better than Friends, it’s important to note that there is a couple of things Friends did better than Seinfeld, too. It’s difficult to create and perform characters that are as lovable as those in the ensemble of Friends, and Friends’ series finale is certainly a stronger conclusion than Seinfeld’s.
Having said that, the characters in Friends are just walking, talking joke books, whereas the characters in Seinfeld are real people – and the humor is drawn from that. Everything they say is funny because it’s true to their characterization, which is funny in itself. Kramer is a funny character, whereas Ross is a character who says funny things. Rachel and Monica could swap most of their lines and no one would be able to tell – you couldn’t do that with Jerry and George.
Situations are pretty important in a situation comedy, because as the name suggests, that’s where the comedy comes from. And sitcoms tend to be funnier if the situation feels relatable, like it could actually happen in real life. Seinfeld might have been called a “show about nothing,” but that’s only because it focused on the minutiae of real life.
Friends had larger-than-life plots about cooking beef into a trifle and accidentally chopping off a toe and having a pet monkey – but come on, who the hell has a pet monkey? No one can relate to that. What people can relate to is struggling to find your car in a giant parking structure or waiting for a table in a Chinese restaurant or arguing over who’s going to pay at a restaurant with your parents.
8 Utilizing guest stars
Any show that’s as popular as Seinfeld or Friends is going to attract some A-list talent for guest appearances. However, Seinfeld used its guest stars much more effectively than Friends. By the last couple of seasons of Friends, all of its episodes were reliant on the big-name guest stars, lazily shoving in someone like Brad Pitt just to get a reaction out of the audience.
RELATED: 10 Best Friends Guest Stars, Ranked
But Seinfeld used its guest stars to play characters like any other. It’s safe to say that no one would care about Will if he wasn’t played by Brad Pitt. Meanwhile, Seinfeld’s “close talker” is an interesting character whether he’s played by Judge Reinhold or not. Oh, and the Marisa Tomei storyline was fantastic – her fame and beauty paired with her (presumably) fictional fetish for short, stocky, bald men were used to present an exaggerated version of men in relationships being tempted by other women.
Friends always went for the cheapest laughs. The writers always took the easiest route by having the characters insult each other by hitting the easiest targets or say something sarcastic. However, in Seinfeld, all of the jokes serve a story. If there’s a punchline, it’s there to pay off an earlier setup or tie two story threads together.
The humor is smarter and more sophisticated in Seinfeld. That’s not to say that there isn’t room for humor like that in Friends, but it doesn’t take as much craft or skill or work as the jokes in Seinfeld, which is what makes them better.
Seinfeld has its own distinctive style of dialogue that evokes the likes of Abbott and Costello and Neil Simon. Everyone remembers how conversations in Seinfeld go: a snappy back-and-forth among the group with wit and a fast pace. The show’s dialogue has rhythm, it’s poetic – it’s dialogue for dialogue lovers. But Friends’ dialogue has no rhythm or back-and-forth.
No one’s bouncing off one another or riffing. It’s not even really dialogue – it’s just a joke delivery machine. The writers of Seinfeld relish the art and beauty of language. That might sound like an exaggeration or an overcomplication of the use of wordplay in a sitcom, but it’s not really. Certainly, compared to Friends, Seinfeld has incredible dialogue.
Jason Alexander, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Michael Richards are three of the finest comic actors who have ever lived and they fit into their roles perfectly. And while Jerry Seinfeld might not be a great actor, that’s because he’s not an actor. But as one of the greatest stand-up comics of all time, Seinfeld has pitch-perfect comedic timing on every line. Wayne Knight delivers every Newman monologue as if he’s in a Shakespeare play, and by the end of each one, he looks like he’s about to have a heart attack – that’s commitment.
Meanwhile, Jennifer Aniston delivers every Rachel line as if she’s surprised and Matthew Perry delivers all of Chandler’s jokes with the same arrogant smirk. It’s not really acting in the true sense.
Seinfeld episodes are so dense and complex and packed with little jokes and moments and details that they stand dozens upon dozens of rewatches. They never get old. It’s one of the very few shows where there isn’t really an unequivocally bad episode.
There are some weak spots and there was a general decline in quality after Larry David left at the end of season 7, but every episode has plenty of funny moments and a strong plot. Meanwhile, there are only about ten episodes of Friends that would stand that many rewatches. The rest get old after a couple of viewings.
The writers of Seinfeld had much more respect and talent for the craft of telling a story than the writers of Friends. Seinfeld episodes are all tightly plotted and dovetail their different storylines together, weaving in and out of one another. It’s really something. The plotting of Friends, however, is just that of a generic, lazy sitcom.
A typical Friends episode goes like this: This happens, and then this happens, and then this happens – oh, and this happens to Joey – the end. Meanwhile, a typical Seinfeld episode goes like this: This happens, because that happened, but then this happens, and then this and that converge in a way that pays off both story threads.
2 Supporting characters
Is there a single supporting character in Friends you can say you really liked? Anyone whose return to the show you really celebrated? The few candidates the show has for an endearing supporting character, like Janice, had become unbearable and overused by the end of the series.
Seinfeld, meanwhile, has an endless list of hilarious supporting characters you wanted to see come back again and again: Newman, Steinbrenner, Peterman, Jerry’s parents, George’s parents, Kenny Bania, Jackie Chiles, David Puddy. All of those characters were brilliantly drawn, played perfectly by their actors, and kept reappearing across the show’s nine seasons, yet they never got old.
1 Targeting jokes
In Seinfeld, like in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, the characters are terrible, despicable people. But that’s the joke. When Elaine stops to get Jujyfruits before going to see her boyfriend in the hospital, the jokes are all at her expense for doing something so awful. However, that’s not what Friends does.
When Chandler’s transgender father is the butt of every joke in Friends, the joke isn’t at the expense of transphobic people for their outrageous ignorance – it’s simply at the expense of the transgender character, for being transgender, which isn’t very funny. Both Friends and Seinfeld have mean-spirited humor, but Seinfeld is much better at aiming it at the right targets.