So much of the humor on “Friends” stems from hyperbole. Joey breaks a chair and it’s “the best day ever!” Chandler and Janice have “the worst breakup ever.” Monica’s co-worker is “the funniest guy she’s ever met.” Of America’s mostly beloved sixsome, Phoebe Buffay, the corkscrew blonde, guitar-playing masseuse played by Lisa Kudrow, would seem like the primary candidate for this brand of funny.
Phoebe is presented to us as the extreme one, the oddball sidekick, the manic pixie antecedent with a résumé that would read like satire. And sure, “Friends” was on for a decade so she was bound to amplify a few slights into devastations. (After she neglects to tell an old boyfriend about a current one, she calls herself “the worst person ever.”) Oh, Phoebe. So dramatic. But 25 years later, it’s Phoebe who emerges as the least hyperbolic, most nuanced and ahead-of-her-time character on the show.
Herewith is the Phoebe-based exchange that I like to bring up as the most charming moment of any sitcom ever. It comes at the end of the first season, as she’s telling the group about a guy with whom she’s smitten.
“Did you ever see ‘An Officer and a Gentleman?’” Phoebe asks.
“Yeah …” Rachel says, intrigued.
“Well, he’s kind of like the guy I went to see that with.”
It’s a timeless bit. However, unlike most jokes on the show, this one is practically unheralded by the cast. There’s no pause (though Courteney Cox does seem like she’s trying not to crack up) because Kudrow brilliantly plows through the audience laughter, her character besotted and hunting for more dreamy nuggets of description. In this way, Phoebe’s humor resembles the streaming comedy of today — far more about pathos mixed with verbal pyrotechnics than it is bullet points of “oh, that’s just so you.” Now we take for granted comedy that traffics in realism and bluntness, that feels a little subversive. But Phoebe was ever thus.
When she is too pregnant to fly to London for Ross and Emily’s wedding, she calls to check in.
“How did you get this number?” asks Emily’s mother, incredulous.
“I got it from your maid,” she deadpans. “She’s a bitch but I wore her down.”
At the same time, Phoebe never uses her comedic powers for manipulation, but as a delivery system for joy. This is hard for anyone to pull off, real or fictional, over the course of 30 minutes, let alone 236 episodes. She’s also the least overtly sexualized and least “traditional” woman on the show — she is consumed with neither marriage nor monogamy nor motherhood — which gives her the sage-like freedom of someone impervious to the male gaze. Unlike with her lovable Lothario counterpart, Joey, there’s certainly a Tao of Phoebe that’s worth pilfering. When declining to go to a party: “I wish I could, but I don’t want to.” When no one at work likes your ideas: “Come dinosaur, we’re not welcome in the house of no imagination.” When engaging in self-promotion: “If you want to receive emails about my upcoming shows, please give me money so I can buy a computer.”
One can see how Phoebe’s character was originally pitched, can almost hear words like spacey and quirky being bandied about. But she clearly became a writer’s room darling. She’s tucked into a pigeonhole of eccentricity but her humanity shines the brightest. In earlier seasons, there’s some redundancy of character — Monica and Rachel are both straightmen, Ross and Chandler are equally dorky — but there was only ever one Phoebe Buffay. She experiences profound emotional touchstones, like relinquishing the triplets she gestated for her half brother, but also gets the most granular attributes of the six.
Like a precursor to Dwight Schrute in “The Office,” Phoebe is a Trojan horse for dark humor on a network sitcom. Ross has his dinosaurs, Rachel has Bloomingdale’s, Monica is a neat freak, but Phoebe gets the grit of the world. Her mother killed herself in the family kitchen, her father abandoned their family, her stepfather went to prison, her twin sister rarely acknowledges her, her childhood toy was a barrel, she has at least one green-card marriage under her guitar strap, and she spent her Sweet Sixteen “being chased round a tire yard by an escaped mental patient who, in his own words, wanted to ‘kill me’ or whatever.”
Miraculously, she emerged from this history as a bomb of self-confidence (“I’m very bendy”) and open-mindedness in a show that has some painfully politically incorrect moments. Phoebe doesn’t have to try for inclusivity; it comes naturally to her because she’s the only one who knows what life looks like outside these rent-controlled walls. She has made her friends her family not as a perk but because she had to. She had no other option but to solicit their help in creating the Thanksgiving she never had or to run like a little kid around Central Park with her. And because she gives as good as she gets, she’s the one you’d most want to be friends with.
During one of the final episodes of the show, Phoebe and Rachel spot Chandler getting into a car with a woman who is decidedly not Monica. Convinced that he’s cheating on their friend, Phoebe suggests they follow him.
“Oh, O.K.,” Rachel says, “Let me just grab my night vision goggles and my stun gun.”
With another character in another scene on a different show, that might have been the end of the joke. It’s good enough. But not with Phoebe in the room.
“I got ‘em,” she says, patting her bag like the most dependable friend ever.
Sloane Crosley is the author, most recently, of “Look Alive Out There.”