Yesterday, I stumbled across the above meme on my Facebook timeline. Naturally, my first reaction was hell yeah. Of course, “Living Single” was better than “Friends.”
But then I had to ask myself, do I really believe “Living Single” was better than “Friends” simply because I can relate to the Black characters a little bit more than the White ones?
In all fairness, I watched a lot more “Living Single” than “Friends,” still with the way the latter show dominated in ratings and influenced pop culture, it was difficult to avoid altogether. So I’ve seen enough episodes to know the characters’ personalities, their storylines and of course, Phoebe’s “Smelly Cat” song.
But when I think about the show as a whole, I generally found it to be mindlessly entertaining. You might have watched the show and chuckled once or twice, but ultimately found it hard to describe what you just watched. Like “Seinfeld,” it was perhaps designed to be a show about nothing. Unlike “Seinfeld” though, the dialogue surrounding these everyday occurrences was rather surface. I posed the question to my boyfriend afterward and he agreed that “Friends” was mostly just a series of jokes, back to back to back, about a particular situation.
He said, basically, that when you’re done watching “Friends,” you’re just done watching “Friends.” But when you finish an episode of “Living Single,” even if it wasn’t particularly serious, often times you asked yourself what you would have done or would do in a similar situation. And I think that speaks not only to the writing of the show but also the fact that the characters on “Living Single” were just more developed. They were all so distinct yet it still made sense for them to be friends. I could be wrong, but I don’t recall that distinctiveness with the characters from “Friends.”
And for those who might be wondering, despite the ways in which “Friends” eventually eclipsed “Living Single” ratings wise, (“Friends” was rated number 3 out of 114 shows, while “Living Single” was 85.) it didn’t air until the year after “Living Single” premiered.
As Kim Fields said in a Los Angeles Times interview, “Living Single” is not the Black friends, instead, “Friends” is the White “Living Single.”
I don’t know how much development “Friends” had undergone before it was released, but the similarities to its all Black predecessor are uncanny. 20-something New York implants, living in the same building. There’s the slightly slow guy Overton—> Joey. There’s the quirky and offbeat girl, Synclaire —> Phoebe. There are the potential relationships between the characters. Overton and Synclaire or Kyle and Max—> Chandler and Monica and Ross and Rachel. I could go on, but you get the point.
Aside from the fact that White people, a clear majority in the early ’90’s, were more likely to support and identify with a show that featured characters like them, it was also exaggerated by the fact that Warner Bros., the company that produced both “Living Single” and “Friends,” invested much more money into “Friends” than into “Living Single.”
In that same LA Times interview, Queen Latifah, remarking about the size of the “Friends” billboard, in comparison to the piece of billboard “Living Single” shared with other Warner Bros. shows, expressed her anger toward the discrepancy.
“It just pisses me off every time I see that ‘Friends’ billboard and the little piece of our billboard. I mean how much more of a push do they need?”
Yvette Bowser, “Living Single’s” creator and executive producer, said that neither Warner Bros., or Fox, the network that aired the show, were not there for them.
“It’s disappointing that we have never gotten that kind of push that ‘Friends’ has had. I have issues with the studio and the network over the promotion of this show.”
Being that Bowser was one of only a few Black women producers in the the television industry at the time, I’m sure there were other factors, beyond the show’s content, that made it less than the top priority for Warner Bros. or Fox.
Still, despite the failing of the network and studio, “Living Single” was still one of the most popular series for Black, Latino and teen audiences. I wonder how different those numbers would be today.
If you ask me “Living Single” is still getting the shaft. Today, over a decade after it went off the air, you can still find “Friends” merchandise being sold by NBC. And you better believe that all seasons are available on DVD. Meanwhile, I don’t even recall any “Living Single” merchandise. And as for DVDs, Warner Bros has only agreed to release the first season, alleging that there isn’t enough demand for the release of the other seasons.
Since Warner Bros. is still hellbent on downplaying the show’s brilliance, we’ll just have to celebrate our show ourselves. “Living Single” was easily better than “Friends.” And while we don’t have to put down one to uplift another, as Latifah said back in 1996, they don’t need another push.