This post was originally published in Pigeonholes on Medium.
The recent Friends reunion on HBO Max has put one of the most popular sitcoms of all time back in the spotlight 17 years after the show’s final episode.
While the special itself was a fun, shallow bit of nostalgia for the cast, creators, and Gen X and older Millennial viewers, the coverage around the special has been far more interesting. Many talented writers have explored what the homophobia and whiteness of Friends mean for our culture today:
Friends is 25 years old. It’s still extremely popular — and polarizing
‘Friends’ Co-Creator Struggles With the Show’s Very White Legacy
But missing from the current Friends discourse has been any discussion of one of the show’s greatest creative secrets.
One of the reasons the ensemble format held together for ten years was the labor solidarity among the cast. If the friends of Friends hadn’t banded together to bargain for equal salaries, the show would have had a much shorter run, and it would not have become the cultural touchstone (and lighting rod) it is today.
Labor solidarity made Friends a better show creatively.
During the first season of Friends, all six cast members were each paid $22,500 an episode. This made sense. They were all talented, but mostly unknown actors, and the show was an ensemble. There were no stars. Each of the six characters figured prominently in the different storylines.
However, during season two, David Schwimmer’s Ross and Jennifer Aniston’s Rachel became national sweethearts as the “will they or won’t they” tension between them began to build.
This led to pay increases for Schwimmer and Aniston, but not for the rest of the cast.
Much to Schwimmer’s and Aniston’s credit, they felt uncomfortable with the pay disparity and talked to their co-stars about it.
All six cast members decided to negotiate as a group for equal pay starting in season three. Schwimmer and Aniston leveraged their popularity by threatening to boycott tapings and accepting pay cuts to ensure all six members of the cast were paid equally.
This group negotiating tactic held for the remainder of the show’s run, culminating in the cast each earning $1 million an episode in seasons nine and ten.
Why Equal Pay Mattered to Friends
In interviews, the cast mainly describes the need to negotiate together as a form of friendship and solidarity.
And while everyone making the same amount of money undoubtedly helped everyone feel better about working on the show, this choice also had profound creative consequences.
Imagine an alternate timeline where Aniston and Schwimmer don’t take a pay cut and instead delight in the popularity of their characters. The studio executives would have put incredible pressure on the showrunners Marta Kauffman and David Crane to feature the popular pair more, especially since the dynamic duo was costing the studio more.
Friends would have become The Ross and Rachel Show. Would the other now supporting members of the cast have stuck around for ten seasons, or would they have taken other opportunities, ones that promised more pay?
If you’ve ever watched a documentary about how a rock band broke up, it’s not hard to imagine how pay disparities that would only grow over time would strain the relationships of the cast members and their commitment to a group project.
Without the labor solidarity of the cast, there would likely never have been the fan-favorite storylines where Chandler and Monica end up together or Phoebe’s and Mike’s relationship.
Friends succeeded because the talented ensemble cast made it easier for the talented writers to create fun storylines for six different characters instead of only writing “A” stories for Ross and Rachel each week and doling out “B” stories to the rest of the cast.
Divide and Conquer
Despite its reputation as a liberal town, Hollywood is an intensely conservative place. Big business is king. Money and free markets run amok over creative sensibilities. One of the strategies management has used against labor from time immemorial is to divide and conquer.
One reason Schwimmer and Aniston began to get paid more early on was management’s desire to divide the cast. You can lower your overall labor costs if you can make some people happy getting paid more than others. People tend to see success in relative terms. If I’m doing better than someone else, I’m successful.
However, by showing labor solidarity, the cast forced management to pay out the highest salaries possible. Instead of seeing success as an individual enterprise, the cast of Friends saw success as a group project. This not only helped the cast out, it also made the entire show better. It was a small victory for creatives in an industry where creatives are often used as fuel for the money-making machines.
Long-Term Consequences of Labor Solidarity
Negotiating together didn’t just help Schwimmer, Aniston, Courteney Cox, Matthew Perry, Matt LeBlanc, and Lisa Kudrow enjoy bigger paydays and more amicable work relationships during the run of their sitcom; it also improved the rest of their careers.
In Hollywood, like a lot of industries, once you have achieved a pay level, that becomes your new floor. It opens up new possibilities. It also proves that you are worth leading-actor-level money and acclaim. You get offered better projects.
Studios knew that someone had once found those actors were worth $1 million an episode. Future executives knew these stars could generate profits in excess of their salaries — and that is what motivates executives to greenlight projects.
No matter what you think of the show Friends or its cast, the fact that six actors stood together and negotiated equal pay in an industry incredibly resistant to equal pay and creative labor solidarity is a ray of hope for any creatives hoping to get paid well to do great work.
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