For ten seasons, Friends (which premiered in 1994 and aired its final episode in 2004) was one of the biggest sitcoms in television history. It made the entire cast into superstars, it inspired white women to run out and get their hair cut and styled just like Jennifer Aniston, it inspired a spin-off that not only got mixed reviews, but also got its ass kicked in the ratings by a much better and funnier sitcom on UPN (!) called Everybody Hates Chris. It helped NBC gain plenty of bragging rights in the ’90s, thanks to Friends being part of its Thursday night “Must-See TV” lineup. And the show also won several Emmys, including Outstanding Comedy Series, Outstanding Lead Actress In A Comedy Series for Aniston, Outstanding Supporting Actress In A Comedy Series for Lisa Kudrow, and Outstanding Directing For A Comedy Series.
So now that the cast of Friends (Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry, David Schwimmer) are finally appearing onscreen together once again for a reunion special on HBO Max that premieres today after it was originally delayed due to the worldwide catastrof-ck that is the COVID-19 pandemic, a reunion special, it is a perfect opportunity for us to discuss a hilarious and beloved sitcom that has kept millions of people laughing throughout the years.
And the sitcom I’m referring to isn’t Friends, but Living Single.
“Wait, but why the hell are you even writing about Living Single? Why aren’t you writing about Friends?”
If you’re asking that question, here’s my answer: Because I’ve only watched …
(counts on my fingers and racks my brain for at least ten minutes just to be absolutely sure)
…three whole episodes of Friends in its entire run. Brad Pitt was in one, Reese Witherspoon was in the other, and I think Jean-Claude Van Damme was in the third episode when everyone was trying to find Marcel the monkey. Oh wait, on second thought…it is actually four episodes of Friends that I’ve watched. It was that one episode where they all sat around watching a home video of their days in high school or something, and Rachel realized how much Ross has loved her for so many years and then they kiss and Phoebe says something about him being her lobster. So yes, I liked the episodes that I’ve seen, I’ve got nothing against the show, and I eventually plan to binge-watch it on HBO Max when I’m done with binge-watching The Nanny, but if you’re looking to read about how great and hilarious Friends is, this is not the article for you.
For those of you who have never seen an episode, Living Single, which was created by Yvette Lee Bowser and premiered on FOX in 1993, is about the friendship between four Black women living in New York City: Khadijah James (Queen Latifah), editor/publisher of the urban-lifestyle magazine Flavor; Synclaire James (Kim Coles), Khadijah’s bubbly and warm-hearted cousin who works as a receptionist at Flavor while pursuing her dreams to become an actress; Regine Hunter (Kim Fields), a boutique buyer with very expensive tastes (along with numerous wigs) and constantly on the lookout for a man who can easily provide her with the finer and expensive things in life; and Maxine “Max” Shaw (Erika Alexander), an incredibly skilled attorney with little to no tolerance for other people’s bullsh-t (especially not for bullsh-t coming from men), who mainly cares about only four things in life (“Food, shelter, my career, and good sex.”), and who spends more time at the Brooklyn brownstone where Khadijah, Synclaire, and Regine live than she does in her own apartment across the street. They frequently hang out with their other two friends who also reside in the brownstone: Kyle Barker (T.C. Carson), an arrogant and smooth-talking stockbroker who regularly exchanges insults with Max whenever they see each other (and their verbal sparring truly was the stuff of comedy legend), and his roommate/longtime best friend Overton Wakefield Jones (John Henton), the building handyman who loves to share nuggets of wisdom with his friends when he’s not trying to flirt with Synclaire. When they’re not working hard and trying to keep their heads up while doing so, their personal lives give each of them plenty of reasons to turn to each other for support, and also for some snacks and gossip, since minding their business and respecting each other’s privacy is not really much of an option.
Much like The Golden Girls, that other classic sitcom about four women under one roof, the women of Living Single each had their roles to play in their circle of friends. Khadijah was the big sister of the group who would look out for everyone’s well-being while also not hesitating to call them out when they were acting a fool; Synclaire was the bright-eyed idealist who looked for the best in everyone and everything while also saying the occasional thing that would make her friends shake their heads and look at her like she had no damn sense; Regine enjoyed and welcomed the attention that men would lavish on her, while also looking for a man who is very willing and able to spend just as much money on her as she does on herself; and Max is so good at verbally tearing her friends to shreds and not being all that friendly to them that it makes you wonder just why they even keep her around in the first place.
But despite how much they differ from each other personality-wise, it doesn’t change how much they care about one another (though they may not always say it out loud, Synclaire definitely being the exception to this rule) and how they hold each other down through good times and bad as only Black women can, such as discussing what fake names to use when you’re out at the club and you’re approached by ugly dudes with gold teeth and no game whatsoever. Or talking about how women really need to treat the men around them so that said men will know how to act in their presence. (Max: “A good man is like fine wine. They all start out like grapes. Our job is to stomp on them. And then keep them in the dark until they’ve matured into something we wouldn’t mind having dinner with.”) Accepting that therapy can and does help when you’re suffering from personal and professional burnout. Finding yourself attracted to/dating men that you know damn well you should not be attracted to or dating because it probably won’t end well, whether it’s your ex-boyfriend-turned-boss … a college student who is young enough to be starting his sophomore year … a man who you just hired to write for your magazine not because he’s talented but because he’s good-looking, only to realize that he can’t actually write or even spell worth a damn…a handsome doctor who just moved into your brownstone, and who turns out to be cheap as hell and so boring that he can’t talk about anything else over dinner other than the specifics of his job … another handsome doctor who you find out was involved in surgically removing your hemorrhoids … a TV meteorologist and his father at the same damn time … and so on, and so forth.
As for Kyle and Overton, they each prove themselves more than once to be deserving of the women’s time and friendship. Kyle tells Regine what she truly needs to hear in order to help her regain her confidence after undergoing breast-reduction surgery, and Overton can always be counted on to lend a helping hand, whether it’s with advice for any of the women’s personal or professional issues, or for fixing anything in their apartment that needs fixing. And under no circumstances will either of these men allow anyone to straight-up disrespect their friends in their presence.
The main cast members were clearly hilarious and talented in every episode, and the long list of guest stars who would appear onscreen with them were nothing to scoff at, either. Those included… (takes deep breath) Morris Chestnut, Nia Long, Vivica A. Fox, the late and great Heavy D, Bumper Robinson, Isaiah Washington (before he was making an ass of himself on the set of Grey’s Anatomy and also on Twitter), Tatyana Ali, Gladys Knight, Terrence Howard, Cree Summer, Kadeem Hardison, Mario Van Peebles, Melvin Van Peebles, Jasmine Guy, Monica, Giancarlo Esposito, Sherri Shepherd, Khalil Kain, Shaun Baker (whose Jamaican accent was even more atrocious than the one used by Bianca Lawson when she played Kendra on Buffy The Vampire Slayer), Joseph Marcell, Harold Perrineau Jr., Grant Hill, the late Thomas Mikal Ford, Tone Loc, TLC, C.C.H. Pounder, Arsenioooooooooooooooooooooooo Hall, the late and great Eartha Kitt, and many, many others.
When Living Single aired on FOX, it was during the ’90s when there was so much more Black entertainment and Afrocentric content to be found on movie and television screens, in bookstores and music stores. Granted, much of this was done in an experimental manner, particularly with upstart television networks like FOX, UPN, and The WB giving the green light to numerous shows with largely Black casts due to their need for content and viewers. And when those shows would produce enough episodes to qualify for syndication, which was usually after four or five seasons, they would often end up being canceled, regardless of how good the ratings were.
Living Single was unable to avoid this fate as well. The fifth and final season not only had its episode count cut down to thirteen, but it also dealt with the loss of one of its cast members: T.C. Carson, who left the show after its fifth-season premiere, and was seen again only in the series finale when Max and Kyle reunited and finally realized that they loved each other and were truly meant to be together. (He was soon replaced by Mel Jackson Jr., who played “Tripp” Williams, Khadijah and Regine’s new roommate after Synclaire and Overton marry and move in together) There were many Living Single fans who spent years being under the impression that T.C. had possibly left the show of his own volition, maybe to pursue a career in film like David Caruso or George Clooney, but the truth was that T.C. didn’t quit playing Kyle on Living Single, he was actually fired from playing Kyle on Living Single, which he was more than willing to explain in this interview with Comedy Hype on YouTube…
T.C. being fired from the show (which happened after the network promised him that such a thing was not going to happen) was one of many ways that Living Single didn’t get the respect and appreciation that it deserved, not from its production studio, Warner Bros. and not from FOX, and the lack of respect and appreciation only became more evident after Friends made its debut. From wanting Kyle and Overton to be more silly and dumbed-down in order to get more laughs (which T.C. and John Henton had problems with, as neither of them wanted to appear in a show as two Black men acting like buffoons opposite four strong Black women), to the lack of promotion and marketing (even changing its time slot from Sunday nights to Thursday nights opposite Friends), and just the fact that the Living Single cast wasn’t paid nearly as much as the Friends cast (by the time Friends reached its fifth season, the cast of that show made $100,000 per episode). And as for the Friends reunion special, which saw each cast member getting paid at least $2 million for their participation, Erika Alexander had this to say regarding the 25th anniversary reunion special for Living Single that aired on TV One back in 2018:
“…although I was working and could not participate, I won’t post the terms offered for our 25th-year reunion show…Let’s just say it was less than 2 million, lol.”
As if all of that wasn’t enough, David Schwimmer set off one hell of a firestorm in an interview he did last year with The Guardian. When answering questions as to why Friends is still as popular now as it was back then and how some of its jokes haven’t aged all that well, Schwimmer said this:
…Friends’ renaissance came with a sting. Awkward questions suggest it has not aged well. “Millennials watching Friends on Netflix shocked by storylines,” ran a headline in the Independent two years ago, noting criticisms of sexism, homophobia and transphobia. It cited, for example, Chandler worrying about being perceived as a gay man, Ross asking a male nanny if he is gay, and jokes about Monica’s weight.
It is the only moment of the interview where Schwimmer appears a little defensive. “I don’t care,” he says, dismissively. “The truth is also that show was groundbreaking in its time for the way in which it handled so casually sex, protected sex, gay marriage and relationships. The pilot of the show was my character’s wife left him for a woman and there was a gay wedding, of my ex and her wife, that I attended.
“I feel that a lot of the problem today in so many areas is that so little is taken in context. You have to look at it from the point of view of what the show was trying to do at the time. I’m the first person to say that maybe something was inappropriate or insensitive, but I feel like my barometer was pretty good at that time. I was already really attuned to social issues and issues of equality.”
Friends is also a product of the pre-“woke” era when it comes to race. “Maybe there should be an all-black Friends or an all-Asian Friends,” Schwimmer says. “But I was well aware of the lack of diversity and I campaigned for years to have Ross date women of colour. One of the first girlfriends I had on the show was an Asian American woman, and later I dated African American women. That was a very conscious push on my part.
Not surprisingly, it didn’t take long for people on the Internet to shut Schwimmer down and remind him that there already was an all-Black version of Friends. And that show was called Living Single, which was the whole reason why Friends was even on the air, according to Queen Latifah herself (with just a little bit of instigating from Jason Sudeikis).
One of those people on the Internet who went after Schwimmer and told him that he needed to put some respeck on Living Single’s name was Erika Alexander, who had something to say on both Twitter and on Medium.
Hey @DavidSchwimmer @FriendsTV - r u seriously telling me you’ve never heard of #LivingSingle? We invented the template! Yr welcome bro. ;) David Schwimmer 2 The Guardian: “Maybe there should be an all-black Friends or an all-Asian Friends” https://t.co/r8W1ZHBwoy— Erika Alexander (@EAlexTheGreat) January 28, 2020
“What’s ironic is that David was speaking to his awareness of White male privilege. What’s unfortunate is that he created an interesting example of it while doing so, because the show he was in was not the original, it was a knock-off. So there can never be an all-Black Friends, because Friends was the all-white Living Single. It sounds funny to say it, but identifying that fact is exactly where the conversation starts to grow bigger than him, me, or a spontaneous tweet fight.”
And soon after all that, Schwimmer apologized for sticking both feet in his mouth and not acknowledging the existence and popularity of Living Single.
The monumental success of Friends may have inspired plenty of imitators trying to follow in its footsteps, but Living Single and its influence on the television industry is just as impossible to ignore. To look at shows like Sex And The City or Girlfriends or Run The World (which just premiered on STARZ, has Yvette Lee Bowser as both showrunner and co-executive producer with the show’s creator, Leigh Davenport, and features Erika Alexander in a supporting role) is to know that their existence and success owe a great deal to Khadijah, Synclaire, Max, and Regine living the single life in a nineties kind of world. NBC may have had Friends and Must-See TV, but thanks to the Thursday-night triple threat that was Martin, Living Single, and New York Undercover, Black and brown viewers who wanted to laugh and be entertained by actors who looked like them had their own version of Must-See TV, and it didn’t involve clapping along to The Rembrandts singing “I’ll Be There For You” while watching six white people dance around in front of a fountain.
For anyone and everyone wanting to watch four Black women and two Black men be funny and sexy and hard-working and successful and unapologetic about who they are, Living Single was, is, and always will be the show to give you just what you’re looking for.
And let’s keep it 100: the theme music for Living Single is much better than the theme song for Friends (though I’d be lying my ass off if I said that I don’t clap along at the appropriate moment whenever I hear it).
All five seasons of Living Single (and the less said about the fifth season, the better) are now streaming on Hulu.
Image sources (in order of posting): Everett Collection, Deborah Feingold/Corbis via Getty Images, Warner Bros. Television