I talked about Friends very briefly today and that got me thinking about one of my favorite things about the holidays: TV specials. Nowadays (boy do I hate that word), TV comes at you all at once so you can binge watch it, so the holiday special might be dying off. This would make me sad if I still watched TV, I guess, but I also realize that everything evolves, and shit can’t stay the same just because I like it that way, goddammit!
But we’ll always have the holiday special of yore. No, not those ones with the music and the variety–who cares about those?? I mean the ones that matter, you know, the ones I like, where your favorite sitcom would do a Halloween or Christmas episode (or sometimes even a musical).
Friends is my favorite sitcom and my favorite Christmas episode is probably S02E09, “The One with Phoebe’s Dad.” I always felt very akin to Phoebe (and you can fuck right off, Buzzfeed, with that “you’re a Mike!” bullshit). Like a lot of sitcoms in the 90s, the characters are a bit extreme and you can find a part of yourself in all of them, but I think I have the most in common with Feebs. No, I never lived on the street, I don’t have an estranged twin on Mad About You, a bum’s never spit in my mouth, but I do both play acoustic guitar and sing really terribly, am vegetarian, and I spent a long stretch of my life not knowing who my father was.
So, first of all, in this episode specifically, Phoebe tells everyone “Happy Christmas Eve Eve” which is just fucking cute, so I needed to get that out of the way. Then she grabs a picture frame that Ross purchased to give to his parents from Ben that currently has a stock photo of a man in it. She says, “Where did you get this? This is my father, this is a picture of my dad!” The audience laughs because Phoebe is a fucking weirdo and haha she’s so dumb thinking that stock actor is her dad! After Chandler tells her “that’s the guy that comes in the frame” and Rachel questions how Phoebe has never been on Oprah because her step-dad is in jail and her biological dad left her mom before she was born (because that’s such an uncommon thing for men to do, right?), Phoebe shows them a photo her mother gave her of the same guy, but it’s obviously stock as well. She has an epiphanous moment and goes off to speak to her grandmother (since her mom is dead–there’s a lot of tragic backstory).
When she talks to her grandma, she gets the truth out of her. Frances confesses, “It was your mother’s idea, you know, she didn’t want you to know your real father because it hurt her so much when he left, and I didn’t want to go along with it, but then she died and it was harder to argue with her. Not impossible, but harder.”
Phoebe has to quickly come to terms with the fact that her father isn’t a famous tree surgeon and doesn’t live in a hut in Burma where there are no phones. Phoebe is easily characterized on the surface as dumb or naive, but she understands the truth fairly quickly despite having believed her father was the stock photo guy for years. Of course, not that much character development can happen in 22 minutes, I get that, but from having experienced something at least a little similar, I like to think what’s going on here is that she always knew the truth, but it just didn’t slap her in the face until the moment it came out of her own mouth. Of course the stock photo guy was never her father, but she didn’t want to have to admit it because the alternative–not knowing at all–is much worse.
I got info on my biological father from my grandma as well, and it took me years to work up the courage to ask. I didn’t believe my dad was a stock photo guy, I knew explicitly that I didn’t know him at all and no one ever volunteered any information on him, not even a terrible lie, but I certainly made up stories in my head about who he was, and that was a big part of why asking about him was so scary. I’d created multiple fantasies that were all undoubtedly superior to the truth. Even the scenarios where he was a villain (these, admittedly, prevailed) were preferable to whatever the truth was because I could control them and they were easy. They were black and white, and my feelings could be written in short, simple sentences, even single words. The truth is messy and complex, and no one wants to live that.
Phoebe’s grandma tells her she’s “better off without him” which everyone loves to tell you. I won’t even get into this, but fuck is it patronizing to tell someone this. Just don’t do it. Even if you’ve been in the “same” situation, no one can know what any other person is truly going through, so fuck off with that. It takes a whole new scene for Frances to fess up that she knows even more about the father: his exact address.
As an aside: When Phoebe gets the address and the keys to her grandma’s cab and goes to leave on her quest to find her dad, she quips. “Wish me luck, Grandpa!” to a photo of Albert Einstein that her grandma keeps by the front door. It’s played for laughs, and I’m sure this wasn’t the intention, but it’s an interesting layer to add that Phoebe’s grandmother was likely also knocked up and walked out on.
Phoebe takes Chandler and Joey with her on the drive (their B, or maybe C, story is that they haven’t purchased any Christmas presents yet despite that it’s Christmas Eve and she plans to take them to the outlet mall after the “about two hours” Chandler thinks she’ll need with her biological father–ha). She’s really excited about the prospect of meeting her dad. It’s here where she and I differ. But then she freezes and can’t do it. And so I find my spirit animal again.
She runs back and forth to the house a couple times once they park outside it. Joey asks her what’s going on (he is the dumb one, after all) and the following occurs:
Phoebe: It’s just like a whole mess of stuff. Like yesterday, my dad was the whole Burma tree surgeon guy and now, ya know, he’s a pharmacist guy and…
Joey: Well, maybe he’s this really cool pharmacist guy.
Phoebe: Yeah, maybe! And maybe I’ll knock on the door and he’ll hug me, and…I’ll have a dad! And I’ll go to his pharmacy and everyone will be really nice to me because, ya know, I’m Frank’s daughter.
Chandler: So why not go knock?
Phoebe: Well because what if…what if he’s not this great dad guy? I mean, what if, what if he’s just still the dirtbag who ran out on my mom and us?
Phoebe: Ya know what, I’ve already lost a fake dad this week, and I don’t think I’m ready to lose a real one.
First of all, the acting in this scene is phenomenal for a sitcom. There were a lot of forced jokes and dumb remarks on Friends, like most 90s sitcoms, but the show had a charm to it that was unique to its time. The characters poked fun at one another and did stupid things, but they appeared to love one another, and they had real struggles that the writers treated carefully. Everything wasn’t always tied into a neat bow at the end. It got popular for a while to rewatch old sitcoms and talk about how problematic they were and how easy it was to hate all the characters because they were so terrible, but in rewatching this, I don’t find that to be true at all. Even Ross was likeable in this episode!
So ultimately Phoebe chickens out which I have done SO MANY TIMES, but everyone loves her anyway, and the conclusion she comes to is acceptable for the audience, her friends, and most importantly to her. It’s also convenient because it allows the writers to bring this plot back later on, but we’ll forget about that for right now.
This episode isn’t really about Christmas so much as it is about Phoebe, but Christmas is a great backdrop to her story. When the holidays come around everyone loves to talk about family, this concept that’s pretty foreign to some people in the sense that others like to consider it. I don’t think family is a list of people who are related to you. Honestly, blood relation means nothing, obviously, when it can be walked away from so easily. What matters is who sticks around and who puts you first and loves you. And maybe that’s what Christmas is about too.
During the credits scene, Joey and Chandler hand out the makeshift gifts they got for everyone at the gas station since they didn’t get their shopping done. While Rachel, Ross, and Monica sarcastically accept the car wipers, soda, and condoms they respectively received, Phoebe is genuinely excited about the toilet seat covers she’s given. Again, it’s played to highlight her naiveté. Oh, harhar, these boys were thoughtless and you bought into that! But there’s a better analysis of that exchange, at least better in my eyes. Phoebe had a great many Christmases where she got nothing, and any gift would mean the world to her. Chandler and Joey had already given her the support she needed in the car–they didn’t care that they couldn’t ultimately go shopping because she couldn’t make up her mind to go in or not, and they listened to her and accepted the decision she made. And then, AND THEN, on top of that, they did give her something tangible after all. It was all more than she expected, and more than she probably felt she deserved.
And now, please enjoy this somewhat musical clip from a totaly different episode.