It’s hard to underestimate the impact of “Friends” in paving the way for “The Big Bang Theory” and “How I Met Your Mother,” not just in terms of structure but international appeal. Throughout the ’90s, the show was so popular with viewers abroad that foreign policy advisers felt it was helping warm foreigners’ views toward Americans, furthering American global influence. Harvard scholar Joseph Nye coined the term “soft power” in 1989, arguing that American culture and values “remain attractive,” even when our governments prove internationally unpopular.
“Friends” has been key to the changing marketplace of global television. Research from Kaplan International in 2012 showed that “Friends” was the most popular show in helping foreigners learn English, with 26% of English students saying that watching episodes of the program helped them pick up on American idioms.
The program is so embedded in how foreigners understand English that Kaplan’s Martin Hofschroer claimed he once heard his Arab cab driver use Chandler Bing’s famous catchphrase. While stuck in New York’s infamous auto congestion, his cabbie shouted, “Could there be any more traffic?”
Because “The Big Bang Theory” is similarly popular with French speakers, some professors are even integrating it into the classroom.
I like to think that the idea of brilliant characters who understand the mysteries of the universe but struggle with relationships has universal appeal. And I like even better the idea that it is what we laugh at that brings us together.