With views of the world from our television sets, we are exposed to different places and cultures everyday. Here’s New York as established through popular sitcoms such as Seinfeld and F.R.I.E.N.D.S.
Have you ever felt that you know a city so incredibly well, even though you never actually visited? I had that feeling for New York City, and incredibly so. Having grown up watching American sitcoms for almost two decades, I felt I knew the New York, in and out. I knew the culture, almost as well as I knew my own, all through the (then) square screen of my television set; and it helped that over a hundred sitcoms are based on the five boroughs of New York since the 1940s.
I knew the landmarks and the bagels and the subway train rides, just by watching the television shows. Majority of my favourite programmes were set in New York City; beginning from 1961 cartoon Top Cat that ran on Cartoon Network, to the most unforgettable show F.R.I.E.N.D.S.
So, what did I do when I got a chance to verify my “ideas” of New York by visiting my pseudo alma mater? I made a list. I listed every establishment shot from the shows, every food or drink item, every shop I wanted to visit, every cultural reference I wanted to see for myself, every joke I didn’t getjust because. I learnt “Just because” from these shows too. Slangs and phrases are a completely different genre for exploration, so I shall not venture into them. Like the joke from F.R.I.E.N.D.S (1994).
Rachel: Guess what, guess what? Chandler: Let’s see, the fifth dentist caved, now they all recommend Trident?
I was hell bent on finding the answers to half notions of New York, for myself and get the crux of jokes like these. I began crossing things off my list, immediately upon arrival to “the Big Apple”. Let me walk you through a few highlights of my adventure, in no particular order.
Remember, the triangular-pointed building, like a piece of cake? You may have seen it on Seinfeld (1989) or F.R.I.E.N.D.S, a hundred times over to establish Manhattan! The building made several guest appearances on other shows as well, including Late Show with David Letterman (1993) and Veronica’s Closet (1997). It’s the Flatiron building on 175 Fifth Avenue, built in 1902. Maybe the most iconic skyscraper after the World Trade Towers; and the prime place to absorb New York at its television best.
Other similar places of interests from fillers maybe, the Big-White-Arch-Gate, most popular in F.R.I.E.N.D.S. and Will & Grace (1998) which is the Washington Square Arch in the Washington Square Park in the neighbourhood of Greenwich Village. Also, the very common Brooklyn Bridge makes it on the opening sequence of Two Broke Girls. Speaking of Greenwich Village, the famous F.R.I.E.N.D.S. apartment building stands at the corner of Grove and Bedford Streets. Unfortunately, there is no Central Perk, much to my disappointment, but the coffee house, called the Little Owl, is definitely worth the visit, for a coffee shop culture experience. From coffee to beers, even the remarkable MacLaren’s pub from How I Met Your Mother (HIMYM), where the gang spent way too much time, doesn’t exist. Instead, it is modelled after McGee’s pub on 240 West 55th Street; which is still the next best thing to enjoying a beer with the gang in the booth itself.
Let’s not forget the Seinfeld diner, Monk’s cafe which has been posed on the show by Tom’s Restaurant on West 112nd Street, near Columbia University, where Ted Mosby from HIMYM teaches in the Architecture department!
Ross Geller from F.R.I.E.N.D.S on the hand, taught at New York Universityand worked at the American Museum of Natural History, one of the largest museums of the world, in the (to quote Joey from the show) “dinosaur” department. You may remember the place from the show as the large Victorian Gothic building with a statue of Theodore Roosevelt on a horse. The palaeontology exhibit is a must visit to feel Ross’s unhealthy obsession with dinosaurs. Of course, other travel articles will ask you to see the Empire State building anyway, but it’s worth the HIMYM mention. Fun fact, “When construction began the framework rose 4.5 stories per week.” But you must visit it yourself to explore the grandeur of “this 122 story testament to human will.”
For the Sex in the City fan (not myself), you can follow the footsteps of Carrie & Co. at Tiffnay & Co. on 727 Fifth Avenue in uptown Manhattan.
Moving on to food gluttony, the F.R.I.E.N.D.S episode where Joey saves his sandwich from the “gun-firing” displays accurately a man’s love for his meat ball sub. Of course, New York has a wide range of sandwiches to choose from, you are bound to find your soul mate, inside two perfect roll breads, found at every deli you may come across. And if it’s the “best burger in New York” you crave, like HIMYM’s Marshall, you may try the Corner Bistro on 331 West 4th Street, the Paul’s Da Burger Joint on 131 Second Avenue or the ‘21’ Club on 21 West 52nd Street. Mind you they may not be Marshall’s version of the best burger, but they sure come very close.
Alternatively, there are also negative stereotypes that never seem to get old about (to be politically correct) South Asian’s in New York. Feeling the waters only slightly, it is true that there are a lot of Indians, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis and Sri Lankans. And yes, several of them are- everything- not just taxi drivers and grocery shop owners. The Mindy Project, is an apt example. Cultures have blend into one omnibus of people, ideas and arts.
In the quest of sitcoms of New York, some honourable mentions need to be made. Though they may or may not be popular on Indian television anymore, but they have paved ways for us to understand New York as a culture and as an unforgettable city- I Love Lucy (1951), Bewitched (1962), Diff’rent Strokes (1978), The Cosby Show (1984), Mad About You (1992), Caroline in the City (1995), Hey Arnold! (1996), Just Shoot Me (1997), The King of Queens (1998), 30 Rock (2006), Heroes (2006), Castle (2008) – the list is endless.
It’s interesting to note that generally these shows are filmed in Los Angeles. The most authentically New York show is Seinfeld followed by F.R.I.E.N.D.S, HIMYM and All in the family (1971) that never made to Indian screens but is a must online binge watch. Nonetheless, whether it is the Mets vs Yankees rivalry or the Starbucks reference in a gag, these sitcoms have never failed to deliver the experience that is New York.
On some level now, I feel more entitled to the spaces and jokes above the rest. Of course, any amount of time is way too little to know New York. It is the pursuit that makes it thrilling.
If you didn’t get the joke at the beginning of this piece, let me leave you with the reference- Trident is a sugarless gum, with a then ad campaign claiming ‘4 out of 5 dentists recommend sugarless gum for their patients who chew gum’. In all honesty, the joke was more “Ahhh.. like that” than roaring into laughter; but then again now I know, instead of always wondering.
(The author is a Kolkata-based visual communicator and aspiring filmmaker).