Stepping under a dripping white banner reading “Oh. My. God.” and “My sandwich?!,” while the Rembrandts sang that they’d be there for me “when the rain starts to pour” was not the most inspiring start to a drizzly FriendsFest – Comedy Central’s annual tribute to the iconic nineties sitcom.
Friends may have ended 13 years ago (three years longer than it was on television in the first place), but that did not seem the case when looking around damp, dark Clissold Park in Stoke Newington, London, on Thursday evening. Around 100 people – many of whom would have been young children when the show’s finale premiered in May 2004 – had come to pay their respects to Monica, Ross, Rachel, Joey, Chandler and Phoebe, none of whom were present.
FriendsFest runs from early July to late September in various locations across the U.K., from Cardiff to Sheffield. Tickets, which cost a fairly pricey £26 ($35) sold out within days (in 2016’s iteration, they sold out within 13 minutes) – a testament to the Manhattan-set show’s unwavering popularity in Britain. On Thursday evening, the festival was only open to members of the press and other ‘special guests,’ which explained the low turnout – if you haven’t forked out £26 for a ticket, you’re more likely to let bad weather put you off.
Thanks to the rain, many people were stuck in second gear, so my friend and I had the festival more or less to ourselves, bar a few reality television stars and fellow journalists. It felt slightly strange to be virtually alone at an event geared around the concept of friendship (and Instagram opportunities).
One of the draws of FriendsFest is the minor-celebrity guests. In 2015, the event was opened by the one-and-only Gunther (James Michael Tyler) and last year Janice (Maggie Wheeler) held a Facebook live session from a reconstructed version of Monica’s apartment. Oh. My God. This year, Jane Sibbett and Jessica Hecht, better known as Ross’ ex-wife Carol and her wife Susan, had been snared to pose with fans while fielding endless questions about their relationship, potential Friends reunions and what the six were really like to work with.
Another main attraction of FriendsFest is the ‘Set Tour.’ I was unaware that Friends had been filmed in Clissold Park, Stoke Newington, so was pleasantly surprised to find myself wandering through Joey’s apartment (complete with pizza boxes in the fridge), Monica’s apartment (where an open recipe book alluded to Rachel’s meat trifle fiasco in ‘The One Where Ross Got High”) and the iconic corridor separating the two.
A reality star from Love Island really opened our eyes to amount of Instagram-ing per minute it is possible to do. Later, when checking out his Instagram story, we were impressed by how convincingly he had made it seem as though he was having the time of his life.
As a true Friends geek, my favorite part of the whole experience was the museum-style collection of memorabilia from the show, from Ross’ leather trousers (‘The One With All The Resolutions’) and laminated note of famous women he is allowed to sleep with (‘The One With Frank Jr.’) to Monica’s see-through red shirt (‘The One Where Monica Sings’) and Ursula Buffay’s porn VHR (‘The One Where Chandler Can’t Cry’).
As well as Ross’ original Holiday Armadillo costume, one of the best exhibits was definitely Joey’s VD poster (‘The One Where Underdog Gets Away’), which was strangely positioned behind a protective barrier as though it was the Mona Lisa.
We then made our way towards a reconstructed Central Perk to take obligatory photographs pretending to be Phoebe performing ‘Smelly Cat.’ Sadly there was no Gunther, but there was a copious amount of plastic food on offer.
There was also the opportunity to don wedding dresses and viking costumes à la the Vegas episodes, which we did with aplomb.
The night ended with a quick whizz around the gift shop, where guests were invited to purchase Central Perk doormats (£15/$20), Friends-themed fridge magnets (£5/$6.70) and posters that were copies of posters from the series (very meta). We were handed a bar each of Mockolate, which we were assured was “delicious Belgian chocolate,” and not the “completely synthetic chocolate substitute” Monica tries her hand at making edible in ‘The One With The List.’
Hopefully this chocolate manufacturer was not denied its FDA approval due to “something about laboratory rats.”
FriendsFest is a strange phenomenon. On paper, it doesn’t make sense that thousands of Brits would spend £26 on a ticket to attend a tribute to a 90s television series set in America, which none of the major stars bother to go to.
But when you’re there it does make sense. In a time of increasing geopolitical strife, from threats of nuclear attacks to natural disasters looming larger and stronger than ever, taking a nostalgic trip to Central Perk is the perfect form of light relief.