The women freeze, dumbfounded. “Oh gosh, it has something to do with numbers …” Rachel offers. “And processing!” Monica adds. Rachel notes that Chandler carries a briefcase. This clue does not help. They look at each other, panicking.
“Ten seconds,” Ross says. “You need this or you lose the game.”
“It’s, um ... it has something to do with transponding!” Monica, frantic, shouts. “Oh, oh, oh!” Rachel agrees. “Oh, he’s a transpons—a transponster!”
That, Monica squeals in agony, is not even a word. And it is definitely not Chandler Bing’s job. Monica and Rachel lose the game—and with it, their beloved apartment.
Transponster was a punch line that had been, by Friends’ fourth season, years in the making—one of the jokes the show had been running pretty much since it made its premiere in September 1994. No one knows how Chandler Bing makes his living. That includes, quite often, Chandler himself. The women may have correctly answered several of the quiz’s deep-cut questions about the guys’ childhoods and sexual experiences and personal idiosyncrasies, but there’s an aptness to the fact that, when it comes to Chandler, they are unable to answer a question so basic that it doubles, at this point, as a cliché: What does he do?
Each episode of Friends engages in a cheerful act of bait and switch. The initial bars of the show’s ear-wormy theme song—So no one told you life was gonna be this way—suggest a certain disillusionment to come, a sitcom whose situations might poke fun not only at life’s absurdities, but also at its disappointments. In 1994, in particular, those lines suggested that Friends might be a comedic rendering of Reality Bites, the Generation X touchstone that had premiered earlier that year—a story about young people attempting to eke some purpose out of a world that has given them none.
Friends’ characters, in those early days, occasionally dressed in flannel; beyond that, though, the show offered extremely little overlap with the film. Friends was too enamored of its premises—New York and youth and all the magic that might be found in the mingling of the two—to deliver on its own implied pessimisms. The show emphasized the giddy possibilities of the stage of life that, when Friends premiered, was about to be given its own designation: emerging adulthood. And so Friends, a family sitcom that celebrated the family you choose, was built not of betrayals, but of accommodations. The cynicisms of the world surrounding it were washed away in the upbeat chorus that doubled as the show’s true refrain: I’ll be there for you … ’cause you’re there for me, too.
That optimism was evident from the very beginning in the array of professions that Friends allotted to its core characters. The show’s small universe is populated by a chef and an actor and a musician and an academic and a fashion executive—by people, in other words, whose jobs suggest the use of creative as a noun, and whose constellation of privileges includes the breezy ability to associate labor with spiritual fulfillment. Friends cared deeply, in its earnestly sardonic way, about the careers it had bequeathed to its protagonists. Its plots nourished and complicated and questioned the friends’ jobs with an intensity that would anticipate other NBC shows—among them 2005’s The Office and 2009’s Parks and Recreation—and that would embrace extremely 21st-century assumptions about professions that double as identities. This was one of the fantasies Friends was selling: The show created a world whose denizens were able to take advantage of their work, rather than the other way around.