In an episode in the fourth season of Friends, Monica, Rachel, Chandler, and Joey find themselves engaged in an argument: Chandler and Joey, they claim, know Monica and Rachel much better than the women know them. Before long, the debate devolves into a game-show-style quiz. The host: Ross, who delights in the job. The topic: the minutiae of the friends’ lives. The stakes (which have become, through a series of predictably zany events, incredibly high): If the women lose the game, they have agreed, they will trade apartments with Chandler and Joey.
The correct answers quickly proliferate; as friends who are basically family, these people know each other’s stories really, really well. “Joey had an imaginary childhood friend. His name was …?” / “Maurice!” / “Correct. His profession was …?” / “Space cowboy!”; “According to Chandler, what phenomenon ‘scares the bejeezus’ out of him?” / “Michael Flatley, Lord of the Dance!”; “Rachel claims this is her favorite movie …” / “Dangerous Liaisons!” / “Correct. Her actual favorite movie is …?” / “Weekend at Bernie’s!”
By the conclusion of the quiz’s lightning round, the women are down one point. With time running out and the game—and their home—on the line, Ross asks them a final question: “What is Chandler Bing’s job?”
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.
Except, that is, when it came to Chandler. Chandler, who is so indifferent about what he does that he is unable to pay his job even the small courtesy of hating it—Chandler, besuited and bedraggled, whose work in computer-something-or-other summons the amorphous anxieties of the coming digital age. (Maybe he is a transponster. Does it matter? Could he be less passionate about it?) It is through Chandler, in the end, that Reality Bites finds its way into Friends’ otherwise chipper cosmology. His work is simply there, looming, draining, tautological. His laconic resentments of it invoke the precise strain of Gen Xed ennui the novelist Douglas Coupland had described earlier in the decade: the mistrust of institutions, the mistrust of professions, the mistrust of meaning itself. Chandler is Friends’ theme song rendered in a minor key. And he is the exception who proves the show’s rule. What is Chandler Bing’s job? succeeds as a joke precisely because Friends, through every other character, makes such insistent romance of work.
Chandler Bing entered his profession in that most relatable of ways: He got a job because he had to, and he failed to get a better one, and that failure extended over a period of years, and soon enough, through inertia’s bland inevitabilities, Chandler’s job became his career. That the path in question was one he had so explicitly not chosen for himself allows Chandler to operate, in Friends, as the character whose job earns him the most and gains him the least. “All right, kids, I gotta get to work,” he tells the others, early on in the series. “If I don’t input those numbers …”—he pauses, considering—“... it doesn’t make much of a difference.”
The other friends get frustrated with their work, definitely. Romance, any rom-com will tell you, is made more fulfilling by the challenges to it that arise along the way. And so Friends finds Monica donning roller skates and Partontastic foam breasts to serve up burgers in a ’50s-style diner. It finds Rachel coughing her way through a fictional nicotine addiction to get face time with her smoker boss. It finds Joey, navigating the instabilities of the entertainment industry, taking jobs as the literal poster boy for gonorrhea (and as Al Pacino’s butt double, and as a singer in an extraordinarily awkward musical about the work of Sigmund Freud).
These are dues the friends happily pay, though, because their professions give them so much in return. Their jobs serve their careers, and their careers serve their dreams, and one of Friends’ most treasured convictions is that ambition deserves its own happy ending. (“It’s about sex, love, relationships, careers, a time in your life when everything’s possible,” the show’s initial pitch went.) Monica, Ross, Phoebe, Joey, and Rachel are thus happy to be defined by their work. They have the luxury of answering the many What do you do?s that will come their way without needing to question the premise.
Take Rachel. In Friends’ pilot episode, she joins the group after leaving her fiancé at the altar—fleeing, the show soon reveals, the life of certain financial comfort and implied spiritual vacuity that had awaited her had she stayed on Long Island. She moves in with Monica and is promptly cut off from her family money (we will learn, later on, that her father had once gifted her a sailboat—“He was trying to cheer me up! My pony was sick!”). And then Rachel gets a job whose main benefit is its geographical convenience: She becomes a waitress at Central Perk. “Isn’t this exciting?” she asks, as she opens her first paycheck to great fanfare from her fellow friends. “I earned this! I wiped tables for it! I steamed milk for it! And it was totally”—she opens the envelope—“not worth it. Who’s FICA? Why’s he getting all my money?”
This is classic Friends. Here is the show nodding dutifully to the notion of financial struggle while cleansing its world of the inconvenient anxieties of true financial need. Rachel’s economic status may change; her class, however, does not. To the extent that, in Friends’ telling, the too-small paycheck that for most people would be the stuff of panic and stress and fear becomes, for Rachel, a spiritual victory. Her very disappointment at the meager number is played for woozy romance: It represents the path through which Rachel Green, princess no longer, will eventually find her professional calling. It represents freedom. It represents the fantasy. In that pilot episode, the friends cheer, spectators in an extremely specific sporting event, as, one by one, Rachel cuts the credit cards that had enabled her prior complacencies. “Welcome to the real world,” Monica tells her. “It sucks. You’re gonna love it.”
Earlier this year, my colleague Derek Thompson described an idea that has been steadily spreading among America’s college-educated elites: the notion that work operates as a kind of secular religion. He called this phenomenon—both an economic premise and a psychic mode—workism. “What is workism?” Thompson wrote. “It is the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose; and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work.”
Twenty-five years in advance, Friends embraced workism’s fondest assumptions. It believed in the spiritual possibilities of labor. It treated career trajectories as love stories. It premiered, however, into an America that, having tired of the gaudy excesses of the Reagan years, had endorsed Bill Clinton’s message of evened opportunities and fairer shakes. It aired within a culture that was rightfully suspicious of the casual promises that had been lobbed in its direction. And so Friends tried to have it both ways. It calibrated its optimisms. It insisted that its fantasies were grounded in reality. It talked about jobs that were jokes; it talked about being broke. It offered throwaway lines about FICA. It considered, on multiple occasions, all that can go wrong when people with soft bodies navigate hard lives without the protections of health insurance.
But Friends also made a more sweeping capitulation to the world that surrounded it: It sacrificed Chandler to the demands of reality. It saddled one of its six beloved characters with a job that held him captive, essentially, to capitalism itself. Through Chandler, Friends questioned its own premises, or claimed to. Through him, it acknowledged. Through him, it commiserated. While Friends’ other characters find fulfillment in their ambitions, Chandler finds the opposite. He is put down so that the others might rise. The answer to What is Chandler Bing’s job?, the show’s writers finally reveal, is that he works in “statistical analysis and data reconfiguration.” This is another kind of punch line.
And so Chandler, for most of the show’s 10 seasons, doubles as a paradox: He is a personification of privilege who manages also to serve as an avatar of exploitation. He doesn’t fail upward so much as he flails that way. Things devolve to the point that Chandler falls asleep during a meeting, awakening to realize that he has somehow agreed to relocate to Oklahoma. Indolence can plague even the arcs that move forward.
Which makes it remarkable when, very late in the show’s run, the character who is by then a VP of computer-something-or-other abruptly quits his job. He has no other lined up. What he has had, though, is a belated epiphany: Chandler Bing wants to work in advertising. He has dreams, too, it turns out; to follow them, he announces, he is willing to start over as an intern, trading one kind of security for another. And with that, Friends, having at that point no more capitulations to give, embraced its own soft romance. Its fantasy had come for Chandler. He wanted to know what it felt like to be asked “What do you do?” and find satisfaction, finally, in the answer.