Jennifer Aniston thinks comedians have it hard in our current, more socially conscious cultural climate.
The Friends star is currently promoting her new Netflix film, Murder Mystery 2. Speaking to AFP, Aniston said that “comedy has evolved,” since her beloved sitcom was a mega-hit for NBC in the 1990s.
“Now it’s a little tricky because you have to be very careful, which makes it really hard for comedians, because the beauty of comedy is that we make fun of ourselves, make fun of life,” she said.
In the past, Aniston said, “you could joke about a bigot and have a laugh — that was hysterical. And it was about educating people on how ridiculous people were. And now we’re not allowed to do that.”
“There’s a whole generation of people, kids, who are now going back to episodes of Friends and find them offensive,” she continued. “There were things that were never intentional and others… well, we should have thought it through — but I don’t think there was a sensitivity like there is now.”
Friends has seen a resurgence in popularity in recent years thanks to the show’s availability on streaming platforms like Netflix. At the same time, however, it has been criticized for its lack of diversity and for its treatment of LGBTQ+ characters. The series rarely featured people of color in prominent roles, and cultural critics have noted a consistent undercurrent of homophobia in the show’s portrayal of two recurring lesbian characters and in jokes about the show’s male leads, particularly Matthew Perry’s character Chandler.
The show also consistently made a punchline out of Perry’s character’s transgender parent, frequently misgendering the character, who was initially played by a cis male actor in early seasons and later by Kathleen Turner. Both Turner and series co-creator Marta Kauffman have expressed regret about the way the character was handled.
As mentioned, Aniston’s comments come as she’s promoting Netflix’s Murder Mystery 2. The streaming giant has also faced criticism in recent years for platforming comedy specials from Dave Chappelle and Ricky Gervais that featured transphobic jokes. Both comedians have blamed so-called “cancel culture” for criticism of their transphobic comments.
Aniston’s assertion that jokes about bigots educate people and reveal the absurdity of bigotry is also worth noting. Research has indicated that satirizing bigotry rarely changes people’s attitudes, and authors Malcolm Gladwell and Jonathan Coe have argued that laughing at satirical portrayals of political problems like bigotry can actually diffuse the discomfort with them that could lead to actual political action.
Aniston’s comments suggest an anxiety on her part about what can and cannot be said in a comedic context that echoes Chappelle and Gervais’s rage against “cancel culture.” But that anxiety neglects the way comedy functions, and in particular what the undercurrents of homophobia and outright transphobia on Friends implied about queer and trans people. The show’s jokes about Chandler, Ross, and Joey’s casual discomfort with queerness, their frequent panic at being considered gay, may have—as Aniston implied—been intended to reveal how ridiculous homophobia is.
But those jokes also normalized that discomfort, portraying it as harmlessly laughable rather than toxic. The show did little to dismantle the notion that queerness is shameful, instead making its 90s audience comfortable with laughing it off rather than interrogating why grown men would be so fearful of being considered gay.
Friends’ treatment of Chandler’s transgender parent was even worse, consistently portraying her as an oddity, a freak, someone whose experience of herself and the world could never be understood by “normal” cisgender people.
What we laugh at and why matters. Is it so much to ask that comedians take that into account, that they be more “careful” with their comedy?
Kids these days—to recklessly paraphrase Aniston—are right to be uncomfortable with the way Friends handled queerness. They’re perhaps more aware of the impact that type of careless humor can have on attitudes toward the LGBTQ+ community, and perhaps allowing for that discomfort—rather than laughing it off, rather than dismissing it as just a joke—will lead to more positive social impact.