“I’ll Be There For You” by Kelsey Miller (2018)

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“On September 22, 1994, NBC aired the pilot episode of a half-hour comedy now titled Friends.”

As the world gets weirder and scarier, it is time for people to retreat into something comfortable. A good book, a beloved album, a funny film. Some things are just comforting, and I can bet you anything that with all that’s going on right now, there’s a surge in people turning on Friends and hiding in that familiar coffee shop for a while. I haven’t reached that point yet, but I’ve dipped my toe in with this book about the history of the TV show that became a global phenomenon.

I’ll Be There For You is a potted history of Friends, the ten-season behemoth of a sitcom that made household names out of six rising comedy actors. There are few people left (especially of a certain generation) who haven’t seen at least one episode, and its effect on global society was unprecedented, influencing fashion, language and even the rise of the coffee culture. (It may not have invented coffee shops, but in 1994 when the show first aired, they were still uncommon.) The book runs from the writers, Kauffman, Crane and Bright meeting and the show’s tricky beginnings with casting, to a few years ago where it was undergoing a pop culture resurgence and the cast couldn’t go anywhere without being asked about a reunion.

Some of the focus is a bit odd. There is a lot of talk about how much the stars were earning, their salary negotiations, and what the network was paying for the show. I assume this is all there because, in my experience, the Americans are far more comfortable and willing to talk about money than the British. They’re details that, for me, take the shine off the magic of the show. It feels odd to spend so long focusing on that but then not tell us how they acquired some of the guest stars, or talking about audience reaction to some of the smaller plots. Indeed, in 240 pages there isn’t a single mention of Gunther, which seems odd as surely his increased role in the show would merit some kind of inclusion.

There is, however, an awful long of hand-wringing to justify the problematic aspects of the show. I’m someone who believes you have to judge things in the time that they were made, and there’s no point looking at Friends through the eyes of someone living in 2020 because attitudes have changed an awful lot in this century already, so you can’t expect characters (and it’s important to remember that these people are fictional) to have the same values as us now. There is no denying that, by today’s standards, there are more gay jokes in the show than we’d be comfortable with now, not to mention the problematic treatment of both Chandler’s transgender father or “Fat Monica”. Miller interviews people from minority backgrounds and they don’t seem too bothered, on the whole, by these jokes, adding that at least there was a transgender character. When you’re a minority, you take what you can get. It’s hard to know where to fall on some of these issues. After all, the show did like making gay jokes, but it did also include a gay wedding (even if it didn’t let the two brides kiss on screen).

However, it’s still interesting and a great insight into how a TV show gets made and then stays on the air for a decade. While Miller seems to have just combed through interviews from other people to pull her quotes, she has original research as well, which saves it from just being a long Buzzfeed article full of copy-pasted tweets. If you’re a fan of the show, it’s worth a read, but don’t expect to come away with too many new reveals about it.

Whatever problems the show had, it remains one of the most beloved series of all time and still has a lot of heart, giving us all something to share in. We’ve all had that time when our friends become our family and sadly it eventually disappears. It’s still important. And if nothing else, we can all get behind the one burning question the show left us with: How did Monica afford that apartment?

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows a man who is tired of being single while all his friends get married, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“Spectacles” by Sue Perkins (2015)

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“My first memory of Dad was him approaching my cot.”

Humour isn’t the only thing I look for in a book, but everyone would rather laugh and cry, I’m sure. As such, I am automatically attracted to books about funny people. Sue Perkins is one of those. I’ve always been vaguely aware of her and her comedy life partner Mel Giedroyc, but they didn’t properly cement themselves as favourites until The Great British Bake Off, by which time everyone else had taken them into their hearts as well. I’ve always enjoyed their friendship from afar, and their easy banter, and so since one of them has a book out now, I decided to take a dip.

Spectacles is like many other autobiographies. Let’s be honest, they’re all, broadly speaking, of a type. We learn about the writer as a child, relive their school days, see them fail and deal with setbacks in their career, before being granted National Treasure status. In those respects, Perkins tells a story we all know. However, there’s something else going on here that puts it on a pedestal above others I’ve read.

There are laughs from the very beginning, where she openly admits that she’s changed a few details to “protect the innocent” and “make you like me”. Then we see the moment she tells her family she’s writing the book, and how they all worry about their appearance. Her father wants it to be known he’s tall (he isn’t), and her sister would rather not be mentioned at all. This version of events lasts three pages, before the far more interesting and messy reality sets in. I laughed out loud on almost every page. Perkins has a sublime way with words that I envy, and even when you think you can see a punchline coming, she’ll sidestep you and reveal something even funnier.

Her relationship with Mel is painted in wonderful colours, showing its natural progression. They are clearly very much in love in the way that few best friends can ever claim to be, but she still manages to find the time to explain, almost every time Mel’s name comes up, that Sue is the younger of the pair (by two years). From performing shows at Edinburgh with one person in the audience, to chasing one another around a white marquee in an attempt to lick out the bowls, they are silly, lovely and sweet. Have they ever had a cross word with one another? You wouldn’t think so reading this, and I’d be prepared to accept that it’s the truth.

She is modest, too. Almost nothing is made of her time as President of Cambridge Footlights, a topic that I’m sure would be hugely interesting. She’ll focus on how she has nearly cocked up her career several times by turning down big shows and instead hosting dross – even she can’t really bring herself to remind everyone about Don’t Scare the Hare. She gives us a tantalising glimpse into the worlds of Supersizers and Bake Off, providing a light sprinkling of celebrity anecdotes that leave us hungry for more. But, as ever, I understand that the book is about her, and frankly she’s plenty interesting enough.

Despite the comedy, she’s also very open about the struggles she’s dealt with. Her father’s ordeal with cancer, the decline and death of her beloved beagle Pickle, the breakdown of her relationships and the discovery that she had a brain tumour that had left her infertile. You don’t laugh at these pages, and they provide the balance that show life isn’t all joy. She is brutally honest about the pain these moments caused, and I just wanted to give her a hug.

Charming, honest, hilarious, brave and moving. You cannot get a better combination.