The Handmaid's Tale is about as far as you can get from Friends, but in the Season 2 episode "Unwomen," the classic sitcom makes a surprising cameo. While waiting in the abandoned Boston Globe headquarters, June discovers a DVD set of Friends Season 4, and the light-hearted sitcom gives her a much-needed break from the reality of life in Gilead. It's a great moment, but now, I'm curious how Friends made it into 2018's most intense drama. Blessed be the fruit, guys, because The Handmaid's Tale producer explained that Friends moment, and it all makes sense now.
In "Unwomen," June, left entirely alone in the Globe offices, begins digging through the writers' abandoned desks in an attempt to find something to do. She uncovers plenty of family photos, old sneakers, back issues of the paper, and Red Sox memorabilia before stumbling upon the real gold mine: the Friends Season 4 DVD set. At the very end of the episode, June (who has also found a laptop) sits on the ground and watches Season 4, Episode 11, "The One With Phoebe's Uterus" — an episode that stands in stark contrast to Gilead's repressive sexual policies. As it turns out, June is in the middle of a truly iconic Friends scene: the scene where Monica and Rachel teach Chandler about a woman's "erogenous zones."
So how did The Handmaid's Tale end up incorporating Friends — and particularly this specific moment — into June's world? Executive Producer Warren Littlefield told Entertainment Weekly that the idea came about in the writers' room last summer:
We knew how dramatic and powerful and important that story was, to show how horribly the press could be treated in the fascist world of Gilead. But June's also going to be exploring people’s desks and all that stuff, so we said, "How do we lighten it up a little bit?" It may have been me, I think I said, "I don’t know, a DVD of Friends?"
And with one comment, the Handmaid's Tale-Friends crossover was born. Littlefield got the OK from his co-executive producer Bruce Miller, and quickly, the discussion turned to which Friends episode June should be watching:
I believe there was a rapid-fire bounding around the room of memorable [Friends] moments, and what was the perfect juxtaposition to being in the world of Gilead. And ["The One With Phoebe’s Uterus"] is what stuck for Bruce, and that was in the script. Then we had to acquire it.
Given the choice between the erogenous zones scene and Ross saying Rachel's name at his wedding to Emily, this seems like the right call.
In "Unwomen," we don't just see June watching Friends; we see the actual episode on her laptop screen. In order for The Handmaid's Tale to show "The One With Phoebe's Uterus," producers had to get permission from Warner Bros., but things quickly got complicated. "Uniquely, the actors [on Friends] have control over every clip that’s licensed on Friends," Littlefield told EW. Luckily, Littlefield served as the president of NBC Entertainment from 1990 to 1999, so he had a close working relationship with many of the Friends actors:
So I picked up the phone, and I called the reps for Jennifer [Aniston] and Courteney [Cox] and Matthew [Perry], and I said, "Hey, I’d like to use this clip from Friends in The Handmaid’s Tale." And I said, "Send my love."
Um, casual. I, too, would like to be able to just pick up the phone and call Jennifer Aniston. Naturally, Warner Bros. and the actors were all cool with the clip appearing in "Unwomen," and the fee Handmaid's Tale producers had to pay was probably nothing compared to the joy June feels while watching the episode. Said Littlefield:
June is sitting with her back against the wall, and she’s watching the episode, and there’s a smile that comes to her face. I think we all get that feeling. It’s Friends. Who doesn’t love Friends?
Very true, Warren, very true. Even in a fascist dystopia, Friends will always make us smile.