By Nathaniel Nelson
The One with NYC Sitcoms
The history of the American sitcom is inextricably tied to New York City, a connection due in large part to the powerhouse 1990s NBC sitcoms Seinfeld and Friends. Set on the Upper West Side and in Greenwich Village, respectively, these shows not only took place in the city, but were also concocted and thoroughly shaped within the context of the city’s unique character. In particular, The One with Younger Viewers has become a cultural totem for young people with aspirations of moving to the city in adulthood.
But between loose money habits, expensive coffee and pizza bills, and constant hanging out (often during the middle of the workday), Friends has been criticized for its arguably unrealistic portrayal of the economic realities of life in Manhattan. According to recent data, the average New Yorker now spends up to two-thirds of their annual income on rent, a burden that can hit young people particularly hard in today’s competitive job market. In contrast, characters on television shows only rarely display any concern for money (Rachel, for example, doesn’t have renter’s insurance, and seemingly neither do Joey and Chandler), despite their quite lavish living circumstances.
There is a trove of material online, mostly unsolicited and informal but occasionally professional, specifically about how unaffordable Monica’s apartment in Friends would be for her real-life counterparts. And fantasizing reality, while perhaps a necessary evil in Hollywood—especially from a technical standpoint for three-camera sitcoms, which must accommodate lots of equipment and people during shooting—can be particularly damaging in the case of shows that attract younger viewers. We become invested in these shows and their characters, and a Friends fan unfamiliar with the realities of New York life might move to the city with dreams of living just like their favorite characters do, only to have their heart sink upon visiting their first apartment prospect and realizing it could probably fit inside Monica’s kitchen. But much of the online criticism online is based on questionable data. So we wanted to know: just how unrealistic is Monica’s pad?
The One with the Disclaimer
A two-bedroom with an airy living room and terrace, Monica’s sprawling Greenwich Village flat has become the standard-bearer for monetarily infeasible New York City sitcom apartments. Her pre-war located on the corner of Bedford and Grove streets is not only spacious, (estimated at approximately 1,125 square feet by Movoto Blog), but also situated in the perfect, quiet-yet-hip pocket of Manhattan. The few downsides include no doorman, and that her huge windows look out to the building across the street (e.g., Ugly Naked Guy), and not much else. In short, Monica’s apartment is any young New Yorker’s dream home.
The catch here is that Monica illegally sublets from her deceased grandmother throughout the series, as revealed in “The One With The Ballroom Dancing” (S4E4). As Chandler famously recalls to his new twins in the series finale, “This was your first home. And it was a happy place, filled with love and laughter. But more important, because of rent control, it was a friggin’ steal!” Exactly how much of a steal it was is never revealed, but an educated guess could place their rate anywhere down to mid-triple digits.
The One Where Rachel’s the Roommate
For at least the first half of the series, Monica and Rachel appear to be in no position to pay for a place half the size of the one they occupy. Online sources from 2006, 2013, and 2014, have estimated their apartment could go for as much as , 3.4, 2.5, and 2.9 million dollars on the market, respectively. Adjusted for inflation to 1993, the earliest year we see Monica in the apartment (S3E6, “The One With The Flashback”), these numbers become , 2.1, 1.5, and 1.8million. According to average price-to-rent ratios in New York City (as of 2016), one could expect to rent a $1,800,000 apartment for approximately $3,500 a month, for example. Movoto Blog projected this number to be more like $5,000 (adjusted for inflation, the number drops down to about $3,000).
Simply adjusting housing prices for inflation doesn’t totally take into account macro-market trends, however, which indicate significant increases in New York City real estate prices, both for buying and renting, ever since the beginning of the 21st century. In 1993, on the other hand, the real estate market was undergoing a depreciation and flattening of rates throughout the city, and it hasn’t dropped so low since, according to the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy at NYU. Theoretically, then, had Monica not moved into her apartment all too long before the show’s beginning, she would have entered at a great time for buyers.
Mathematically speaking, it would have been essentially impossible for Monica and Rachel to pay more than half of these rent numbers. NYC living-oriented website Julep estimated (presumably according to today’s market standards) that Monica would be approved for up to $2,000 a month in rent, and Rachel at $575 a month, based on estimates of their separate incomes at $60,000 and $23,000 a year, respectively. According to these numbers, they’d need approximately one more roommate, of Monica’s earnings or greater, to afford such a living situation. The disparity between Monica and Rachel’s income makes sense according to where they are in their careers through the show’s first few seasons, and is most viscerally addressed in “The One With Five Steaks and an Eggplant” (S2E5), in which the group is awkwardly split in half between those who make good money (Monica, Chandler and Ross) and those who don’t (Rachel, Joey and Phoebe).
But Julep may have exaggerated the sort of money Monica could have been making as a startup, part-time chef. Centives, for instance, put Monica and Rachel’s annual salaries in season one at $28,280 and $19,570, respectively. According to statistics gathered by the State of New York, an entry level chef and waitress in 2016 can each expect to make approximately $20,000 a year. Monica being as talented as she is purported to be, however, she might have begun making closer to the citywide average salary for chefs, $49,310 a year (adjusted for inflation to ‘93: $30,419), even so early in her career. Rachel, having just earned the job waitressing at Central Perk in the pilot, cannot have been expected to make much more than minimum wage (that is, unless Gunther found a way to slip her some extra green under the table to satiate his crush). Even the most optimistic scenario has the women’s combined earnings at just under $6,000 a month, in 2016 terms. If Monica and Rachel spend the standard one-third of their income on rent, that puts them at $2,000 a month. With that sort of money these days, in Greenwich Village, you can’t expect anything more than a studio apartment.
The math becomes more favorable later on in the series, as Monica starts to get work as the head chef at high-end restaurants, and especially when Rachel lands work fairly high in the ranks at Ralph Lauren. The Movoto study estimated their combined salary at around $9,300 a month, allowing for approximately $3,000 worth of rent per month—these numbers make sense for where Rachel is in her career, through the time she lives in Monica’s apartment. Of course, Rachel moves out just before her career begins to take off—first an assistant buyer then personal shopper at Bloomingdales, Rachel moves from being one of the lowest-earning members of her social circle to the highest when she becomes the women’s wear coordinator, then merchandising manager for polo retail at Ralph Lauren.
The One Where Chandler’s the Roommate
This, of course, doesn’t take into account the fact that Chandler replaces Rachel as Monica’s roommate in Season 6, right around the time Rachel lands a job at Ralph Lauren, and prior to her promotion. As an IT procurement manager with a specialization in statistical analysis and data reconfiguration, Chandler is easily the wealthiest character, at least through the first half the show. Centives puts his salary at approximately $68,440 a year, but the number generally passed around online is $102,000 (around $70,000 in 1999, when he moves in with Monica). This number, while reasonable, is actually the national average for IT procurement managers according to Salary.com; in New York City, the number is $118,345 (inflation: $82,070, as of season five). Other data sets put the city average for the same work at $111,760 (Glass Door), and $81,487 (PayScale). Whatever the exact amount, we might expect him to have received a raise upon his brief promotion to Tulsa, Oklahoma. At this rate, Chandler could’ve afforded approximately as much rent as Monica and Rachel combined through the first few seasons.
With Monica starting to get good work in high-end kitchens around this same time, it isn’t unreasonable to imagine that she and Chandler could’ve covered rent for the apartment they were able to live in illegally. By season six Monica has years of experience as a chef in different kitchens, and might be expected to make about $63,530 a year (inflation: $44,057) according to the same New York City labor data, or about $15,000 or more on top of what she’d been making nearer to the beginning of the show (and if the price of her food is any indication, perhaps she makes much more than even these numbers suggest). This would put their combined salary at around $160,000 today, meaning they could realistically afford the $4,200 aforementioned rent estimate. If you consider all of the money Chandler has saved since the beginning of the show—undisclosed, but exactly enough to pay for Monica’s dream wedding—plus the tab Joey has racked up with him over the years—one Redditor summed it to upwards of $100,000, and other sources have arrived in that same ballpark (maybe he could dip into that Days of Our Lives money)—then we’re starting to talk about real-ass adult money.
When Chandler quits his job, his and Monica’s secure financial situation becomes jeopardized. After a stint as an unpaid intern, he gets promoted to the position of junior copywriter, which, according to labor statistics gathered by the State of New York, might earn him around $42,040 a year ($33,056 as of the series’ final season). At that point, one would hope that Central Perk is cheaper than most Manhattan coffee shops.
The One Where We Conclude the Argument
In the end we can realistically conclude that, at their height around season six, Monica with Rachel or Chandler could afford a similarly nice apartment to the one they have (perhaps not quite this nice, but close). Unfortunately, this only comes as the characters enter their 30’s, well after their years as aspiring young people, a fact that only highlights how far off their huge, well-furnished place is from anything a young New Yorker could realistically afford. In fact, only with a cushy salary like Chandler’s could one even imagine living in the somewhat lesser apartment Joey adopted across the hall (Thrillist puts the estimated buying price in 2016 around $2,000,000).
This all makes sense for a television show, though. Painting a rosy picture is what all sitcoms do—you want to live in a place as nice as theirs, with friends as nice (and available) as theirs, experiencing events in your life as interesting as those in theirs. Not only that, but the three-camera sitcom format necessitates a wide-open set design so that the multiple cameras can each park in a unique place and at a good angle in the studio. Friends was also taped in front of a live studio audience, which means that, in order for everyone in the crowd to have good viewing angles (they have to be able to see well, after all, or else they won’t laugh enough), the Monica’s apartment set needed to be large enough to facilitate them on top of the film crew.
But Friends was never about apartments—if you’re lucky, maybe you can surround yourself with good people. With awesome friends, you won’t be worried about little things like two bedrooms and a terrace.
Nathaniel Nelson (N8) is a filmmaker and writer.
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