‘Three’s Company,’ the Original ‘Friends’
The ‘70s sitcom set a sexy TV template that ruled future decades.
Once upon a time, in a TV line-up far, far away, sitcoms and comedy series revolved almost exclusively around family life (from The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet to Roseanne), the workplace (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Barney Miller, and even The Love Boat), or both (The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Bob Newhart Show), and same-gender friendships (The Lucy Show, The Odd Couple, Laverne & Shirley). Then, in 1977, along came Three’s Company, a mid-season replacement that added sexual tension to the mix and ended up becoming a huge ratings hit, remaining on the air for eight seasons.
Three’s Company, based on the U.K. sitcom Man About the House, was something entirely different at the time. It’s setting was domestic, but rather than having its principal cast be relatives or roommates of the same gender, they were three friends, one man and two women, sharing a two-bedroom apartment. Throw in a little sex — OK, a lot of sex … ual innuendo — and a comedy classic was born.
If this sounds a bit familiar to millennials weaned on 10 seasons of Friends, that’s because Three’s Company practically invented the template for a new kind of sitcom that would come to dominate in the ’90s and beyond. Friends, Seinfeld, Will & Grace, How I Met Your Mother, and The Big Bang Theory revolved not around families and workplaces but on complicated mixed-gender friendships and relationships.
Three’s Company’s revolving door of friends included Jack Tripper (John Ritter), Janet Wood (Joyce DeWitt), Chrissy Snow (Suzanne Somers), Cindy Snow (Jennilee Harrison), Terri Alden (Priscilla Barnes), Larry Dallas (Richard Kline), The Ropers (Norman Fell and Audra Lindley), and Mr. Furley (Don Knotts), while the Friends mix included Rachel Green (Jennifer Aniston), Monica Geller (Courteney Cox), Phoebe Buffay (Lisa Kudrow), Joey Tribbiani (Matt LeBlanc), Chandler Bing (Matthew Perry), and Ross Geller (David Schwimmer).
There was no conscious coupling among the principals on Three’s Company, though during the first few seasons, Jack tried his best to turn his living arrangement with Janet and Chrissy into a friends-with-benefits situation. (Fun and possibly forgotten fact: He accidentally woke up in bed with Janet in the first episode of the seventh season, but it was all, wait for it, a misunderstanding.)
Still, as with Friends, a lot of flirting went on — and it wasn’t always one-sided. Ultimately, though, Three’s Company, like Friends, was a show about platonic connections above everything else.
In the 1996 Friends episode, “The One with Two Parties,” the group has to keep Rachel’s recently divorced parents apart during her birthday party. Chandler directly acknowledges Friends’ sitcom lineage when he quips, “What would Jack and Chrissy do?”
David Schwimmer, who played Ross on Friends, recently got social-media schooled on sitcom history by Living Single’s Erika Alexander. She pointed out that there’d be no need to reboot Friends with black characters, as Schwimmer suggested in an interview, because Living Single, which ran from 1993 to 1998, went there a year before Friends (1994 to 2004) debuted.
She may be right (though I’ve always considered her series to be more in the four-female-friends tradition of The Golden Girls, Designing Women, and later, Sex and the City, Girlfriends, Hot in Cleveland, and Girls), but Living Single had its own forerunner, albeit a blindingly white one, in Three’s Company. Still not convinced that Three’s Company set the TV scene for Friends way back in the ’70s? Read on …
Both shows featured unisex friendships and living arrangements.
Before Three’s Company, the general consensus was that women and men couldn’t be “just friends,” and they definitely couldn’t live together without fooling around. That’s why Jack had to pretend to be gay in order to live with two women.
Standards had changed by the time Friends came around 10 years after Three’s Company left the air. Rachel lived with Joey (mostly platonically), and Chandler and Monica moved in together before getting married, a couple move that would have been scandalous in the early years of Three’s Company. By 1984, when it spun off into Three’s a Crowd, Jack was “living in sin” with his girlfriend, Vicky Bradford. It lasted only one season.
Both shows were set primarily in two-bedroom apartments.
Although neither show was a domestic comedy, the action often unfolded in the main characters’ flats. Alas, Monica’s two-bedroom pad was considerably more posh than the furnished two-bedroom Jack, Janet, and Chrissy/Cindy/Terri called home and for which they paid $300 a month.
Both shows featured an iconic local hangout.
On Friends, Central Perk was pretty much a seventh main character. The sextet spent almost as much time there as they did in Joey or Monica’s two-bedroom apartments. The Regal Beagle didn’t figure into Three’s Company plots quite as prominently, but viewers still got to spend a lot of time there with the gang.
Both shows featured baby misunderstandings.
Three’s Company’s comedy largely revolved around misunderstandings, and a number of them involved babies. Is Cindy pregnant? Is Janet looking for a sperm donor to father her baby? Is Jack having a vasectomy to prevent having one of his own? And on and on.
Friends had fewer misunderstandings, but a big one came on Chandler and Monica’s wedding day when Chandler mistakenly thought Monica was pregnant. She wasn’t. Rachel was the one who was expecting … and Ross was the proud-papa-to-be. Naturally, hijinks ensued.
Interestingly, in the first-season episode “The One with the Sonogram at the End,” Chandler is watching TV with Phoebe, Joey, and Monica when he announces, “Oh, I think this is the episode of Three’s Company where there’s some kind of misunderstanding.”
Phoebe: “Then I’ve already seen this.”
Both shows were set in a big American city with few, if any, black people.
Three’s Company was set in a Los Angeles — Santa Monica, to be exact — with a notable dearth of black people and other minorities. Friends gave Ross two girlfriends of color, but his interracial dalliances didn’t make the sitcom’s version of New York City much a melting pot.
Look around Central Perk in any given episode and what do you see? White people everywhere. Come to think of it, the NYC-set Seinfeld, Will & Grace, and How I Met Your Mother were also largely monochromatic.
8 Things I Learned About ’70s L.A. from ‘Three’s Company’
It looked like a funny place to be, but did art represent reality?
Both shows featured a talented in-house chef.
When Three’s Company debuted, Jack was a culinary college student who prepared most of his roommates’ meals. By the time it ended, he had his own bistro. Like Jack, Monica was Friends’ professional chef, though she didn’t spend as much time cooking onscreen.
Both shows featured top-billed second-generation stars who won Emmys in the leading actor/actress categories.
Although Suzanne Somers ended up being Three’s Company’s initial breakout castmate, the sitcom was conceived as a vehicle for John Ritter, then a regular TV guest star who received top billing. Ritter was the son of country music great Tex Ritter, who died in 1974, three years before his son started making sitcom history.
Unlike Three’s Company, which was basically Jack Tripper and friends, Friends was a more-balanced ensemble act. Jennifer Aniston, though, became the later sitcom’s breakout star. The actress, who was married to Brad Pitt from 2000 to 2005, is the daughter of John Aniston, 86, who has played Victor Kiriakis on the daytime soap Days of Our Lives since 1985.
Both shows featured Audra Lindley in pivotal roles.
She was Helen Roper for the first three seasons of Three’s Company before she and her TV husband Norman Fell got their own short-lived series The Ropers. In her supporting Three’s Company role, Lindley was known for her dry humor, colorful caftans, and flame-colored curly hair.
In real life, Lindley was far more elegant than her TV alter-ego, and she was versatile, too. Years after her departure from Three’s Company, she popped up on a 1995 episode of Friends playing the grandmother of Lisa Kudrow’s character Phoebe Buffay.