‘Three’s Company,’ the Original ‘Friends’

The ‘70s sitcom set a sexy TV template that ruled future decades.

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Joyce DeWitt, John Ritter, and Suzanne Somers on Three’s Company (Photo: ABC)
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Matt LeBlanc, Lisa Kudrow, Jennifer Aniston, David Schwimmer, Matthew Perry, and Courteney Cox on Friends (Photo: NBC)

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.

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.

Both shows featured an iconic local hangout.

Both shows featured baby misunderstandings.

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.

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.

Both shows featured a talented in-house chef.

Both shows featured top-billed second-generation stars who won Emmys in the leading actor/actress categories.

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.

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.

Written by

Brother Son Husband Friend Loner Minimalist World Traveler. Author of “Is It True What They Say About Black Men?” and “Storms in Africa” https://rb.gy/3mthoj

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