The Confusing Paradox of Fictional Pop Culture
Please don’t take any of this to mean I don’t have enough to do. In fact, I’d say I often daydream because my life is quite busy. Since I don’t sleep a great deal, and my times of rest are few and far between, I find myself catching up on meaningless, fleeting thoughts during conference calls or on the walk into my office. Most of the time, my thoughts are much like what is typically found on the “Shower Thoughts” page of Reddit: “I think they call it Gap because it sells clothes with prices in the gap between the cost of Old Navy and Banana Republic,” and “I think we’d avoid a lot of road rage if every car had two horns: an ‘I’m sorry’ horn and a ‘screw you’ horn.” Generally, my thoughts are easy to digest — except for one.
I’ve been mulling over one particular thought for the past year or so. I will admit that I should have moved on with my life, but morally, I couldn’t do that because the implications of this issue would destroy everything I understand about the universes of my favorite TV shows. That universe-destroying thought: why didn’t Chandler recognize Bruce Willis?
In the Apr. 27, 2000, episode of Friends, “The One Where Ross Meets Elizabeth’s Dad,” Ross, a college professor, meets the father of his new girlfriend (and one of his students), Elizabeth. Her father, Paul, is played by Bruce Willis. Willis appears in a three-episode story arc, and in that time, he interacts with everyone in the cast. Before I explain the problem I have with this episode, let me first set the stage by explaining one of the primary assumptions we all make when we watch any show or movie taking place in modern times.
Situation comedies, or sitcoms, usually hinge on the basis that they take place in our world, or at least one very much like it. We, the viewers, are able to empathize with what we see on screen because the characters face situations much like the ones we might face, and they live in a world that very closely resembles ours. They live in apartments or houses like ours, they have jobs like we do, and they have similar goals and challenges. There’s always been a major difference between these stories and what we see around us — the main characters are played by celebrities. Of course, that’s not a problem because we automatically accept this fact and ignore it when we watch.
Let’s use Seinfeld as an example. Before the show began, Jason Alexander starred in Pretty Woman. I always wondered what would happen if Pretty Woman came on TV while all of the Seinfeld characters were hanging out. Would any of them point to George and wonder why he looks so much like that Jason Alexander guy?
No, of course they wouldn’t. Why? Because it would change the show’s dynamic and its grip on a perceived reality. If one of the characters had an identical resemblance to a famous actor, it would make it harder for us to see them as one of our own. It’s for this same reason that even though all of the characters are incredibly attractive and well-spoken, they still deal with the same challenges as us normal people. No one in their universe treats them like celebrities or like they have any potential to be celebrities. Personal resemblances to icons in popular culture are rarely ever pointed out.
To help make sense of this, I always just assume the actors that play these characters don’t exist in their sitcom universe. The Seinfeld gang would never watch Pretty Woman because it doesn’t exist there. No one would ever say George looks like Jason Alexander because Jason Alexander doesn’t exist.
I never considered Friends to be an exception. In the Friends universe, Bruce Springsteen would have never released a music video for “Dancing in the Dark” because in our universe, Courtney Cox (who played Monica) made an appearance. The Scream movies never happened for the same reason. Even if an actor appeared in Friends in a cameo, their respective movies would never exist in that universe. Coincidentally, that would mean Pretty Woman would also not exist in the Friends universe because Julia Roberts once made a cameo appearance in the second season as one of Chandler’s old classmates.
One might logically reach the conclusion that all of pop culture is different in these fictional universes, and that is actually the case in some shows. Some sitcom writers create their entire universe from scratch, including that universe’s pop culture. Everything that appears on their characters’ televisions is fake or meant as a parody. However, most sitcom writers don’t do this in an effort to keep their universe grounded in reality.
Characters frequently joke about our existing pop culture. In fact, in that previously-mentioned Julia Roberts episode of Friends, Jean-Claude Van Damme appears as himself. In the episode, Monica is shocked to learn Rachel has never seen TimeCop. TimeCop is an actual movie and it does star Van Damme.
There are several other occasions in Friends where our universe’s pop culture is referenced. One of the recurring setups in the first season is when cast watches TV and then makes a joke about what they’re watching. That’s why it wasn’t strange when Joey and Chandler in the fourth season discuss the movie Die Hard, which they both love. Die Hard features none of the actors in Friends, and by all other means, should certainly exist in the Friends universe.
At least that was true up until Bruce Willis appeared in a cameo.
His appearance is noteworthy because it lasted longer than other already-famous guest stars. With the exception of Tom Selleck in the second season, who I’ll come back to later, most cameo appearances were relegated to a single episode. Willis was on for three episodes and played a fairly significant role; he even dated Rachel for a short time. If the characters are all familiar with the movie Die Hard (Joey even called it his favorite movie), then why did none of them recognize Paul as the spitting image of John McClane?
This is what has plagued me for the past year. I can understand why Ross didn’t recognize him — when he and Paul met, he was distracted by his efforts to make a first impression — but I could never understand why Chandler didn’t make a Die Hard joke when he met Paul a few minutes later. He didn’t even appear to recognize him.
This bothered me because it breaks the sitcom rule. How can the characters reference Die Hard, an actual movie, and meet a man who looks exactly like its lead actor, yet not make the connection?
In the Seinfeld/Pretty Woman example, we simply assume Pretty Woman doesn’t exist in the world of Seinfeld. Since we already know Die Hard exists in the Friends universe, we are forced to assume their version of Die Hard is different, but how?
Just as Sherlock Holmes would deduce, the simplest answer is probably correct. Based on the evidence before us, we must assume that Bruce Willis simply does not appear in that universe’s version of Die Hard. While the assumption is simple, the implications are not. We’re talking about a major difference. The change in the main character would not only affect the film’s plot, but it could also affect its marketability and popularity. If we agree that the person who stars in the Friends universe’s Die Hard doesn’t look anything like Bruce Willis, he would have to be someone equally famous and popular. If not, the movie wouldn’t resonate in pop culture in the same way.
There’s also another issue. If Bruce Willis can’t appear in Die Hard, he can’t appear in any other movie implied in the Friends universe. Isabella Rossellini appeared in a season three episode of Friends playing herself. About four years earlier, she appeared in the film Death Becomes Her alongside Bruce Willis. If Bruce Willis doesn’t exist, how does that affect Rossellini’s filmography? Was the person who appeared in Willis’ place in Die Hard also in Death Becomes Her?
You can see how this started to infest my mind. In the past several months, I’ve imagined who could have appeared in Die Hard or Death Becomes Her or Moonlighting, never appear on Friends, and yet still maintain the continuity of the show’s many other pop culture references. Die Hard still has to be an awesome movie, it still has to spawn a sequel, Rossellini still has to be famous, and the rest of the world needs to continue on in the same way.
I have been looking for one single linchpin moment in time that could be different in the Friends universe. What moment in time would affect who plays John McClane in Die Hard, yet impact little else?
I eventually came up with a theory. After all, wouldn’t it suck to connect with a story for this long without a conclusion?
My theory begins in the second season when Phoebe first sees Richard, the recurring character played by Tom Selleck. She’s helping Monica host a party at Richard’s house, and the first time she sees him, she’s taken aback, saying, “It’s James Bond.” Richard is wearing a tuxedo and is apparently quite attractive, so the audience laughs. In the end, the whole exchange is treated as a throwaway joke. But what if it isn’t just a joke? What if it’s the key to solving this paradox in the Friends universe?
Referring to Tom Selleck’s character as James Bond was funny because it references the archetype for handsome and dashing, but aside from being both handsome and dashing, Tom Selleck really looks nothing like any of the actors who have played Bond. The line could have still worked even if Phoebe had said, “It’s Bruce Wayne,” or “It’s a GQ centerfold.” Why James Bond? Sure, Selleck is tall and has dark features, but he also has a very obvious mustache. I wondered, what if the last James Bond movie Pheobe saw in her universe featured an actor that looked more like Tom Selleck?
I’ve been searching for that linchpin moment, and this Tom Selleck/James Bond connection gave it to me. In our universe, the actor Tom Selleck really was up for the role of Indiana Jones before Harrison Ford, but his commitment to Magnum, P.I. prevented him from taking it. What if in the Friends universe Magnum, P.I. was canceled early? Imagine what would change in pop culture if Tom Selleck became Indiana Jones. I’ll give you a few moments to think about it.
Okay, that’s enough. Allow me to point out to you the ripple effect a casting change of this magnitude could have on another popular movie franchise: James Bond.
The worlds of Indiana Jones and James Bond have always been spiritually linked. After all, both franchises feature confident and resourceful lead characters who travel the globe to uncover conspiracies and to halt world-destroying threats. In fact, the producers of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade said this similarity was the main reason they chose Sean Connery to play Indiana’s father.
If Tom Selleck and his mustache became famous for the role of Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the movie’s success would have certainly had an influence on the 1980s Bond movies, most obviously inspiring the main character’s choice of facial hair. This is a reasonable assumption because previous Bond movies reflected the styles and trends of their own time periods. Bond would have had a mustache if it was already associated with action heroes of the day.
In the 1980s, Timothy Dalton was the first to play James Bond after Roger Moore, and in the Friends universe, he would have played the character with a mustache. When Phoebe opened the door in that 1995 episode of Friends to reveal Tom Selleck, of course he would have looked like James Bond, or at least the one she was most familiar with. Indiana Jones is never directly referenced in Friends, so I have no empirical evidence to suggest Phoebe has seen Indiana Jones or is familiar with the actor who played him. For her, Richard looked most like Timothy Dalton’s mustachioed 007.
Now, let’s shift gears over to my theory about Die Hard in the Friends universe. If Harrison Ford never played Indiana Jones, he would have had no prior obligations when he considered the role in Die Hard before Bruce Willis was cast. Yes, that’s right. Instead of donning the fedora one more time in preparation for 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, he would be available to play John McClane in 1988’s Die Hard.
Chandler didn’t recognize Paul as the actor from Die Hard because he looked nothing like Harrison Ford.
With that small change, most everything else in popular culture as we know it could go on as usual. Three’s Company could still exist, it would still possible to watch Family Matters, and Isabella Rossellini can still have a noteworthy film career.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’d like to begin my next daydream: how awesome Die Hard would have been if it starred Harrison Ford.
Yippie ki yay, nerf herders.
 I like to think that in the shows where ordinary people look like celebrities, their celebrities must look like average people. Just a stray thought.
 “The One After the Superbowl: Part 2”
 [When watching an episode of Three’s Company] Chandler: “Oh, I think this is the one where there’s some sort of misunderstanding.”
 I’m talking to you Serial.
 I say apparently because this seems to be only true for women, ages 40–65, who also find mustaches attractive.
 Of course, this would open up a separate debate about whether or not James Bond would ever have a mustache based on Fleming’s original descriptions of the character. You could say he would never wear a mustache based on this, but you could also say Bond would never have blond hair and blue eyes before Daniel Craig took the role. Details like these change depending on what studios think will make the films more of an attraction in theaters.