The most controversial moments on Friends

Friends is widely regarded as one of the most popular sitcoms of all time. Though the 1994 premiere saw an audience of 22 million people, a whopping 52.46 million viewers tuned in for the series finale. For reference, that's roughly six times the population of NYC (where the titular friends' presumably rent-controlled apartments are located) and about 33 million more viewers than the Game of Thrones finale. Even today, viewers are still so fervent for the sitcom that Netflix shelled out $100 million to keep the series' streaming rights until 2020.

According to USA Today, the main cast make $20 million in residuals every year, even though the show first aired more than 25 years ago (which almost makes Jennifer Aniston's mediocre Netflix movie, Murder Mystery, forgivable). Unfortunately, some aspects of the sitcom don't exactly hold up in modern times. Though the show had a couple controversial moments in the '90s and early aughts, an increasing number of Friends' off-color jokes have caused a stir in more recent years. 

Here are the most controversial moments in the series, including that one scene you probably didn't see.

The one where the brides don't kiss on Friends

In the 1996 episode "The One with the Lesbian Wedding," Ross' ex-wife, Carol, marries her girlfriend, Susan. The episode aired nearly two decades before the United States Supreme Court's 2015 ruling that legalized same-sex marriage at the federal level, and NBC was bracing themselves for an onslaught of complaints from the sitcom's 31.6 million viewers, according to the Independent

In reality, the hubbub was thankfully minimal. It wasn't until years later that people started scratching their heads over the nuptials. Why? The couple didn't even kiss — in fact, it was forbidden. Jane Sibbett, who portrayed Carol throughout the series, told Metro in 2017, "We weren't allowed to kiss, and we were disappointed by that. It wasn't not allowed, it just wasn't filmed, that segment of the wedding. People were worried that that was going to happen." 

In addition, Sibbett explained that although the controversy wasn't enormous, the episode had originally been banned by stations in both Lima, Ohio and Port Arthur, Texas. She saw the unfortunate snub as a tiny blessing. "That kind of press was the best thing, and we were grateful for it actually, because it really brought the conversation to the table about it," Sibbett said, adding, "This is about love, do you understand that?"

The one where gender identity is a Friends punchline

Friends has gotten flack for its misguided portrayal of Chandler's transgender parent Charles, who's played by Academy Award-nominated and cisgender actress Kathleen Turner. Even before Turner appeared on the show in 2001, her character's gender identity was a long-running punchline. 

Throughout the series, Charles is consistently misgendered and referred to as a gay, male drag queen, which makes even less sense considering Friends co-creator Marta Kauffman created the character to be a transgender woman. Chandler's treatment of Charles is so uniquely awful that more than a decade later Slate still called it "especially appalling." As Them points out, the most gutting comment comes during "The One with Chandler and Monica's Wedding Pt.1," when Chandler asks Charles, "Don't you have a little too much penis to be wearing a dress like that?"

In a Gay Times interview, Turner admitted her character "didn't age well." She added, "How they approached with me with it was 'would you like to be the first woman playing a man playing a woman?' I said yes, because there weren't many drag/trans people on television at the time." The character was indeed groundbreaking despite the unfortunate portrayal. According to I'll Be There for You author Kelsey Miller, who spoke to the Independent, Charles was pretty much "the only trans character ... who was not a murder victim on Law & Order." Kauffman later told USA Today that she'd rethink the transgender jokes if she made the episode today.

The one where Ross tries to bang his cousin

If we needed any more proof that David Schwimmer's Ross was the most insufferable, inappropriate member of the Central Perk crew, look no further than "The One with Ross and Monica's Cousin," the episode where he literally tries to bang his own relative. Incest is never a good look.

In 2001, the world was a very different place. We were fresh off the heels of Y2K and network TV's favorite paleontologist (admittedly, kind of by default) got an entire episode dedicated to his quest to bed his cousin, Cassi, who was played by Denise Richards. At the time, most of us didn't even raise an eyebrow. In that era, we let a lot of things slide (see: Justin Timberlake's ramen noodle hair or his matching denim outfit with Britney Spears). Decades later, think pieces galore questioned the Ross' infamously creepy pass at his fam.

There are two main plot points in the bizarre episode: one being some light incest and the other being Monica's attempt to craft a fake foreskin for Joey's audition. As College Humor points out, the latter is the "normal plotline" of the episode. That says a lot, as does the fact that all of the friends are seemingly aware of Ross' desires and don't care. Perhaps they're cool with marrying cousins, which was legal in 19 states at the time, according to The Advocate. Either way, this is one episode that deserved a second look.

The one where Monica kisses her brother

It isn't really Monica's day, month, year, or decade when she realizes that her first kiss was with older brother Ross. The pair have a notoriously close relationship, which some would argue is even bizarrely intimate (let's not forget that time that Ross gives Monica seduction tips or when Monica pretends to be his fiancée). Decades after the show first aired, the bond between Ross and his little sister has raised more than a few eyebrows. Decider did a deep dive into the siblings' alleged "incestuous relationship," and BuzzFeed mused, "Could they BE any more inappropriate?" 

"The One where the Stripper Cries" (Season 10, Episode 11) is perhaps the pinnacle of the pair's distasteful brother-sister bond. It kind of checks off all the controversy boxes: incest and Danny DeVito as a stripper. Strangely enough, the latter seems like a welcome breath of fresh air after learning that Ross and Monica locked lips. The revelation comes after Monica's bachelorette party, and simply put, it's just gross.

The one where they finally let a black woman speak on Friends

Friends takes place in New York City, which you'd think would be ethnically diverse just by looking at the city's actual demographics, but you'd never know it hanging out at the Central Perk. The beloved sitcom is famously white-washed, and Aisha Tyler's Season 9 role is controversial if only for the reason that it took producers nine entire seasons to cast an African American woman as a recurring character.

Tyler kicked off her run with Friends in the 2003 episode "The One with the Soap Opera Party," where she plays Charlie Wheeler, a paleontology professor who later becomes Ross' girlfriend. Prior to that, Gabrielle Union's Season 7 appearance marked the first time a black actor was even given a speaking role, according to InStyle.

Complex, which lambasted the series as one of the most racist TV shows of all time, reported that actress Holly Robinson Peete briefly called for a boycott of the series in 2003 because of the lack of color, but Tyler actually considered her role groundbreaking. "I think why it worked was that they didn't make it into a 'very special episode of Friends,' where the friends suddenly confront issues of race, or try to somehow counterbalance the previous eight seasons' relative lack of diversity," she told InStyle. "I was just a character on the show, with her own appeal and quirks and foible."

The one where Ross and Rachel take a break

Unlike Friends' more recent controversies, which involve alleged homophobia and a lack of diversity, the Ross and Rachel "on a break" incident instantly polarized fans. It's been more than 20 years, and people are still debating what went down.

The whole thing begins with the Season 3 episode "The One where Ross and Rachel Take a Break." Like the title says, Rachel suggests that the couple should "take a break from us" amidst an anniversary-related argument. Ross is led to believe that this means they're broken up. He gets drunk, sleeps with another woman, and Rachel is (appropriately, in our opinion) livid the next day when she finds out. Really, though: less than 24 hours and Ross has already moved on? That's cold. 

Whether or not the pair was actually broken up has been subject to such controversy that Cosmopolitan brought in a group of relationship therapists to analyze the situation 22 years later (the results were inconclusive). BuzzFeed even ran a poll, with the results being pretty mixed. At this point, baby Emma is about the same age her mama was when she stormed into the Central Perk in a wedding dress, so can we just let it go?

The one where Rachel and Joey hook up

For many Friends fans, "The One where Joey Dates Rachel" (Season 8, Episode 10) should have never, ever happened. We were much more willing to witness Ross try to hook up with his cousin than grapple with the friends' will-they-won't-they romance for two entire seasons. The whole thing just felt weird, and The Guardian even claimed the fling "killed off the sitcom" in Season 10. We're not the only ones who felt that way. Apparently, the cast was adamantly against it.

In an interview with Digital Spy, executive producer Kevin S. Bright admitted that Matt LeBlanc was less than thrilled about his character's new romance with Rachel. "In the beginning, Matt LeBlanc did not want to do that story," Bright said. "He was very firmly against it, saying that he's Ross' friend, and that the type of friend that Joey is would never go and take someone else's girlfriend."

Today, it remains one of those things we completely forget happened unless we're rewatching the series. Perhaps we've blocked it out of our collective memories for the better.

The one with the offensive intersex jokes

For a moment, let's try to forget the fact that Brad Pitt absolutely eviscerated Jennifer Aniston's heart when he ran off with Angelina Jolie. The Independent.ie even went so far as claiming Pitt had ruined Aniston's life, but there was once a time where things were all good and Pitt nabbed a guest-starring role alongside her. Unfortunately, that role also drummed up some controversy.

Pitt graced Friends fans with his grand presence in "The One with the Rumor" (Season 8, Episode 9), where he starred as Will Colbert, an old high school pal who admits he founded an "I hate Rachel" club with Ross. The running punchline is that he hated Rachel so much he started a rumor that she was intersex and her parents flipped a coin to decide her sex. At the time, the Intersex Society of North America slammed the episode as "hurtful" and "offensive" and published a letter by intersex ally Devon King, who called it "ignorant, insulting, degrading, and absolutely unprofessional."

Ultimately, co-creator Marta Kauffman later admitted the joke was ill-advised. In a 2019 interview with USA Today, she said, "I might have not done the hermaphrodite stuff today if I had that to do over in the one with Brad Pitt."

The one with homophobia throughout all of Friends

When Friends first aired in 1994, most of us didn't really take note of Chandler's pathological fear of being perceived as gay, especially considering his issues with his father. Nonetheless, the show's poor take on masculinity and homosexuality is something that hasn't gone unnoticed in subsequent binge-watches. In recent years, Friends has been lambasted as homophobic by a number of publications, including — but not limited to — the Independent, News.com.au, Slate, NME, and Vox (which claimed the sitcom was "riddled with lazy gay jokes").

We see the jokes pour in during the Season 5 episode "The One with Joey's Bag," when the friends come up with various ways to belittle the actor for wearing a unisex shoulder bag. They believe it's too feminine, but with a modern lens, we're sort of left wondering why that even matters. We see it again when Ross absolutely can't handle having a male nanny in the aptly named Season 9 episode "The One with the Male Nanny." He presumes the nanny is gay. In reality, homosexuality and caring for kids have absolutely nothing to do with each other. These instances are so prevalent that a YouTuber even made a 50-minute supercut of all the times masculinity and homosexuality become a punchline.

Matt LeBlanc later defended the show to BBC News: "I've heard those rumors too about people taking pot shots at Friends, but I don't want to get into that. I disagree with all that."

The one where Ross dates a teenager

Ross is a college professor and alleged PhD recipient (we're only saying alleged because his bone-headed moves make it pretty hard to believe), but there's no world in which it's appropriate for a professor to date a student (much less a teenage student). Yes, even in the year 2000. Maybe Ross thinks he might as well if Y2K is going to make the world collapse at any minute. Maybe he's lonely because his only friend besides his sister, his high school pal, and Joey Tribiani is a pet monkey. Plus, he probably needs something to get over his high school crush (which is still a thing he's holding onto more than a decade after graduation). 

Ross' relationship with Elizabeth wasn't the storyline most of us wanted, but Friends gave it to us anyway. It happens during the Season 6 episode "The One where Ross Dates a Student," and to this day, fans are still debating the polarizing couple. News.com.au did the math and figured out that Elizabeth is about 18 years old, while Ross is in his early 30s. It's technically legal, but it's still sobering when Elizabeth's dad (Bruce Willis) threatens to contact the school about Ross' behavior. The are numerous Reddit threads questioning Ross' creep factor in the moment, and The Guardian pretty much settled it when they wrote "Ross is so creepy." Honestly, this episode was controversial for a reason. Abuse of power is always a no-no.

The one where Friends fat-shames Monica

In an era where Lizzo is smashing the Billboard charts with self-love and retailers have stopped retouching their models in favor of featuring real human bodies, watching Courteney Cox dance around in a fat suit hasn't aged well. It's no secret that Friends' long-running joke about Monica's weight feels a little fat-shamey in 2019. Could they have hired an actual overweight actor? Could they have given Fat Monica the same emotional depth as her thin counterpart? Probably, on both counts. Though it only appears in four episodes, the fat suit launched a onslaught of think pieces. 

As Glamour put it, Friends frames fatness like "if you're overweight, there is no way anybody will love you." Though Fat Monica has raised criticism from new viewers and critics alike, perhaps the most poignant point comes from I'll Be There for You author Kelsey Miller. "Fat Monica isn't even a person," she wrote in a Vox op-ed. "She's not Monica, fat. She's a cartoon character, with a weird, scream-y voice and a totally different personality (if you can call an affinity for mayonnaise and Kit Kats a personality). Her entire life is eating and pining and occasionally dancing to disco music with donuts in her hands for no reason. She's a clown." Really though, Fat Monica's bagel dance isn't exactly celebrated the same way as the actress' role in Bruce Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark" video.

The one where Friends deleted a controversial scene

The Friends episode "The One where Rachel Tells Ross" hardly seems controversial, but that's only because what was arguably the most controversial joke in the entire series was deleted before it ever got a chance to air. For those who need a refresher, that's the episode where Rachel tells Ross that she's pregnant, and Monica and Chandler get competitive with another couple on their honeymoon, who seemingly beat them to every upgrade and freebie given out to newlyweds. 

In the version of the episode that we remember, we see Monica and Chandler in line at the airport check-in. The rival newlywed couple gets an upgrade while Monica and Chandler stand right behind them and are relegated to economy. In the original version, Monica and Chandler actually do get a first-class upgrade, but Chandler ruins it when he makes a joke about bombs in airport security while standing in front of a sign that reads "federal law prohibits any joking regarding aircraft hijacking or bombing."

According to Express, the episode was set to air in October 2001, a month after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The joke was "deemed too insensitive for screens" and the episode was given a rushed rewrite. Honestly, anyone who watched the deleted scene after it leaked on the internet knows that was probably a good call.