America went five long months without being about to bingewatch Friends. It was a dark era between when the series left Netflix forever and resurfaced on HBO Max, which was finally made available this week. Apparently, Friends still remained very popular during that five months, as viewers did the unthinkable: they bought physical copies of the series. In 2020. Insane!
In any respect, as we all revisit one of the most popular shows of all time now that it has returned to streaming, it’s also worth revisiting the story behind the four quick claps in that iconic Friends theme song.
Anyone who knows Friends knows the theme song, and anyone who knows the theme song knows those four rapid claps. Those claps, however, were something of a fluke, more of a necessary afterthought than an intentional inclusion. As the story goes, Don Ohlmeyer — the president of the NBC network’s west coast division — watched the title sequence after the pilot aired and hated it. “What is that title sequence? It’s terrible. It’s awful,” he told Friends co-creator Kevin S. Bright. The first iteration of the title sequence only contained footage of the six actors at the fountain, and Ohlmeyer didn’t like what it insinuated, according to Generation Friends by Saul Austerlitz.
“It says to the audience, ‘We’re young. We’re hip. We’re dancing in a fountain and you can’t dance with us!'”
Ohlmeyer hated it so much that he demanded that the show reinstate the original title sequence, set to R.E.M.’s “Shiny Happy People.” As anyone can see, however, the original title sequence with the R.E.M. song is terrible:
After deciding against “Shiny Happy People” as the permanent theme, composer Michael Skloff — the husband of co-creator Marta Kaufman — wrote “I’ll Be There for You” for the show, which was inspired by the sound of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. They tried to get Michael Stipe (of R.E.M.), Natalie Merchant (of 10,000 Maniacs) and They Might Be Giants to perform the song, but they all declined. They eventually settled on The Rembrandts to record Skloff’s theme. However, Ohlmeyer was very enamored with the title sequence that accompanied the “Shiny Happy People” theme, which included clips of the various characters from the show. Kevin Bright came up with a compromise: He’d splice in clips from the show with footage of the fountain set to “I’ll Be There for You.”
There was only one catch. Skloff had used some processed sounds to provide a drum fill at one particular point in “I’ll Be There for You.” When an actual band, The Rembrandts, recorded the theme, the processed drum fill was removed, and the theme was sent to Kevin Bright to play alongside the title credits. “We have real drums now, so the drummer did what he felt was natural at that moment.”
“Where’s that drum fill?” Bright asked when he received The Rembrandt’s version of “I’ll Be There For. You.” He had already edited together the title sequence set to Skloff’s version. In Skloff’s title sequence, he had used the four beats of the drum fill to create four, fast visual cuts. Without the drum fill, the title sequence didn’t quite work, so Kevin Bright had to improvise. After some conversation, Skloff — along with two assistants — got behind a microphone and clapped along with the song to provide the basis for the quick cuts in the title sequence. Those claps would end up becoming the most remembered part of the song.
As Saul Austerlitz writes in Generation Friends: “The most memorable sequence of one of the most memorable television theme songs ever had just been recorded,” because they needed a sound to sync to the quick cut edits.