A Little Happier: A Lesson in Creativity from a Bottle Episode of the TV Show “Friends.”

One of my Secrets of Adulthood is that often when we give ourselves limits, we give ourselves freedom.

That’s one of the mottoes of the Upholder Tendency. And it’s also true, and often remarked, that even for people who aren’t Upholders, when we give ourselves limits, we often spark creativity. It doesn’t seem like this would be true, but it is true.

For instance, a lot of listeners loved the Try-That-at-Home to “Write a haiku” that Elizabeth and I talked about in episode 117. Having to follow that strict structure of syllables in a 5/7/5 pattern unleashes new thoughts—and it’s surprisingly fun to have to figure out how to make it work.

I recently learned of another example of this.

In TV, a “bottle episode” is an episode that’s meant to cost as little as possible. To keep expenses down, the episode is written to use only the regular cast, it’s set in a single location (if possible, the main standing set), and has no fancy effects. Often an inexpensive bottle episode is planned to save room in the budget for another episode to be made more expensively.

So for a bottle episode, choices are quite constrained.

But it turns out that the people who make TV often rise to this challenge.

I love the TV show Friends, and I read that on Friends, the success of the bottle episode “The One Where No One’s Ready” in Season 3 inspired the show to create at least one bottle episode in each season.

(If you know your Friends, that episode is the one where Ross tries to get everybody ready to leave together for a fancy work event at the museum.  They all need to put on their nicest outfits and get going, but they’re all distracted by their own concerns. Joey and Chandler fight over who can sit in a particular chair, and—fun fact—Joey talks about “going commando” which really established that term in the popular vocabulary; Monica obsesses hilariously over a voicemail she left for her ex-boyfriend Richard, and Rachel and Phoebe try to figure out what to wear. Only the six “friends” appear in the episode—we don’t even see Gunther—and they never leave the apartment.)

To give you a flavor of the episode, here’s a very short clip from Monica, talking about the message she left for her ex-boyfriend Richard. She’s very determined to be “breezy.”

This episode is terrific, and it’s a great example of something that people often say, and it’s really true, even though it may seem counter-intuitive: imagination is often better served by constraint than by freedom.

I love the way G. K. Chesterton put it: “Art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame.”




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