The Consumption Assumption

It’s a question that pop culture enthusiasts have pondered for years: just how much coffee did the characters drink on Friends? Now that it’s available to stream on American Netflix and we didn’t have to shell out £80 for a box set, we decided to finally figure it out – once and for all.

A couple of years ago, Scientific American ran a blog entitled “How Many People Could You Kill With All the Caffeine Consumed on Friends?” It was a light-hearted little calculation about how much coffee the characters chucked back over the course of the show’s ten years, and how dangerous that would have been for their health. You know, exactly the sort of idle brain-teaser that scientists and economists like to fiddle with in their downtime.

The author’s conclusion was that their cumulative coffee consumption was enough to send 300 people to hospital. The piece got picked up by a few different outlets, so now if you ever search for “How much coffee did they drink on Friends?” that is the result you’ll find. Enough coffee to cause 300 people some serious damage.

However, there’s a rather serious flaw with this calculation. It is based around an early estimation that each of the characters drank two cups of coffee per episode – but that estimate is wrong. And not by a little either. It’s off by a long way.

The figures struck us as a little strange at the time but we couldn’t really be arsed to go and buy the ten-season boxset and sit through all 236 episodes to check. But now that they’ve all appeared on Netflix we thought, what the hell? Maybe it’s time to conclusively crack this chestnut.

Armed with a notepad, a biro and a lot of free time, we counted exactly how many cups of coffee that each of the main six characters either ordered, poured or purchased (and therefore presumably consumed) for themselves. These are the results.

You’ll notice immediately that if the characters were supposedly drinking two cups per episode then, over 236 episodes, at least one of them would be pushing a grand total of ~500 – but none of them is. In fact, none of them even hit an average of one cup of coffee per episode.

We broke it down further, and marked out their season-by-season consumption.

The character that gets closest to a two-cup-per-episode average is Season One Chandler. The reason for this is a single anomalous episode (S1 E5: The One With The East German Laundry Detergent) in which he drinks upwards of ten espressos in order to muster up the energy to break up with Janice. He has 13 coffees over the course of that episode, but even that Herculean effort isn’t enough to push his season average up to the now oft-quoted two-cup assumption.

Moreover, we gave the friends the benefit of the doubt and included anything that could feasibly be a cup of coffee in our count, unless it was specifically identified as something else. So unless it was pointed out to be a tea or a cocoa (or, in one instance, a warm milk) we assumed it was coffee.

Even then, all in all, they really don’t drink that much. Though they do undeniably spend a lot of time in Central Perk (about 85% of episodes feature at least one scene set there) a number of times they will just saunter in, crack wise, and then not buy anything. It’s no wonder Gunther hated their guts.

They don’t really drink coffee at home either. We definitely see Monica pour a cup in the episode where she plays the stock market (S2 E5 The One With The Bullies). Rachel definitely pours a cup in an episode when she’s living with Joey in Season Ten. Otherwise most of the time that they’re drinking out of mugs away from the café we can see them pouring water or orange juice into them.

They do drink coffee in other locations though – most notably hospitals. And what with multiple births and injuries over the show’s duration, they end up in hospital a fair amount. We counted them all as coffees, even though they could have been vending machine soups for all we actually know.

Still, presuming they drink coffee whenever they have the option, the gang are seen to consume 1,154 cups of coffee – or roughly 192 each. That gives us a grand total of 0.8 cups per character per episode.

That means the figure reached by the author of that original post is out by a huge, huge margin. The actual number of people they could kill with the caffeine by their actual consumption (not their assumed consumption) would only be 120 people – which is significantly smaller. Only a body count of twenty per character.

But there’s more to it again.

Rachel’s very first cup of coffee is explicitly ordered as a decaffeinated. In a later episode, Rachel muddles up an order, so we learn that Monica drinks decaf cappuccinos. Chandler also mentions a preference for decaffeinated coffee when (in another episode) Rachel hands him a cup with a cigarette butt in it. Even Phoebe, the biggest drinker of the bunch, states that she was off caffeine for the duration of her pregnancy too, which drops her total somewhat too.

This plays merry hell with the caffeine calculation, so perhaps we need to think about the question in a different way. Aside from measuring it out in cups, maybe we can authoritatively decide how much the characters of Friends spent on coffee over the course of the show?

In the episode The One With Five Steaks And An Eggplant, Monica is handed a bill for one coffee and one scone which comes to $4.12. Although it’s hard to figure exactly out what these items must have cost individually to make that total (even if you add state tax of 4%, which is applicable given that she was intending to consume it on the premises) it does seem reasonable to assume that the coffee was $1.50 and the scone was roughly $2.50.

That being so, how much were they coughing up?

At $1.50 this means that the six of them combined spent a fairly meagre $1,731 on coffee throughout the entire show. That’s an average of $288.50 each, or just $1.22 per character per episode. Even adding tips (and we know they leave 20% because in the episode The One With Unagi Joey questions the amount and Chandler confirms it as 20%) it’s still peanuts. $1.46 per character per episode. Roughly a quid. The price of a single Pret filter coffee – which is fucking disgusting stuff.

So let this be an end to nearly twenty years of speculation and misinformation. If you’ve ever used Monica, Phoebe, Rachel, Ross, Chandler or Joey to excuse the amount you spend on coffee of a morning, thinking “Ah, well at least I’m not as bad as those guys!” sadly, you’ve been lied to.