We first understand Phoebe Buffay from Friends to be the sort of woman who’d attempt to cleanse a downtrodden friend’s aura, or regale a stranger with tales about her colorful but tragic childhood. This pretty much sets up what we’d come to know of Phoebe over the years. She was the “weird one” of the Friends . The kooky, flaky, oddball living proudly in her own world, and, as a result, set apart almost entirely from our own. And yet, somehow, this former street-dwelling third wave hippie maintained a permanent position among a collection of otherwise regular folk: levelheaded, mature, responsible adults like Monica, Ross, Chandler, and the others.
Phoebe’s unorthodox style of dress, her love for new age spiritualism, and her general and complete eccentricity convinced us all that it's she who could stand to take a lesson in emotional grounding above anyone else in the main cast. In fact, it is Phoebe’s stark polar opposite Ross who — again, in the pilot — illustrates this by undercutting one of her more unwieldy speeches with a pointed, “Anyway…” We laughed and laughed and laughed, our minds telling us, "He’s right. That lady’s bonkers."
But when you look back on Friends with new eyes, you realize that Phoebe actually had it together better than anyone else in the group.
Take a look at her professional history as compared to the others. Phoebe maintained a steady job as a masseuse for the entire run of the series, distinguishing herself as the only one of the Friends never to have been out of work. Rachel, of course, started the series without any work experience; Monica was fired early on from her initial job as a restaurant chef; Chandler eventually left his company abruptly, in a bout of passion, without a clue of what to do next; Ross was forced to take sabbatical after his bosses deemed him mentally unstable; Joey was almost perpetually unemployed. Phoebe, on the other hand, remained consistently on payroll from pilot to finale, even graduating to a particularly upscale massage company in Season 9.
And how about her love life? Yes, Phoebe was suggested to be more adventurous than most of her pals were, but what did that mean? Her memorable love affairs include scientist David, a short-lived romance with psychologist Roger, policeman Gary, and, ultimately, her husband Mike. In addition to being a pretty delightful string of guest stars (Hank Azaria, Fisher Stevens, Michael Rappaport, and Paul Rudd), this collection of gentlemen exhibits a sophistication in Phoebe that none of the other Friends seem to have in their romantic prospects.
Ross remains adhered to Rachel, a crush he developed in high school, despite an apparent inability to make things work with her without explosive conflict. Monica and Chandler default to one another, although their relationship remained a lot more steady than Ross and Rachel's ever did. And Joey sleeps around compulsively without ever managing to settle down. In her men, Phoebe looks for signs of compatibility. She values intellectualism, eccentricity, and compassion. She delves further into a relationship when she finds proof of these things, and steps away from one when she finds evidence of the opposite. That sounds like the most mature route to me.
And then there’s family. Monica and Ross’ relationship excluded, she is one of the few Friends who has a truly positive relationship with anyone in her family. The Geller siblings become children around their parents; Rachel nearly despises her sisters and can barely step within yards of her father; Chandler has a terribly strained relationship with his mother and almost none at all with his father. Granted, Joey too does have a warm and loving relationship with his parents and sisters, though we see less of any of them than we do of Phoebe’s half-brother Frank. She also has a particularly close bond with her grandmother, whom she visits regularly before her death.
Managing all this after the childhood she faced, Phoebe exhibits an ability to carry on despite life's troubles that her friends do not. The rest of the main cast are still weighted by the issues they faced as kids.
These aren’t the only factors that distinguish Phoebe as a bit more admirable than the show would let on. Phoebe has a hobby, and a skill! She plays music while the rest of her friends loaf, lounge, and whine. She has values! She believes in animal rights and has a deliberately pacifistic worldview. All in all, Phoebe has character. She has an air of agency, maturity, and capable independence that none of her friends do; in fact, she might well be the only healthy, functioning, normal adult of the lot of ‘em.
So cool it with your “Anyway…”s, Ross.
Images: NBC (4)