Friendship Lessons from Bert and Ernie, Zack and Slater, and More

Friendship is difficult to dramatize. For most of us, these relationships come and go, owing as much to circumstance and proximity as to agency or anything else that makes for a compelling story. And yet, throughout my life, I’ve found myself drawn to shows about friends. (Though oddly enough, I didn’t really like Friends.)

Maybe it was growing up without siblings around; instead of having an older brother teach me about girls or an older sister show me how to make a great joke, I learned it from watching TV. (And from being around my parents. And other friends, neighbors, and family. But also from watching TV.)

Here, then, are a few of my favorite on-screen friendships. We explore what their relationships can teach us about making (and maintaining) great friendships.

Bert and Ernie, Sesame Street

The quintessential odd couple: One’s an OCD-level collector of bottle caps, the other a merry anarchist. And yet, they care about each other. After all, behind every ornery outburst from Ernie is a genuine attempt at approving their shared living space. And sure, Bert seems like a stick in the mud, but he understandably just wants to live in a clean, peaceful apartment.

The takeaway: Even if someone irritates you, it’s possible they have your best intentions at heart. And hey, deep down, we’re all a little bit Bert, we’re all a little bit Ernie.

Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann, SportsCenter

As a kid, I thought these guys seemed like the best possible outcome for adulthood. They were funny, they were smart, and they talked about sports for a living. Apparently, their off-camera relationship was sometimes strained (surprise!). But on camera, their obvious joy was contagious.

The takeaway: Are you smart? Are you, perhaps, a little too pleased with yourself about this? Find someone exactly like you, and make inside jokes for an hour every day. (Ideally while someone—perhaps a big corporation like ESPN—pays you for the privilege).

The gang, Saved by the Bell

These guys went through a lot: romance, heartbreak, Jessie Spano’s heartbreaking addiction to, uh, “caffeine pills”. Today, we might wince at the neatly defined roles each character played (The Nerd, The Preppy, The Jock, etc). But back then, there was something positive in seeing a group of friends that embraced one another across the lines that too often divide up high school cliques.

The takeaway: Find someone outside of your habitual circle. If you and your friends are exactly alike, then at least one of you is redundant.

Jerry & George & Kramer & Elaine, Seinfeld

Do these guys even like each other? It’s hard to tell. They trade barbs and insults and treat each other like inconveniences. For years, they didn’t even know Kramer’s first name. And yet they seemed to spend every available hour together, congregating at Monk’s Coffee to quibble over manners like characters in a Jane Austen novel.

The takeaway: Find someone who shares your obsessions. And who makes you laugh.

Conan O’Brien and Andy Richter, Late Night With Conan O’Brien

In every friendship, there’s a Conan and an Andy. (If you don’t know which you are, you’re probably the Andy.) The friendship between these two is defined by their complementary personalities: the outsized ball-of-energy host and his dry-as-the-Sahara sidekick who occasionally knocks the host down a peg.

The takeaway: If you love someone, let them go. Andy left the show for a solo career in 2000 before returning to sidekick status in 2009 for Conan’s ill-fated run on The Tonight Show. Still, they were together.

Don Draper and Roger Sterling, Mad Men

One of the best moments in the show’s first season is when Bert Cooper, their boss, sends them to the barbershop to work out their differences. The reconciliation doesn’t take completely, but over time the two realize they have more to gain by pairing up against their enemies (real and perceived) than by bickering with each other. It’s fascinating to watch the two men of different generations—Roger a WWII vet, Don of course a Korean War man—navigate the weird world of the ‘60s together.

The takeaway: Mutual respect is essential, but the shared love of a well-made cocktail is more fun.

Leslie Knope and Ron Swanson, Parks & Recreation

Did this show make me cry? I’ll never tell. But damn if the last few episodes weren’t poignant, especially when exploring the unexpected, yet totally believable, friendship between Amy Poehler’s eager liberal striver and Nick Offerman’s libertarian woodsman.

The takeaway: Get out of your bubble and you just might find someone who understands you at a deeper level.

Use these examples to get out there and make some friends who are just as weird as you are.