In the 1980s, the phrase “a very special episode” became synonymous with the way shows would tackle weighty social issues like racism or child abuse.
The 1990s hit comedy Friends, however, generally avoided “very special” territory except for the occasional rough breakup and the dual infertility diagnoses faced by Monica and Chandler (which sparked a bit of backlash for being too light with a serious topic).
Now a Canadian nonprofit has retroactively created the heaviest Friends episode ever—one in which Chandler finds out he’s HIV-positive. Casey House, Canada’s only hospital specifically for those with HIV/AIDS, also edited footage of The Office to create a scenario in which Michael is taken to task for being insensitive toward Oscar being HIV-positive.
Despite a disclaimer at the beginning of each clip and dubbing that makes it pretty obvious these aren’t legit sitcom episodes, Casey House has already removed the Friends video from its site due to a copyright takedown notice from Warner Bros.
“We heard from Warner Bros. yesterday. Of course, we immediately complied,” said Joseph Bonnici, partner and ecd at Case House agency Bensimon Byrne. “The interesting thing is that they reached out to us and actually provided some incredibly positive guidance into how to keep ‘Losing Friends’ as part of the campaign. So that’s what we are doing now: talking to the people they suggested and hoping to rally them behind this. They were very helpful and see value in what we are trying to do.”
Casey House’s version of Friends—which essentially replaces the audio in the Season 4 episode in which Chandler admits to kissing Joey’s girlfriend—shows Chandler receiving an HIV diagnosis but quickly being told that the condition is manageable thanks to modern treatments.
What causes the group’s relationship to crack is not the diagnosis, but rather Joey’s refusal to support or live with Chandler for fear of infection. It ends with what seems to be an irreparable rift between the two, which explains the clip being called “Losing Friends.”
“How we treat HIV has come a long way,” the copy at the end of the clip states. “How we treat people with HIV hasn’t.”
“The campaign really makes you take stock and consider, ‘What if the TV shows that defined the cultural zeitgeist of the time could have helped improve the lives of those living with HIV/AIDS today, decades later?’,” said Joanne Simons, CEO of Casey House. “There is a disturbing gap in the conversation that is being ignored between the incredible strides we have made in the medical treatment of the disease and the startling lack of progress in society’s treatment of those living with HIV. Casey House is working to bridge that gap, but we can’t do it alone.”
While somewhat less bleak than the Friends iteration, Casey House’s take on The Office—called “The Toxic Office” begins with Michael being admonished for an offensive note in which he wrote, “This email was so gay, it gave me AIDS.” He then leads a staff meeting in which he attempts to support Oscar, who has HIV in this alternate universe. But his ham-handed attempts at explaining AIDS only leaves Oscar feeling less welcome in the workplace.
The clips were created through dubbing by professional impersonators and footage of lookalikes’ mouths added into the clips via postproduction.
According to projections from Casey House’s Smash Stigma survey, 65 million North Americans feel their friends, relatives and coworkers would shun them if they were HIV-positive. An estimated 40 million would rather not even know if they had the disease, according to the nonprofit’s report.
The Smash Stigma website continues to host “The Toxic Office,” along with several interview clips in which real patients explain the stigmas they’ve faced since being diagnosed with HIV.
The partnership between Casey House and agency Bensimon Byrne goes back years and has produced several attention-grabbing projects. In 2017, they opened a temporary restaurant called June’s Eatery, named for Casey House founder June Callwood and run entirely by HIV-positive staffers.
In 2018, to address misconceptions about how HIV can be spread, they opened a pop-up spa, staffed by massage therapists with HIV, with the tagline, “Relax your fear.”
Supporters of the new TV-centric campaign said they’re excited to see a return to the kinds of pop culture conversations that seemed to stall after the earliest days of HIV awareness in the 1980s.
“For me, the anxiety I felt around revealing my HIV-positive status to my parents, let alone publicly, was debilitating. In so many ways, the stigma was worse than the diagnosis, and that’s why I kept it a secret for 10 years,” said Karl Schmid, a correspondent for Los Angeles’ ABC7 KABC-TV. “We haven’t had a proper conversation about this disease since the ’80s and ’90s, and the reality has changed. It’s no longer exclusively the image of very ill people isolated in hospital beds. It’s me. I am what HIV-positive looks like in 2020.”
Client: Casey House
CEO: Joanne Simons
Chief Marketing and Development Officer: Mark Trask
Communications Officer: Lisa McDonald
Agency: Bensimon Byrne
Partner/ECD: Joseph Bonnici
CD: David Mueller
CD: Gints Bruveris
ACD/Writer: Matthew Valenzano
Art Director: Ana Segurajauregui Sanchez
Account Director: Will Dell
Project Manager: Jordan Lane
Project Manager: Ashley Belfast
Media Director: Eugene Makhouleen (Digital Analytics Director)
Strategy Director: Daniella Perruccio
Social Strategist: Rebecca Millner
Producer: Michelle Pilling
Editor: Tim Pienta
Cameraman: Julian Peter
Sarah Spence, Managing Director
Debbie Chan, Creative Director
Lauren Baswick, Account Director
Jessie Sorell, Associate Creative Director,
Denise Roy, Senior Account Manager
Tony Koutoulous, Account Manager
Jackie Kleinberg, Account Manager
Jessica Leroux, Account Manager,
Fiorella Martinez, Art Director
Sarah Santarossa, Associate Account Manager,
Aaron Nilsen, Account Coordinator
Kaitlin Copp, Account Coordinator
ACD: John Hotts
XD Director: Kurt Krumme
Senior Develop: Dov Atlin
Developer: Stephanie Nero
Designer: Cameron Harapiak
Project Coordinator: Naomi Sklar
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