Matthew Perry Was the Sarcastic Soul of ‘Friends’

There’s not a lot of Matthew Perry in the pilot episode of Friends, but he gets to deliver one of its funniest jokes. As the gang sits around Central Perk, a newly-divorced Ross admits that he just wants to be married again. A second later, Rachel wanders into the coffee shop, soaking wet and wearing a wedding dress. Without missing a beat, Perry’s Chandler Bing declares, “And I just want a million dollars!”

Like a lot of Chandler punchlines, it’s quick and biting in its sarcasm. And like a lot of Chandler punchlines, Perry’s delivery elevates it from a smartass quip that a few dozen actors could say into something you can’t imagine leaving anyone else’s mouth.

Note the timing and the emphasis of the thing. The pause after “And I,” the way he hits the “I” as hard as he does, and the way his voice goes full game show host as he says “million dollars,” all combine to give the gag a musicality beyond what Friends creators Marta Kauffman and David Crane wrote on the page. It’s a small moment in an episode that is primarily concerned with characters who are not Chandler Bing. But you watch it and you want to hear him say things like it, again and again and again.

Fortunately, Perry, Kauffman, Crane, and the rest of the Friends team had plenty of Chandler gags to come over the ensuing decade. Within short order, Chandler in many ways became the defining comic voice of the defining Gen X sitcom, and an essential ingredient in the immediate, monster, global success of the series.

It is shocking, and terribly sad, to realize that Perry’s voice has been permanently silenced after he reportedly drowned to death today at age 54. We all knew about his demons and health troubles, particularly when it came to addiction. But the cast of Friends was defined by its youth. Perry was 25 when the series debuted, and Chandler and the other characters felt like something wholly fresh to popular culture, and to the world that grew to love them. None of the Friends are supposed to die, and certainly not this soon.

Despite his age, Perry was already something of a jaded showbiz veteran by the time he got cast as Chandler. Raised in Ottawa(*), he moved to Los Angeles as a teenager and quickly began finding work, guesting on a variety of teen-oriented sitcoms and dramas. Though he would eventually become a superstar for his joke-slinging facility, his preppy good looks were often used in those days in the service of something sadder. He had a recurring role on Growing Pains as Carol’s older boyfriend Sandy; his final appearance was a Very Special Episode where Sandy drives drunk, crashes his car, and eventually dies from his injuries. In a memorable early Beverly Hills 90210 episode, he’s a tennis star who ponders shooting his domineering father with a handgun, only to be talked out of it by Brandon Walsh. He was also the lead on multiple short-lived sitcoms, and nearly didn’t get to play Chandler at all because he had signed on to do another comedy pilot that season, a sci-fi show about LAX baggage handlers in the year 2194.

(*) Like Michael J. Fox a decade earlier, Perry was a Canadian finding huge success playing a smartass on an NBC Thursday night sitcom. And while their overall screen personas were quite different, both men are on the short list for the best comic timing in the history of television

Perry was 25 when the series debuted, and Chandler and the other characters felt like something wholly fresh to popular culture, and to the world that grew to love them. None of the Friends are supposed to die, and certainly not this soon.

That he had already been through so many career ups and downs so early in his life gave him a world-weariness that nicely contrasted with the baby face he still had in 1994. It made Chandler into the perfect emotional foil to the more upbeat pals like Monica and Phoebe. And Chandler’s snarky, guarded response to the world became an essential, hilarious counterweight to the sentimentality of the rest of Friends. Without Chandler, the more sincere elements of the show could have drowned in their own schmaltz. He is to the early Friends seasons what Han Solo is to the original Star Wars trilogy: not the main character, but the one whose sheer irreverence prevents more central pieces of the story (Luke learning about the Force, Ross falling in love with Rachel) from seeming too serious and self-important.

Chandler would eventually get involved in a romance of his own, and many Friends fans wound up feeling more invested in Chandler and Monica than they were in Ross and Rachel. In the beginning, though, he was mainly there as a sort of Greek chorus, commenting not only on what everyone else on the show was doing, but on pop culture in general. One of his most famous lines comes in the second episode ever, as we see the group watching an old sitcom repeat. “Oh, I think this is the episode of Three’s Company where there’s some kind of misunderstanding,” Chandler declares. Even if you had never seen, or even heard of, Three’s Company, the dry manner in which Perry says the joke makes it clear that he is in fact describing every episode of Three’s Company.  

That level of self-aware comedy requires a Swiss watch-level of comic precision, which Perry always had to offer. In time, other characters on the show would parody Perry’s trademark rhythms — in “The One Where No One’s Ready,” Joey puts on every article of clothing his roommate owns and declares, “Look at me! I’m Chandler! Could I BE wearing any more clothes?” — and there was a risk of it seeming like a gimmick that anyone could do. But there was always a specificity to how Perry would attack the dialogue — which words to hit hard, and when to simply hang back and let the cleverness of a phrase (“I’ve never known you to pay money for any kind of Capade”) do the work for him. He could be imitated, but he could never be duplicated.

Chandler’s rampant mockery of himself and others was of course presented as a defense mechanism. (“Hi, I’m Chandler,” he tells someone he’s just met. “I make jokes when I’m uncomfortable.”) His desperation to win the approval of others through laughter was unfortunately mirrored by Perry himself. During the 2021 Friends: The Reunion special, the former co-stars discuss what it was like to shoot episodes in front of a live studio audience. A candid Perry says, “I felt like I was gonna die if they didn’t laugh. And it’s not healthy, for sure. But I would sometimes say a line, and they wouldn’t laugh. And I would sweat, and, just, like, go into convulsions. If I didn’t get the laugh I was supposed to get, I would freak out.” Lisa Kudrow says he’s never told them this before, and there’s a level of tenderness and concern in her voice that speaks volumes about everything Perry went through both during the series and after, and how worried his real-life friends had long been about him.

Matthew Perry and the cast of ‘Friends.’ NBCU/GETTY IMAGES

Like most of his co-stars, the role he played on Friends felt so tailored to Perry’s strengths and onscreen persona that he struggled to find anything that fit him nearly as well in the two decades after. He tried various sitcoms that didn’t make much of an impact — he was a sports arena manager in Mr. Sunshine, a grieving widower/sports talk radio host in Go On, and slovenly sportswriter Oscar Madison in a 2015 remake of The Odd Couple — though he did very well with seriocomic guest spots on shows like The Good Wife and The West Wing. (The latter, unfortunately, led to him starring in Aaron Sorkin’s catastrophic Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip as the self-aggrandizing head writer of a would-be SNL.)

Through it all, he kept battling his addictions — last year, he told The New York Times, “I’ve probably spent $9 million or something trying to get sober” — and using his celebrity and money to help other addicts get better. During a 2016 BBC Radio interview, he implied that he didn’t really remember three years of work on the show — between the third and sixth seasons — due to being “a little bit out of it” at the time. But here’s the thing: the only way you would know this from watching those seasons is from his fluctuations in weight; in any scene, at any size, his delivery was as note-perfect as usual.

Chandler never gets the million dollars he wished for in the Friends pilot. Ironically, the series ends with him married and Ross not. While the last episode of course has to put a bow on the Ross and Rachel relationship, it speaks volumes that the finale’s plots all in some way revolve around Monica and Chandler adopting twins and moving to the suburbs, and everyone’s fear of what this will mean for the group. Of course the show has to end as soon as Chandler Bing leaves Manhattan; how could it be Friends without him being able to wander into any scene, at any time, and crack up the studio audience with a one-liner? 

Matthew Perry, on the other hand, did get his million dollars — lots of them, actually. But he also got to be a brilliant part of a brilliant cast, one who helped shape countless comic actors who followed, and who gave decades of belly laughs (and even some tears) to the many, many fans of Friends. A lot’s been written about how the show has become a deep object of affection to members of Gen Z, who are way too young to appreciate Chandler quoting the lyrics to “Arthur’s Theme” by Christopher Cross. Maybe, some have suggested, it feels like wish-fulfillment to watch a show about people who enjoy each other’s company without having their noses buried in their phones. Or maybe Friends is just so funny — most of all when Perry is there to punctuate every scene with one hilarious line reading after another — that it transcends generations, eras, and references. It’s awful that Perry has died, and so soon. But even though he’s gone, he’ll keep getting the laughs he so desperately craved in life. 

From Rolling Stone US.

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