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Matthew Perry, the Friend we wished we had

Though the actor did other work, he remains Chandler Bing, our friend. And we would be well served to remember that friends who make too many jokes may be hurting on the inside

 Chandler Bing — the witty one with a line that changed the moment — was the friend we wished we had.
Chandler Bing — the witty one with a line that changed the moment — was the friend we wished we had.

Matthew Perry taught me the word ‘vestibule.’ In the Friends episode ‘The One With The Blackout’ — season 1, episode 7, streaming in India on Netflix —  Perry’s character Chandler Bing finds himself trapped by an ATM with a Victoria’s Secret model. I had wrongly assumed it was called “an ATM machine”, but Chandler Bing was incapable of using a tautology — and therefore referring to it as an Automatic Teller Machine machine. Even when entirely befuddled and out of his depth and unable to make basic conversation, he couldn’t possibly get a word wrong.

Perry delivered Chandler’s lines as if walking perpetually with an invisible microphone, ready to be dropped at a moment’s notice. In early seasons, that was his only job, to skewer and eye-roll and say something pithy that slices instantly through a potentially mawkish moment. The deck was stacked, of course, with writers giving Perry the smartest and most quotable lines. One can’t blame the writers, given the actor’s command of pauses, timing and his superhuman ability to audibly italicise words he wanted: could there be a better delivery of a one-liner?

This marked Chandler as ‘the funny one’ in a sitcom, where everybody is meant to be funny to some degree. This is quite remarkable. Using Friends shorthand, we have all known a Joey, a guy who takes a little longer to get a joke, a Monica, who takes board-game rules and tidying up too seriously, a Phoebe, who will flake out in spectacular and unpredictable ways, a Rachel who is visibly more spoiled than you are, and a Ross who may either geek out too hard about something interesting only to themselves, or spend too long whining over a crush. 

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Chandler, on the other hand, was a moment. You or a friend could come up with a Chandler-esque turn of phrase, but that would be that. Chandler Bing — the witty one with a line that changed the moment — was the friend we wished we had. 

He was also the biggest misfit. Chandler had the most troubled and traumatised childhood, a job nobody quite knew about, and struggled with trying to pivot to a second career relatively late in life, where he started off as an overage intern. The quips were a mask he wore to shield his many insecurities, something the character openly admits on the show: “Hi, I’m Chandler,” he introduces, “I make jokes when I’m uncomfortable.” 

Admittedly not his funniest line, that is the quote being thrown around most frequently this week as Perry tragically passed away this weekend, found dead in his hot tub at the cruelly young age of 54. The reason is that the line cuts deep — bleeding from the character into the actor who had a troubled and tumultuous life. From supermodels to supercars, Perry embraced the flashier upside of celebrity with gusto. One of the most recognisable men on the planet, the actor battled substance issues, addiction issues and severe health issues. 

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He wrote with candour about his troubles in his 2022 memoir Friends, Lovers, And The Big Terrible Thing. He revealed that he had struggled with alcoholism since the age of fourteen, admitted that he was often drunk or high on the Friends set in later seasons of the show, and at one point his concerned co-stars even staged an intervention for him. Perry never let himself off the hook. In Friends: The Reunion (2021), Perry briefly spoke about his own difficulty with another addiction — laughter.

“I felt like I was gonna die if they didn’t laugh,” says Perry about the way the studio audience would react during the taping of the episodes. He was the big laugh-getter, without question, but few have considered the insane pressure of that position. “It’s not healthy for sure, but I would sometimes say a line and they wouldn’t laugh — and I would sweat and just go into convulsions if I didn’t get the laugh I was supposed to get. I would freak out… I felt like that every single night.”

Lisa Kudrow, who played Phoebe on the show, was visibly stunned by this revelation. There is clearly a lot Perry carried within himself, for a long long time. As he recovered from his substance issues, the actor became a champion of drug rehabilitation and recovery, sincerely striving to help those in need. In an interview last November, he said he’d want to be remembered for trying to help people become sober. “When I die, I don’t want Friends to be the first thing that’s mentioned.”

Yet it is.

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The cultural footprint of Friends cannot be overstated. It is a show the entire world watched together, and even for those of us who don’t have a favourite season or a favourite episode, we are aware of the characters, the moments, the memes. It may never have been the most groundbreaking sitcom but it is — at least outside of America — the most popular English-language sitcom of them all. Friends is a language we can all speak.

Nobody, of course, spoke it better than Perry. The actor did other work — comedies like The Whole Nine Yards, legal shows like Ally McBeal and The Good Wife, and even lent his trademark cadence to Aaron Sorkin’s verbally demanding Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip — but he remains Chandler Bing, our friend. We would be well served to remember that friends who make too many jokes may be hurting on the inside. I daresay Perry would like that. 

Be caring, be empathetic, be content, be kind. Chandler will live on in our reruns, and his legacy can be ground down to a word he made his trademark: Be.

Streaming Tip Of The Week:

A striking depiction of drug abuse can be found in comedian John Mulaney’s Baby J (Netflix), a 2023 special that is as confessional as it is comedic. He speaks seriously about addiction and rehab and an intervention thrown for him by celebrities, yet remains constantly hilarious. 

Raja Sen is a screenwriter and critic. He has co-written Chup, a film about killing critics, and is now creating an absurd comedy series. He posts @rajasen.

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