Matthew Perry Was the Comic Soul of ‘Friends’

Matthew Perry
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Friends” wouldn’t have been “Friends” without Matthew Perry.

And neither would have been, as time went by, American culture. The actor, who infused the hit show with its vital, sustaining dose of sarcasm, went on in recent years to publicize his sobriety, and his work bringing others out of addiction through the founding of a sober living house. His death, at 54 in an apparent drowning, comes as a shock, in part because Perry seemed to have a second act lying ahead of him.

His work on “Friends” cast a long shadow: The on-off love affair between Ross (David Schwimmer) and Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) were the engine of the show’s plot, but the character of Chandler Bing was the big comic idea. Acting amidst a murderer’s row of comedy performers, Perry was the cast tactitian, figuring out precisely where the final beat of each scene fell. Paired with Matt LeBlanc’s Joey as roommates in the show’s early going, Perry found new angles on the platonic bro-friendship, making it clear that this was, for the time being, the most important relationship in both guys’ lives. And Perry got a showcase in the 1999 episode “The One Where Everybody Finds Out” — moment for moment, among the strongest sitcom episodes of its era. Its quality is thanks in part to Perry’s commitment to a series of escalating schemes: Certain that he must prove he’s not in love with Monica (Courteney Cox), Chandler forces himself through a date with Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow).

And, as we knew he would, Chandler breaks down. He goes gleefully far in pursuit of the bit — for all that their pairing seemed convenient at the time, Perry’s and Cox’s ability to play off of each other was a rare comedy godsend — but he can’t, finally, pull off the lie. There was one thing that Perry, as Chandler, couldn’t do, and that’s guile: The character’s caustic wit, as performed by a master comic actor, presented as nothing more and nothing less than observational humor about his friends: One degree harsher and it would have tanked the show, one degree softer and it wouldn’t have landed.

And yet it always did, no matter how good or bad the script, no matter what Perry was going through. His memoir, published just last year, describes his emerging from a childhood in which he abused alcohol into a TV set on which he was, often, in active crisis. “Friends” will always be alternately funny and heartwarming, to the many millions on its wavelength. The struggles that Perry went through in order to perform a character whose jockeying wit overlays clear sadness seem, now, all the more apparent.

Through it all, Perry built and sustained a long-running career, including films like “Fools Rush In” and “The Whole Nine Yards” and further TV forays like “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” and the 2015 reboot of “The Odd Couple.” But nothing stuck like “Friends.” And perhaps nothing demanded as much, too. In his memoir, Perry wrote about performing Chandler’s marriage to Courteney Cox’s Monica, just before being taken back to treatment. It seems an act of gumption, and of helping out his friends, and something that makes one want to go back to the tape, to find the pain and try, from afar, to stamp it out. Perry has been open about the support — and, at times, the tough love — of his castmates on “Friends.” He had gotten as far as he had with the support of his castmates, but he still, years later, had a wit all his own, one that had gotten him through.

From Variety US