When Matthew Perry walked into the casting room to meet Marta Kauffman and David Crane for one of six primary characters in the ‘Friends Like Us‘ ensemble, Perry walked in without a script and dazzled the creators with his unusual cadence that became a joke within the jokes. While Perry had other jobs lined up during pilot season, he had rehearsed the character so often with best friend Hank Azaria that he had memorized the entire script, seeing the Chandler Bing character as a larger-than-life version of himself.
For Perry, the show-that-would-become Friends on NBC launched him into the stratosphere, becoming the face of arguably the most well-known show on television. Friends is the highest grossing sitcom of all-time, with the six stars making over $1M per episode toward the end of the series. Friends transcended generations, as less than twenty years after its Super Bowl episode drew over 52 million viewers live, the show is the most successful sitcom in both syndication and streaming, introducing its charm to another generation, despite serving primarily as a time capsule into the young adult life of the 1990s, Yet, while all six of the stars (Perry, Lisa Kudrow, David Schwimmer, Courteney Cox, Jennifer Aniston, Matt LeBlanc) add a certain intangible quality that’s crucial to the comedic execution of the show, Perry stole the show. The Chandler Bing character worked because Perry is just as much Chandler as Chandler is Perry.
Matthew while successful, never stopped reeling from a traumatic childhood that forced him to use humor as an escape, much like the Chandler character notes in late season three that his parents divorce is when he started “using humor as a defensive mechanism.” For Perry, his comedic style led to a lot of jokes that found the humor in its linguistics. His developed ideology of hitting unusual emphasis in the punchline led to further laughter, changing the comedic style in television going forward. The Chandler cadence is distinct, an iconic form of joke-telling that replaced dated and artificial methods of humor. But, it isn’t just his cadence, but overall tone of delivery. His voice and face heightened the expressions of the joke, raising and lowering the tone, changing the pace of lines, mixing in different emotions, and using his body to advance the joke. All of it in a spectrum that felt natural and authentic.
There’s a nuance in Matthew’s acting performance as Chandler. For the criticism that Friends can get for its inconsistency in logic and its questionable character development as the seasons progress, Perry walked a thin line to a tee as Chandler. It’s a character that’s a sarcastic oddball: the real and brutally honest friend that’s at the same time ‘hopeless, awkward, and desperate for love.’ He’s a complex range of emotions and style all melded into one that can perfectly bounce off of each individual friend to climax the punchline. He’s quick with a wit, but also perfect at timing and letting the jokes breathe. The sarcasm is at its peak, but he’s still lovable, with an innate quality that makes it impossible to dislike him. As his character progresses in the show and the beat his character must hit on each joke changes, he keeps up his level of humor at its highest possible level. Chandler is the embodiment of both confidence and anxiety, a dichotomy so inherently human that it’s intrinsically difficult to recreate without coming across forced. His methods of sarcasm wouldn’t come across mean spirited, nor would it outshine the other five cast members. Every episode features doses of Chandler self-awareness, making himself the brunt of as many jokes as he puts the others through. Chandler’s sarcastic and arrogant brand of humor early in the series could have made him irredeemable to audiences, but the performance of Perry and the balance of legitimacy that Perry brought to the table allowed audiences to feel for him, and appreciate his quirks, hardships and appreciation for the friends. The more time passes and Chandler’s character begins to get everything he wants, he mellows out. Humans can be mean, humans can nice, humans can be strong, weak, confident, unsure of themselves, and they can be all of those things at the same time. Humans are convoluted beings, and Matthew Perry constantly added humanity into Chandler Bing, a fictional character in a wacky world where the humor in a situational subgenre of comedy lacked a rational human element.
Chandler brings a sense of comfort and familiarity to millions consistently on a daily basis, still. The premise of Friends, alongside its excellent comedic content that Perry helped write alongside Crane and Kauffman, is that transition period in your life where your friends become your family. It relates to audiences on a deeper level, falling in love with its colorful characters and their friendship as if the audience is a part of the group. But Perry’s career is much deeper than that, with layered performances for Aaron Sorkin in HBO’s The West Wing and Studio 60 at Sunset Strip. Other roles that captivated audiences include his guest spot on SNL, RomCom opposite Salma Hayek Fools Rush In, The Whole Nine Yards, and 17 Again.
With Perry, a full life beyond Friends is part of a more tragic story. Perry grew up around the Prime Minister of Canada, was once one of the best tennis players in the world, starred in a number one box office film with Bruce Willis at the same time that Friends was the #1 show on television, and dated Julia Roberts while she was the biggest actress in the world. But, Perry’s biggest story is that of an addiction that crippled him during all of this. In recent years, he’d opened up significantly more about his rehabilitation sessions, His memoir Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Things looks to normalize vulnerable conversations about the harsh realities of drug addiction while using his humor to maintain a light mood. His work in recent years has helped break the stigma surrounding both mental health and addiction, two very real and very crippling vices. Paget Brewster, the actress who portrayed Chandler’s Season Four love interest, tweeted the following amidst the news of his passing: “He was lovely to me on Friends and every time I saw him in the decades after. Please read his book. It was his legacy to help.”
When asked by the LA Times this past April how he’d like to be remembered, Perry responded that he’d like to be remembered “as a guy who lived life, loved well, lived well, and helped people. That running into me was a good thing, and not something bad.” Yet, Perry will be remembered as not only all of those things, but as an icon that brought joy to many people in times that they needed it. He had a struggles as every human does, but Perry leaves behind a fascinating legacy of making people laugh and forget about life for a half-hour every Thursday on NBC, or for a binge as long as the heart desires three decades later, The show is timeless and its popularity in a post-internet meme world is as strong as ever thanks to Matthew Perry’s comedic brilliance.
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