Everyone had their favorite character in Friends, although I’m not entirely sure who liked Monica most. For me, the best one was always Chandler Bing: sarcastic, ironic and perpetually outraged at some unexpected or unwelcome development. Naturally, in the safe and unchallenging world of Friends, there had to be an explanation for the character’s sardonic demeanor, and so his cutting sense of humor is explained to be a defense mechanism, derived from the hurt he underwent after his flamboyant parents’ divorce. But thanks to the peerless comic skills of Matthew Perry, the actor who played Chandler, any suggestion of laborious cod-Freudianism was swiftly dispelled. The character was, above all things, very, very funny.
The death of Perry at the age of fifty-four might, alas, not be the most surprising development of all time. Perry was candid in various interviews about his addictions to everything from painkillers to alcohol, and even suggested that he remembered nothing about making three seasons of Friends, so strung out was he on various substances. He spent a considerable proportion of his wealth — he once estimated around $9 million — on various clinics and treatments to help him recover from his illness. By the time that he was promoting his 2022 memoir Friends, Lovers and the Big Terrible Thing, he seemed to have overcome his demons, even as he candidly recalled that, in 2019, his colon exploded as a result of his opioid use: somehow, it is hard to imagine that happening to David Schwimmer.
If Perry was the most naturally talented of all the Friends ensemble, it was a depressing reflection of his illness that he never had the career away from the sitcom that he deserved. His film appearances, in which he played a series of wan facsimiles of Chandler, were largely unremarkable. The most notable was the dark 2007 addiction-based comedy-drama Numb, which failed to elicit any interest or attention save for the novelty of Perry playing a role that had clear autobiographical overtones — that of a screenwriter who suffers from depersonalization disorder. Undoubtedly, Perry’s off-camera habits meant that he was not offered the roles that were worthy of his talent, although his lead part in Aaron Sorkin’s underrated Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip showed a largely overlooked talent for drama.
If Perry’s legacy ends up being that of “tragic Friends actor dies young,” that is an enormous shame. He might be best remembered for Chandler, but it is a fitting testament to his abilities that a role that even the screenwriters worried was underwritten and ephemeral ended up being a core part of the central ensemble. When Chandler is not on screen, you miss him; Perry’s carefully marshalled range of tics, ranging from attempts at man-of-the-world suavity to arm-flapping anger demonstrated when the aforementioned suavity went awry, were never anything other than hilarious, and he could sell even the most rote of gag lines with aplomb. Like many great comic actors, Perry made you laugh just by looking at him.
As I write this, the cause of Perry’s death is uncertain; amateur sleuths have been pointing to a series of increasingly bizarre Instagram posts that he made in the days before his death, in which he called himself “Mattman.” It may have been suicide, or misadventure, or the unfortunate legacy of his many illnesses and addictions catching up with him. Yet, once the speculation ends and Perry can be celebrated for his immense talent rather than mourned as a wasted figure, it is certain that Friends, and Chandler Bing, will remain popular as long as people watch television. And that is an achievement that very few others could ever hope to match.