When 2023 sunsets in a couple of months, once again the list of celebrities we’ve lost will be lengthy and emotional, a sobering reminder of the passages of time and, for those of us of a certain age, our own mortality. But there’s always some comfort in the fact that as beloved as someone may have been, they led a full and happy life. The recent death of Suzanne Somers, for example, was hard to take for many men in my cohort group because, hell, who didn’t have her poster either on their wall or at least a cut-out magazine picture taped to their looseleaf binder (hand raised). But I dare say more men than women fell in that category and Somers, though she battled cancer valiantly in her later years, lived to nearly 77 and had a long and lengthy marriage to her best friend and business partner Alan Hamel all the way. Her passing, like others, made the cover of PEOPLE magazine. It was sad, to be sure, but it wasn’t tragic.
Not the case with the loss we experienced this weekend. Matthew Perry, the relatable and comically gifted co-star of arguably the most-watched comedy ever, FRIENDS, was found dead in his hot tub on Saturday afternoon, tragically at a mere 54 years of age. Far too young for anyone, but certainly for someone who lived at least half his life in a virtual state of personal agony, challenge and often torture but yet, as Chandler Bing, made us laugh, cry and perpetually envious. We never did quite find out what Chandler did for a living, but we know he was a harder and more consistent worker than at least four other young adults who somehow could afford quality Greenwich Village apartment life as waitresses and actors (OK, a palentology professorship probably paid OK as well).
When we first met him, he was tongue-tied and self-effacing in ways that any inner geek could identify with; hell, he didn’t even have the courage to hit on Jill Goodacre when he had her all to himself in a vestibule. When the flashback episodes of FRIENDS started, his “flock of seagulls” hairstyle resonated with so many fans who wouldn’t publicly admit they had one, either. We’d later see why he lacked confidence–hell, when your “mom” is Morgan Fairchild and your “dad” is Kathleen Turner, who wouldn’t be a little screwed up?
Yet “Chnandler Bong”, as his TV GUIDE subscription label read, was arguably the most beloved member of the sestet. His friendship with Joey Tribbiani was a model of “brohood” that connected deeply with those had it and was the envy of those who didn’t. And for all of the show’s initial focus on Ross and Rachel, it was ultimately the first surrepetious and then adorable coupling of “Chonica” that produced the show’s first and most enduring wedding photos. Who didn’t have a dry eye when they finally said their “I dos”?
But as we now know, largely in part because of Perry’s courage to intimately share his struggles in his voice via last year’s Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing: A Memoir, the character Chandler Bing wasn’t the main reason so many tears are being shed for Matthew Perry, and ourselves. As POP CULTURE’s Michale Hein recounted:
It’s been no secret that Perry battled alcoholism and drug addiction – particularly at the height of his fame when he was constantly on the world stage. While fans might have been able to track the nitty gritty details like when he was trying to sober up, when he was admitted to rehab facilities and other matters of public record, Perry decided to share those stories in his own words last year. He wrote that he was doing so to combat the stigma around addiction and hopefully help other people like him get the help they need.
Perry’s revelations began during the press tour before the book was released. In an interview with The New York Times, he admitted that he was in a rehab facility when they filmed the Friends Season 7 finale, and he got a special dispensation to leave to shoot his character Chandler’s wedding scenes. When it was over, he said he was “driven back to the treatment center …in a pickup truck helmed by a sober technician.”
“[I was] at the height of my highest point in Friends, the highest point in my career, the iconic moment on the iconic show,” he said. “When you’re a drug addict, it’s all math. I wasn’t doing it to feel high or to feel good. I certainly wasn’t a partyer; I just wanted to sit on my couch, take five Vicodin and watch a movie. That was heaven for me. It no longer is.”
And as Sirius XM’s Dean Obeidallah opined for CNN last night:
His character Chandler Bing’s delivery of one-liners — often sarcastic and self-deprecating — deeply resonated with me. Chandler used comedy as a defense mechanism to deal with insecurities and awkwardness with lines such as, “Hi, I’m Chandler, I make jokes when I’m uncomfortable” and “I’m not great at the advice. Can I interest you in a sarcastic comment?”
Perry’s memoir opens with the following: “Hi, my name is Matthew, although you may know me by another name. My friends call me Matty. And I should be dead.”
He continued, “I don’t write all this so anyone will feel sorry for me — I write these words because they are true. I write them because someone else may be confused by the fact that they know they should stop drinking — like me, they have all the information, and they understand the consequences — but they still can’t stop drinking.” He added in support, “You are not alone, my brothers and sisters”.
Other comedies still resonate in reruns after decades, but none to the extent and ubiquitousness of FRIENDS. As Obeidallah recounted, it was arguably the last truly breakthrough broadcast network comedy:
“Friends” was the anchor of NBC’s “Must See TV” shows in the 1990s into the early 2000s, averaging 25 million viewers for each new episode.
The show’s final episode after its 10-year run in 2004 saw a massive viewing audience of more than 52 million people — making it the fifth highest-viewed series finale ever, according to Variety. For perspective, the top comedy show on TV in the 2022-2023 season was CBS’ “Young Sheldon,” which averaged 9.3 million viewers an episode.
But its reruns, now available for more than a quarter-century, and its relatively unique global popularity (the show’s broadcast success was mirrored in the UK and in many other territories) has escalated those numbers into potentially the billions. FRIENDS was discovered by a new generation during its availability on NETFLIX, and although some of the fashions are outdated unlike, say, SEINFELD the show never obsessed on now-obsolete things like pay phones and John F. Kennedy, Jr. You didn’t need subtitles or a 90s primer to grasp why love and friendship and “being there for you” matters. You still don’t. My Generation Z niece discovered the show as a teenager, and was stunned that her geeky uncle knew so many of the plotlines, and was confounded when she heard my distinctive choking laughter in one later episode when Joey chugged an entire gallon of milk in one take on a dare. “You do know that these shows weren’t taped yesterday, and that they had a studio audience, right?”, I’d chide. I dare say her generation wouldn’t even know the existence of NBC without this kind of framing.
I knew many who worked on the show or at least were fewer degrees removed from it than I. I knew enough different people who had their own opinions on the cast members’ real personnas. I worked with two of the women who, shall we say, defined the word “diva” on a far less successful series. I knew people who personally knew the other two guys, and were less than complimentary about their tactics as well. “Perry”, or “Matty”, for those that knew him, drew nothing but praise and, on occasion, pity. People openly rooted for him, though some would sigh and say it was a miracle he was still alive. The fact that he is indeed the first of this iconic cast to pass is a side bet I’m certain none of them wanted to cash in on.
The news cycle even on a weekend has been massive. Nick-at-Nite, one of the show’s current cable homes, actually turned around a half-hour ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT-branded tribute that aired last night within 36 hours of Perry’s death, the kind of corporate syngergy and dedication usually reserved for the passing of a world leader. I have little doubt Perry will grace not only the cover of PEOPLE, but the newsstands will soon be rife with entire special editions dedicated to his life and a reminder of just how much this particular loss hurts.
If there is any consolation, it’s the fact that with an availablity, now on MAX, and a 234-episode inventory of Perry’s work a few clicks away, we’ll at least be able to be reminded of his talents. And the book, too, would be a nice holiday gift to a fan or yourself; as Perry himself wrote: “When I die, I don’t want Friends to be the first thing that’s mentioned—I want that to be the first thing that’s mentioned. And I’m going to live the rest of my life proving that”. It looks like he made good on that vow.
So at least in endless reruns and spirit, he’ll be there for you. Like he’s been there before.
Until next time…