Norm Macdonald, that mordant rapscallion, once relayed a story about Matthew Perry saying that he had invented a new kind of comedy with Chandler Bing; Macdonald, in that wily way of his, responded: “You invented sarcasm?”
Funny as Macdonald’s retort was, Perry’s claim wasn’t wholly without merit. It isn’t the incessant sarcasm that makes Perry’s performance special in the annals of American sitcoms, though. It’s the vulnerability, the willingness to look stupid and be a loser emasculated by ’90s standards — he kissed a guy, he has a gay “quality,” he didn’t touch a breast until he was 19, he’s a poor athlete, and during a bout of fisticuffs with a pair of bullies on the West Village streets he trips over a little girl’s jump rope — and still find the decency in the sweater-vest-wearing jester’s heart.
Niles (David Hyde Pierce) from Frasier is the decade’s other great wimp, but he is a rarefied fancy-pants, erudite, maybe effeminate but uproariously libidinous for a Daphne; he’s a success story. J.D. (Zach Braff) from Scrubs, which debuted in 2001, is the progeny of Chandler, with repeated references to his unmanly physique and doofiness. Chandler and Perry’s other characters are men with a particular piteous kind of imperfection. His best roles are imbued with a malaise and awkward, anxious tendencies, but they’re never hopeless.
When I found out that Perry had died far too young at 54, I felt an inordinate amount of sadness for this man I had never met, yet who felt like a longtime friend. I knew his secrets; in a way, he knew mine. I’ve seen Friends five times, initially as a bit, an ironic gag with which I could annoy my friends, and then as background din instead of music while I wrote, and, at some point, to my shock, with increasing and sincere fondness. And I related in my own ways to Perry’s personal tribulations, having known a life of emotional lability and false palliatives. Friends offers its fair share of genuine, tender, even tragic emotions (Tom Selleck’s storyline, with that last beautiful, heartbreaking dance at the end of season 2) and laughs (Joey stealing Chandler’s catchphrase while garbed grotesquely in all of Chandler’s clothes, a big bulbous Italian American goofball doing lunges commando).
But the character who became immediately beloved to audiences, equipped from the beginning with endless witticisms and quips and charmingly cheesy puns and occasionally clever comebacks, is Chandler Muriel Bing (blessed with a Pynchon-esque name), one of the post-Reagan years’ enduring icons, played indelibly by Perry at the young, scary age of 25 when the show debuted in 1994. Each character has an elevator-pitch personality. But Chandler? An awkward guy who tells jokes? He defies easy succinct description. We don’t even know what his job is. Matt LeBlanc’s Joey Tribbiani is maybe the funniest character, thanks to LeBlanc’s skillful timing, inflection, and enunciation; his jokes are skillful and flow naturally, elevating even listless lines with life, the emotive control of his facial movements as his eyes go wide in delayed surprise. But it’s Chandler who, more than anyone else, makes Friends unique, since the show often hits the same story beats as other sitcoms of the ’90s.
In the season 2 episode in which Mr. Heckles dies, what Chandler finds in the slovenly shambles of the hermit’s apartment and his book of grievances is a horrible glimpse into his future. Perry, petrified of failure as he would later explain in the Friends reunion, brings a pathos to the episode while ultimately finding the potential to change his life. Without this epiphany, would be have had the courage to commit to Monica? To adopt children? Perry’s unique approach engraved Chandler into the cultural consciousness because he takes the mistakes and misfortunes of the funny man seriously. Chandler’s discomfort at his jokes falling flat reflects Perry’s fear of faltering and leaving viewers unamused.
In later seasons, his performance becomes less loud and more mature, even as his body was battered and bedraggled by substance abuse struggles. It’s as if Perry despaired about his own life, and channeled his energy and soul into the character for which he would be remembered, a character who had been with him since he was 25. His performance is tinctured with traces of pain and sadness and a desperation to be liked from season to season. There’s self-doubt, not ego, imbuing each line.
Perry had his misfires over his career (the nadir of his oeuvre probably being the limp, lazy The Odd Couple) but he was at his best when he allowed his characters to be as flawed as he was, pathetic, even (save for The Ron Clark Story, in which he is utterly altruistic). The Whole Nine Yards features a frantic, frightened Perry opposite Bruce Willis, who plays a retired hitman and genial next-door neighbor; Perry is miserable and symbolically castrated by his virulent, chain-smoking Canadian wife (a fiendishly nasty Rosanna Arquette), who tries to hire Willis to kill her loser of a dentist husband. Go On, a very cleverly cast tragicomedy, lets Perry be tender, tragic yet hopeful, as a man grieving the loss of his wife with the help of a support group comprising a motley assortment of eccentrics. He played Ted Kennedy, no stranger to tragedy and guilt, in The Kennedys: After Camelot, a serious, somber, empathetic kind of tortured turn that hints at a new career path he will now never get to take. His final film role, in 2009’s 17 Again, is a quintessential dweeb ambling through a life rife with regrets, and who turns into Zac Efron at the apogee of High School Musical mania, with his abs and shiny hair. Even in The Simpsons’s “Treehouse of Horror XII,” the sci-fi smart robo-house that Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie move into offers a list of options for voice. Perry’s is one, saying, of course, his famous “Could I be…” And they keep on scrolling, instead choosing Pierce Brosnan (whose tux Chandler wears in season 7).
Perry’s brand of comedy was the flustered failure, and his forays into drama were modern men afflicted with inner anguish; he brought to both a singular woebegone quality, the crestfallen character who not may not like himself, but tries to be better. And it’s not just characters he was hired to play: the characters he wrote, the people he created, are mired in the same melancholy. His 2016 play The End of Longing, which he wrote and starred in, concerns a bibulous, broken man having an existential crisis, struggling to find meaning in the mundanity of his existence. It’s even in guest roles on shows like Scrubs, where he plays an air traffic controller who finds out his father isn’t really his biological father, and must decide whether he will give the man a kidney. (He does.)
Despite all the floundering, Perry’s characters are often likable enough for people to help him. Go On may be the first work of his to feature a literal support group, but he has supportive consorts throughout his career, a lonely soul who isn’t alone. You see the seeds of these characters in Chandler, who messes up — a lot — but he’s rarely as vindictive or manipulative as the others can all get (Ross goes ballistic after the “we were on a break” fiasco sent the country into a frenzy right there in their living rooms, and Monica’s shrill bossiness grows less amusing during wedding planning). He even professes guilt when he does mess up, by, say, kissing Joey’s girlfriend — which he does because he’s wildly in love with her — and even lets himself be entombed in a packing crate just to prove how sorry he was to his best bud. His friends forgive him, help him, sigh when he cracks a joke, bust his chops, but never abandon him. Through it all, he tries to learn and change… as much as a wimpy, porn-loving manchild can change.
Though Chandler will always be what he’s inextricably known as, for my money, Perry’s best performance was as Matt Albie, a writer with a maelstrom of pain deep within that he tries to ameliorate with pills and perfectionism, in the too-short-lived Aaron Sorkin show Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. The poignancy of Studio 60 is in the minutiae and details of the fleshed-out, uniquely complicated characters, the quotidian tribulations of entertainers whose personal lives are anything but funny; it’s a human drama with minor stakes, maybe, but profound, painful, pleasurable, life-altering to the people experiencing it. Albie wants to make serious, respectable art with his sketch comedy show; a torch still burns in his heart for his ex; he is crippled by self-loathing.
Something similar could be said about Perry, who wanted so badly to be famous, but didn’t like what happened when he got his wish. “Hi, my name is Matthew, although you may know me by another name. My friends call me Matty,” Perry’s 2022 memoir Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing begins. “And I should be dead.” This is how the actor, an icon of ’90s entertainment, introduces himself: a moribund, unfettered confession. You feel such quivering anguish in Albie, and the same hope for betterment and perseverance that Perry displays in the book. Albie, like Perry, desperately wants his art to be respected. In the end, both succeeded.