Matthew Perry Was The Snarky, Sincere Heart Of Friends – And His Loss Is Monumental

BY JACOB HALL/OCT. 30, 2023 12:00 AM EST

I didn't grow up with "Friends," but my wife did. And when I entered a relationship with her, I entered a relationship with the whole "Friends" gang.

Suddenly, I lived not just with her, but with Rachel, Ross, Phoebe, Monica, Joey, and, yes, Chandler. To share a home with the woman I loved was to share a home with one of the most famous, beloved, and highly-paid casts in television history. If it was going to work out with her, it had to work out with them, too. Because "Friends" was always on. It was on when we worked. It was on when we cooked. It was on when we cleaned. I saw every episode, and then I saw them again and again and again. If I was resistant to it at first, that resistance gradually faded away. 

The "Friends" became my friends. They became part of the comfortable background noise of my life. They became, like the best sitcoms often do, a source of reliable comfort. I could sit here and list the way "Friends" hasn't aged well (there are so many), but I'm happier to list the ways it has filled in the gaps of my existence, wedging itself in-between the nooks and crannies of despair and disappointment, and giving me permission to laugh and sometimes shed a tear. TV, at its most powerful, is a companion.

So when I say the death of Matthew Perry knocked the wind out of me, I hope I don't sound like I'm being too dramatic or trying to make the death of a man I didn't know about me. Because Perry had accomplished what the greatest of TV actors can do. He made me feel like I knew him. Across 236 episodes of television, Chandler Bing stopped being a character and started being a dude who lived in my house. I knew that guy. I loved him.

The Chandler of it all

It's so clear what Chandler's role is during the early seasons of "Friends." He's the snarky one. He's the guy who gets to sit on the sidelines and crack jokes, the fella who tries to act like he's above the drama and chaos that so often loops his buds into comedic hijinks. Naturally, that makes it all the sweeter when he gets dragged into said hijinks, and reveals that his trademark sarcasm, his weapon and his armor, can only take him so far. Watching Chandler drop a withering remark is funny. But watching Chandler at a loss for words? Hysterical.

Perry played Chandler with the right mixture of "cool dude" and "total doofus," a guy who acted like he was above it all but was as petty, as silly, as easily wounded, and yes, even as romantic as his circle of friends. But one of the show's greatest decisions was its realization that Perry could be more than the snarky a-hole we couldn't help but love. 

As Ross and Rachel engaged in their ongoing "will-they, won't-they" soap opera (and yes, they were on a break, thank you very much), the show's real heart took shape. Chandler fell in love with Monica. Monica fell in love with Chandler. And "Friends" realized that while Ross and Rachel could generate headlines, Monica and Chandler could give the series an increasingly mature backbone.

It's through Chandler Bing that "Friends" decided to grow up. And Matthew Perry proved himself capable of the task.

A fully realized TV life

Chandler never lost his edge (although his late-series pivot to a career in advertising makes my eye twitch). But he did find himself transforming into a loving boyfriend, and then fiancee, and then husband, and then father. While Joey was always a doofus and Phoebe was always a weirdo, those characters were never asked to truly change — they simply provided reliable laughs. But Chandler had to change. He had to grow up. He had to take stock of his entire world shifting beneath his feet, of his priorities rearranging themselves in ways that would leave his season 1 self speechless.

Watch Matthew Perry's performance. Watch how it shifts from season to season. Watch how Chandler remains the same human, but not the same guy, as each new priority introduces itself to his life. Watch how Perry does what no other "Friends" actor is asked to do. He makes himself into a better person, leaving behind (most of) his insecurities while strengthening what made audiences, and Monica, fall for him in the first place.

Because "Friends" is a sitcom, and a broad one, it can be easy to write off its performances. They're silly. They're over-the-top. They're not realistic. But Perry cut through it all. It's through him that we actually experience a decade with this group, and it's through him that we can actually take stock of how much has changed between the pilot and finale.

Ross and Rachel got the headlines. But Chandler was the soul of "Friends." I knew him for 10 years of his life. I watched him grow up and fall in love. In Chandler, in Perry's performance, I saw a fully realized life.

The immortal Chandler Bing

Matthew Perry is forever going to be defined by "Friends" and by Chandler Bing. His film career features a few pretty good movies, and he was a reliable television performer until the end. But every obituary, every remembrance, will call him a "Friends" actor. And that's okay. Because there's nothing wrong with being remembered for a role that only you could play, that only you could define.

An irrational part of my brain assumed Matthew Perry would never die, that he'd always be around. After all, Chandler Bing is forever. He's in my house all the time. I still see him on the regular. So I sit here, trying to process the death of an actor, a stranger I feel like I know intimately. I feel silly grieving (shouldn't that be reserved for his actual friends and family?), but yes, we should be allowed to feel sad when a stranger who has existed in our lives, and has given us comfort, departs. What's the point of great TV, of great art, of great performances and performers, if we don't take it personally?

"Friends" was the most popular show on television. It had its ups and downs. Some of it hasn't aged well. Some of it is still remarkably good. People will watch it until the heat death of the universe. And decades after this, when I'm long gone, pop culture enthusiasts will think to themselves, "Hey, is Chandler the actual reason this show is good and his journey is the one that really matters?"

Matthew Perry was part of something beautiful, and something that matters. And he was one of the reasons it was so beautiful, and why it mattered. We can all wish to be so lucky.

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