American-Canadian actor and 90s pop culture icon Matthew Perry died on Saturday after apparently drowning at his Los Angeles home. The 54-year-old Perry was best known for his role as wisecracking yuppie Chandler Bing on Friends (1994-2004), one of the most successful and widely-watched sitcoms of all time. He also had a moderate amount of box office success in the 2000s, appearing in lead roles in comedies such as The Whole Nine Yards, Fools Rush In and 17 Again. Perry’s struggles with alcohol and substance abuse were well-documented throughout his career, most recently in his memoir Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing, released in November last year—a book which opens with the line “My name is Matthew and I should be dead.”
Perry grew up in Ottawa, raised by a Canadian mother who had divorced his American father before the boy’s first birthday. A keen tennis player in his youth, he was at one point a nationally ranked junior. His mother, the journalist Suzanne Marie Morrison, served as press secretary to Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in the early 80s. Upon Perry’s passing, current Prime Minister and Pierre’s son Justin Trudeau tweeted “I’ll never forget the schoolyard games we used to play”; Perry was a couple of years ahead of Justin at the same Ottawa public school.
There were several things about Chandler Bing, Perry’s signature character, that made him such a staple of 90s pop culture. His sarcasm and unique dialogue delivery (“Can you BE any more annoying?”) made him a fan favourite. Young, introverted men liked him because he made his dorky sense of humour an asset rather than a liability. Young women liked him because he was intelligent and sensitive and utterly devoted to his partner, and presented an alternative model of masculinity, one far removed from the Hollywood square-jawed type. Perry had great comic timing, of course, but what made his performance as Chandler memorable was the sense of raw vulnerability that he communicated effortlessly.
In an era when irony and self-deprecation were the biggest comedic weapons for network television, Chandler was the perfect prototype. Look at the character of Xander in Buffy the Vampire Slayer — so much of the humour and even the delivery style is informed by Chandler; even the character’s name is somewhat similar.
Chandler was a massively influential character for writers’ rooms across Hollywood.
In the last few season of Friends, however, the self-deprecation began to slide into solipsism and the sarcastic zingers flew thick and fast—a peek into the future. Two things can be true at the same time. It’s not inaccurate to say that Chandler was a massively influential character for writers’ rooms across Hollywood. However, it is also true that in the nearly 20 years since Friends wrapped up its final season, we have been pelted with a thousand and one ‘Chandler Lite’ characters in various shows across genre, not just sitcoms.
“Fight, quip, quip, fight” is how the novelist Hari Kunzru once brutally summarised the entirety of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. TV writers/showrunners like Joss Whedon and Dan Harmon are often blamed for this specific tonality that has spread throughout mainstream Hollywood—Marvel bigwigs the Russo Brothers cut their teeth in writers’ rooms for sitcoms helmed by Harmon, for example (especially Community). But Harmon and Whedon were, in turn, responding to the Chandler Bing phenomenon sweeping through American TV in the 90s. Whedon wrote the character of Xander in Buffy at a time when Chandler’s popularity was at its peak. No doubt he had studio executives in his ear all the time: “Can we have a Chandler Bing of our own? Please and thank you.”
Another side-effect of Chandler Bing’s popularity was that Perry quickly got typecast as the bumbling, self-deprecatory white yuppie, and directors forgot that the man could actually act when he was feeling up to the task. Perry was excellent in a dramatic role in Aaron Sorkin’s White House show The West Wing. He played Joe Quincy, a Republican lawyer working for a Democratic White House, a tricky proposition at the best of times. But Perry handled the role like a champ, his scenes with Martin Sheen (who played the President) being the standout. For another dramatic role, this time as an idealistic teacher at an embattled New York public school in The Ron Clark Story, he was nominated for a Golden Globe in 2007.
In the last phase of his career, Perry made a return to network television with diminishing returns. A brief, enjoyable guest spot on The Good Wife was followed by underwhelming cameos in shows led by his former Friends colleagues Lisa Kudrow (Web Therapy) and Courtney Cox (Cougar Town). Between 2015 and 2017 he appeared in a reboot of hit 60s film and 70s sitcom The Odd Couple, but it was obvious that Perry’s style of sitcom acting was now coming across as mannered and clearly, outdated.
Perry’s passing has prompted a flood of condolences from across the globe. He was quite popular in India, too, and the influence of Friends on Indians growing up in the 90s and 2000s has been well-established. Smart money says there’s going to be an awful lot of Friends reruns tonight on Netflix. Rest in peace, Matthew Perry.