As Chandler Bing on “Friends,” Matthew Perry could not have been more perfect. For 10 seasons, from 1994 to 2004, he brought a comedic cadence to his lines that was unique. And he had a sharp sense of timing, so much so that the writers gave him the very last line of the series. As the gang of six is leaving the apartment together for the last time, Rachel asks, “Should we get some coffee?” Chandler says, “Sure,” then pauses for exactly the right amount of time before asking, “Where?”
On multi-cam sitcoms, there’s generally a spot in the ensemble for a sardonic dude, the one who chimes in with sarcasm. With Chandler, Perry took that character type and brought to it enough distinction and psychological underpinning to redefine it. Underneath the constant quipping, there were always hints that Chandler was an ace deflector, using his humor as emotional armor and not just to be clever. We knew all along that there was a sincere and vulnerable man behind his dry wit.
The humanity Perry brought to Chandler, the sense that Chandler was hiding some pain and loneliness, may be part of the reason so many are gutted by the news of Perry’s death at 54. When viewers embrace TV characters, it has been said many times, they can become like friends (the show was named with hopes that would happen). There’s an intimacy when someone comes into your living room weekly (sometimes more, with streaming and syndication) across many years. As he looked for love and ran from it at the same time, Chandler was a favorite for many.
Perry made the unhappiness that lives behind sarcasm more explicit in his most creatively successful sitcom after “Friends.” Called “Go On,” he played a sports-radio personality named Ryan King who is certainly of a cynical turn of mind. But Ryan’s wife has died recently, and he is struggling to put aside his wisecracking in order to deal with his grief and depression. Sadly, the 2012 show, which finds Ryan in a support group, lasted only one season.
Perry also turned in some fine dramatic TV work in the years after “Friends,” and it’s worth remembering it as part of his legacy. Like a number of comics, he knew how to turn his persona into something darker and less likable. He knew how to expose the edginess that he downplayed in his comedic role, to show how Chandler-styled irony can be funny, but it can also be cutting.
He was unforgettable in three episodes of “The West Wing,” playing associate White House counsel Joe Quincy, a Republican in a Democratic president’s office. His turn was a revelation, in a way, a chance for him to show the range of his talent to those who only knew him from “Friends.” Perry fell right into the manic rhythm of the show, and of writer Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue. The appearances won him a pair of Emmy nominations for outstanding guest actor in a drama series in 2003 and 2004.
Perry’s comfort with Sorkin’s writing got him a leading role on Sorkin’s “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” set backstage at a “Saturday Night Live”-like sketch show. The themes were heavy, involving censorship, religion, and addiction, but the banter was as Ping-Pongy as you might expect. Perry and Bradley Whitford played the show’s writer-producers, who were like brothers, and a lot of the story line involved their deep connection. Unfortunately, despite the excellent performances by the pair, the unwieldy drama failed to catch on and lasted only one season.
Fans have been rooting for Perry for a long time, as he grappled with addiction and health issues. He made the struggle human along the way, and ultimately he tried to help others. That, too, is an important part of his legacy, the most important from his point of view. “When I die, as far as my so-called accomplishments go, it would be nice if ‘Friends’ were listed far behind the things I did to try to help other people,” he said last year in an interview with Tom Power about his memoir, “Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing.” “I know it won’t happen, but it would be nice.”