THROUGHOUT THE ’90S and ever since, given Friends perpetual syndication, you could turn on an episode of the sitcom and rely on Matthew Perry’s Chandler Bing to deliver a devastating quip at the expense of one of the show’s other characters. The comic hand grenade might cut the corners of your mouth; invariably you could find yourself watching a little more of the lightweight confection about a bunch of good looking, obviously privileged New Yorkers than you might have intended. Chandler was the show’s grandstanding calling card.

For the same reason, it was often the character’s wisecracks that were used in snippets of scenes that ran in the sitcom’s commercials, his dark, snippy humour puncturing holes in the show’s low-stakes drama and his fellow characters’ brilliantly played self-absorption to either reveal an absurdity or say what everyone wanted to say. It was irresistible bait with which to lure a wide audience.

This is not to say the other characters weren’t memorable in their own ways, mining exquisitely realised foibles: Joey’s dim-witted sex appeal, Ross’ angsty pompousness, Monica’s self-aware perfectionism, Phoebe’s whimsy and Rachel’s self-involvement. The cast’s chemistry was a rarely-matched feat of comic alchemy. Facts: if any of them had died sadly and prematurely as Perry has at the age of 54, it wouldn’t be too hard to zero in on what made their performance memorable and unique.

Even so, it’s perhaps a little easier with Perry, for his character danced a little closer to the darker edges of human frailty, delivering quips and asides that could have bordered on bullying, yet in Perry’s hands trod just the right side of the line–a line that was admittedly a little more generous back in the ’90s. Of course, in the shadow of Perry’s sad death and his long battle with addiction, those zippy one-liners now seem freighted with something darker. It’s an easy, probably lazy reading; it’s important to remember he was just an actor delivering the lines written for him.

Like many great comic actors, Perry was something of a paradox. A savagely funny misanthrope trapped in a leading man’s body. His character, and Jason Alexander’s George Costanza, in Friends’ great ’90s rival, Seinfeld, were similarly maladroit, yet while George would fully inhabit the role of the ‘loser’, Bing’s packaging in a conventionally handsome man gave us something else entirely. It also made the cracks and chinks in the character’s armour more conspicuous and probably more powerful. Costanza had no cracks to speak of; his vulnerabilities were worn on his sleeve, plain for all to see.

Indeed, you could argue that perhaps it didn’t make a lot sense that Chandler was such a clean-living soul on the show. Perhaps Perry’s own personal demons, his struggles with alcohol and drugs, his struggle some days to deliver his lines due to the effects of his dependencies, bled through in the pithy, poison-arrowed nature of his performance. Again, it feels like an easy joining-of-dots in the aftermath of a tragedy.  

Interestingly, both characters, Chandler and George, could easily have been relegated to side-kick status. The strength of both shows was that they allowed each cast member to shine. In Perry’s case, it seems he actively fought for more airtime for his character, writing jokes of his own for the writers to include, plenty of which made it through. Chandler’s relationship with Monica was supposed to be a one-off, which the writers would walk back. Friends co-creator Marta Kauffman said years later: “We thought it was going to be funny, then we were going to get rid of it.” 


Perhaps the writers were wary of bringing the two together for fear of losing the unresolved sexual tension and crackling comic chemistry that’s carried many a great sitcom. The problem for those writers was that once they’d gone there, they couldn’t wind it back. The audience was all-in on these characters; they loved Chandler, they loved Monica. They rooted for both of them. A relationship between the two was irresistible.

It helped that it made a little bit of sense in the absurdly cloistered universe of Central Perk. Chandler’s bite offset Monica’s bark but there is an argument to be made that the pivot to romantic leading man blunted Chandler’s comic edge ever so slightly. The same could be said of his improved professional circumstances. One of the show’s many long-running jokes was the characters’ confusion over exactly what Chandler did for a living. The answer was kept deliberately vague for much of the show’s 10-year run, but it was eventually revealed that he worked in the delightfully nebulous field of “statistical analysis and data reconfiguration”. Later, at Monica’s urging, he quits the job to start a new, less well-paid career as an advertising copywriter. He’s happier as a result, but happy characters can make for duller viewing; it’s to Perry credit, that despite the ‘weight’ of a beautiful wife and a rewarding job, he was able to maintain enough snark to keep the audience engaged.

It’s difficult to imagine Friends without Chandler. Since it aired in the ’90s, the show has come in for criticism for the sanitised, whitewashed milieu it inhabited. But in Chandler there was at least the hint of real life, perhaps a darker one, seeping through in the character’s scene-stealing one-liners and brutal comic putdowns. In many respects it was what made the show relatable and therefore watchable. Heck, it may have even saved it.

Perry’s five best moments on Friends



Season 2: “The One After the Superbowl: Part 2”

Julia Roberts guested in this episode as Susie “Underpants” Moss, nicknamed because young Chandler exposed her underwear in front of their elementary school. Decades later, she got her revenge by going on a date with Chandler, convincing him to change into panties in a restaurant bathroom, then stealing his clothes and leaving him stranded.


Season 4: “The One With Chandler in a Box”

Chandler spent the annual Thanksgiving episode in a wooden box, trying to win Joey’s forgiveness after having kissed Joey’s girlfriend Kathy. Somehow he still managed to steal the show.


Season 5: “The One Where Everybody Finds Out”

One of Friends‘ specialities is the characters’ frequent interrogations of who knew what, when and how. After a great deal of probing and accusations, Chandler admits to everyone that he’s in love with Monica.


Season 8: “The One Where Chandler Takes a Bath”

Another episode that relies on putting Perry in a compromising predicament and letting him cook. Here, Chandler sneaks into Monica’s bath before all of the friends gather around as Ross and Rachel share the news that they’re having a baby girl.


Season 10: “The Last One”

Last scene, last episode. Before Monica and Chandler leave their beloved apartment to move to the suburbs with their twin babies, the friends tearfully leave the apartment as Rachel suggests they grab one more coffee. As they all walk out the door, Chandler delivers the final joke of the series: “Where?”


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