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Friends has been such a phenomenon for so long it’s hard to remember it was once just another new sitcom, most of which come and go without anyone noticing. It’s not as though a coveted spot in NBC’s legendary Thursday night “Must See TV” ’90s lineup guaranteed lasting success, let alone a place in TV’s proverbial Pantheon, either. When’s the last time you watched a rerun of The Single Guy or Suddenly Susan? But after nearly three decades as an omnipresent juggernaut it’s easy to forget Friends was once just hoping to find an audience big enough to keep it on the air. And that’s why it’s also easy to forget just how important Matthew Perry was in making that happen. All of Friends‘s stars are now TV icons, but without his Chandler Bing the show never would have become the sensation it still is.
The outpouring of grief after the sad passing of Matthew Perry at just 54 years old has shown just how much he and Friends mean to so many. That’s not surprising. The series’ longevity has created multiple generations of fans. Some viewers have been watching reruns for most of their lives. Friends is one of those shows, even in the streaming era, that seems to always be on somewhere. For the millions who watch it again and again, the six stars of the show have become a comforting presence. To lose one of them is really like losing an old friend who always made them laugh.
The series’ popularity and unbroken, ubiquitous spot in pop culture have made it so all six actors are equally important to its lasting success. With good reason. Friends wouldn’t be Friends without all of them. Even with six standout individual performances the show’s sum is still greater than its parts. But that wasn’t always the case. In the beginning Matthew Perry’s Chandler Bing stood out from the group. Not just within the show, either. He wasn’t merely the “funny one” on Friends. His charming, sarcastic, emotionally scarred Chandler was instantly one of the funniest characters on TV. He was the one who elevated Friends above other sitcoms at a time when network shows ruled pop culture.
Perry’s role in turning a new show into a sensation, all while playing a normal character in an ensemble, is still just as impressive three decades later. He made us laugh with nothing more than a well-timed eyebrow raise. He made Chandler Bing a comedic genius with timeless, perfectly delivered one-liners. Most importantly, he was a comedy anchor on a show that was not universally loved during its first season. Without Matthew Perry Friends might never have even truly become Friends. Without Chandler the show might never had had the chance to grow into what it became. It certainly wouldn’t have been as good.
For those who weren’t around when Friends debuted this could easily sound like hyperbole bestowed on a beloved actor who left us too soon. For those who watched from day one this is actually an understatement. Chandler Bing was without question one of the best, funniest, most singular characters on TV. And it didn’t take Perry long to establish himself as one of the best ever. All of which made him standout even more. If you asked anyone who cared about comedy in 1995 which TV star was destined for greatness, he would have been the number one answer. He really was a revelation. On the page the phrase “could I be anymore :blank:” is less than nothing. There’s nothing inherently funny about that line. Yet he made it an all-time famous gag you can only hear (and impersonate) in his voice.
If he could be that funny saying that, what else could he do? Could he be any funnier?
Watching Matthew Perry during Friends‘ early seasons was like watching a young Ken Griffey Jr. play centerfield for the Mariners. It did not seem like a ceiling existed for Matthew Perry. He might never have matched his Friends success elsewhere, but how many actors ever create a character a fraction as memorable as Chandler Bing once, let alone twice? How many people ever star on something anywhere near as popular and enduring as Friends, period? The early promise of Chandler Bing delivered exactly the kind of success everyone predicted for Matthew Perry. It just came on Friends, a show that is still as loved as ever.
Chandler Bing is not the legacy Matthew Perry hoped would define him. He didn’t think starring on Friends was his greatest accomplishment in life. To him that honor went to his work helping other addicts recover. That’s a testament to who he was as a person, and it’s the memory fans who loved him should carry in their hearts.
What he did off-screen mattered more than what he did on it. But the reaction to his passing has proven what he did professionally mattered to a lot of people, too. So we can honor his wish while also celebrating his amazing career. He created an incredible character who elevated a show that has brought immeasurable joy to countless people for nearly 30 years. And it will continue to bring them joy for many more, because Chandler Bing was a phenomenon who became a legend. That won’t ever be easy to forget.