It popped up on my news feed. It was six in the morning and I was doing my customary social media check after stirring awake. A terrible habit, I know. A friend had posted about it in his stories. I didn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe it. Just like I didn’t believe it when I heard about the inimitable Robin Williams nine years ago. Matthew Perry was all of 54 when he passed away, apparently drowning at his home in Los Angeles. That’s terribly young. But that’s the thing with beloved performers who leave us unexpectedly. They are always too young. And it’s always too soon.
Perry was most famous for his role as the sarcastic, self-loathing Chandler Bing on the hit television show Friends. “Hit” is an understatement, of course. Friends changed the course of network television, especially for its stars. By the end of its run, all six of the lead cast were making a million dollars per episode. And sure, for Gen-Zers, Friends might come off as all sorts of cringe, what with the fat suits and borderline homophobia. But for its time, especially in the still a-woke-ning India of the late ’90s and early 2000s, Friends became the epitome of cool. It felt liberated in ways that seem so tame today. Love stopped being synonymous with marriage. Dating became a thing. Friends became lovers, ex-lovers could stay friends. It paved the way for the modern relationship — and for therapy after.
I don’t recall the exact moment I watched my first episode of Friends, but I do remember watching multiple episodes on Zee English in the early noughts. And then binge-ing all 10 seasons on repeat through my college years, burning CDs off box sets that luckier friends owned. And through it all, the one character that kept me hooked was Chandler. While Ross and Rachel kept debating whether they were on a break, it was Chandler’s backhanded quips and dry wit that kept me coming back. Perhaps it was because I identified with him more than the others. His crippling insecurities, his inferiority complex, his tendency to use humour in the most awkward of situations. The more I watched, the more I thought could he be anymore like me?
Chandler made Perry a household name. It made him more famous than his wildest dreams. And yet, ironically, Chandler became the albatross around Perry’s neck. In an interview in 2014, he spoke of how tired he was of people calling him Chandler all the time and how he didn’t want people recognising him just for that. And truth be told, Perry’s resume extended beyond his stint on NBC’s Thursday night mainstay. Parallel to his time as the wisecracking Bing, he notched up feature credits like The Whole Nine Yards and Fools Rush In. He also put in remarkably well-rounded dramatic turns in The West Wing and the severely underrated Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Perry had serious acting chops, but his later turns on shows like The Odd Couple and Go On never came close to replicating the success of Friends. Lightning rarely strikes twice. His castmates went on to achieve relative success post the show; David Schwimmer was in the Madagascar franchise, Courtney Cox had Cougar Town, Lisa Kudrow made Web Therapy, Matt LeBlanc came back silver-foxed in Episodes, and Jennifer Aniston is… well, Jennifer Aniston. Meanwhile, as per his memoir Friends, Lovers and the Big Terrible Thing, Perry spent years (and millions of dollars) trying to beat his addictions and battling his own demons. But he never shied away from talking about his problems, going out of his way to make sure that no one should go through what he went through alone. In 2013, Perry opened the Perry House in Malibu, a sober living facility based out of his home there. Recovering from drug use was a cause dear to Perry’s heart, and helping others on their path to sobriety was perhaps the legacy he wanted to leave behind and be remembered for.
In the end, he went, never fully being able to escape Chandler’s snarky shadow. It’s something he knew would happen and probably hated. Still, it’s hard to grudge the world Chandler Bing. That’s a tough act to follow. After all, he’s someone that I and a billion others will forever be grateful for. A true friend, indeed. Rest in peace, Matthew. You will be missed and how.
Saju is a stand-up comedian, writer and editor