On comedy, tragedy, and the unexpected ways we learn about life.
I know I can’t just casually drop the feature photo above into the post and not explain it. That’s the real Central Perk set years ago at its forever home along the Warner Brothers studio tour route where my wife and I stopped for the most touristy Hollywood afternoon imaginable. I post it here because I would feel weird posting a photo of Matthew Perry (I also don’t have the rights to any), and in studying this photo today, I think there’s evidence of some psychology on display in regard to my relationship with his role on Friends.
Matthew Perry first appeared on a TV in front of me, like many people my age, in 1994. Friends ran from the time I was 9 until I was nearly 19 years old. I don’t remember it being a mega-hit until I was in sixth grade, when I recall a girl in my class using a folder with the cast on it. The show quickly joined the pillars of our culture right alongside the X-Men, Coolio, and the Chicago Bulls.
As kids, we saw adults so obsessed with Friends that I think we got the impression it must be a decent look at real life. Sometimes (infrequently), it was. Looking back with adult eyes, I think the erratic behavior of the characters in the show made it more relatable to kids figuring out who they wanted to be than adults looking for humorous takes on real situations.
In fact, the older I got, the stronger I felt that Chandler was the only good reason to watch. The modern-day memes and jokes about who in your crew was “the Rachel” are 100% founded in reality. Every girl our age who watched wanted to be Rachel; every guy wanted to be Joey. Not me.
Even at the testosteroniest stage of my life, I didn’t want to be defined by Joey’s trail of conquests or even Ross’s decade-long rollercoaster love story. Chandler and I had other things going on. Our self-absorbed parents (including an author mother) started their divorce journey when we were nine years old. We showed up in other families’ home videos because no one was recording any back home. We used “humor as a defense mechanism,” and we were good at it. People liked it. If they got a peek behind that curtain, they were only going to see hurt and anger, and another person would leave us.
While our friends chased fairytale weddings and big-screen stardom, Chandler and I wanted normalcy. In a world where vanity and stupid things spelled disaster and pain, we wanted to do a job for smart people and be rewarded with a stable, normal life on our own. When we got it, it was foreign and unfulfilling.
The eventual conclusion to Chandler’s story, whatever they initially planned and however far in advance they figured it out, really meant a lot to me. Forgive me if Ross and Rachel’s will-they won’t-they while their kids bounced around somewhere off-screen didn’t wrap up with any real meaning for me (they were as likely to break up the day after the final episode as stay together). Joey and Phoebe had both been fun, but they had gradually morphed into something resembling wacky cartoon aliens over the years. Chandler had a real moment of truth, which took place near the middle of the final season, that was much more of a screenwriting masterpiece than a mid 90s multicam sitcom deserved.
By then married to Monica, both she and Chandler had been revealed to be infertile. They’d turned their efforts to grow the family in the direction of adoption and, ultimately, to a young woman (Erica, my wife’s name) who liked the profile they’d placed with an adoption agency (represented by Jim O’Heir who we’d later know as Jerry in Parks and Rec). They left the comfort of their home and friends in New York and flew to Ohio literally to have their character judged and see if they were worthy of their final goal.
The real test of character started when they realized Erica actually liked another couple’s profile, a doctor married to a reverend, and the agency mistakenly called the Bings to come meet her.
We see interesting manifestations of character in their reaction. Monica, for all of her classic intensity and determination not to fail, has no doubts about her qualifications. She believes with all her heart she deserves to win. She immediately takes on the false identity of a pastor, and it’s strongly suggested that she is willing to go through the entire process under this misconception if it means she can reach her reward.
Chandler is reluctant to go along. Unlike Monica, he has all the hallmark parenting apprehension of the child of a broken home. How can a kid with this baggage transform into an adult who can show their own child the love and stability they deserve? He’s spent his entire life goofing around and hiding who and what he is. When he’s given a chance to do the same at the start of his new journey as a father, he sees it’s the path of the same selfishness that wounded him as a child, and he refuses to perpetuate the cycle. He has to be enough as the man he is, for all his flaws and undoctorness.
When they come clean to Erica and the agency, Erica calls off the adoption. They had fallen back on their flaws in facing the final test. They hadn’t yet truly dug deep, and they’d failed.
I think Monica faced her character transformation when she listened to Chandler, acknowledged what she was doing to Erica to achieve her own goal, and came back to face the music. Her “dramatic want” was the baby, her “dramatic need” was to trade some of her fire as a bulldog big city chef for some tenderness and empathy. Chandler was right when he tried to set the record straight much earlier in the episode, of course, and to succeed as a parent, she was going to have to stop steamrolling her partner and others around her to get what she wants. She’s now worthy of the reward.
But Chandler isn’t done.
When Erica refuses the adoption and leaves the room, Chandler literally crosses a threshold and follows her outside. He’s left his friends behind, now he’s temporarily stepped outside of his life with his spouse to reflect. Most importantly, he’s left his unworthy self behind. This is, for my money, the single most powerful scene in the series.
Chandler: Erica, wait!
Erica: I’ve nothing to say to you.
Chandler: You have every reason to be upset. We did lie. But only because we’ve been waiting and trying to have a baby for so long. Now we don’t know how long it’s gonna be before we can get another chance again.
Erica: Why don’t you ask the reverend to pray on it?
Chandler: Erica, please. Just consider us. Ask them to see our file. Our last name’s Bing. My wife’s a chef and I’m in advertising.
Erica: Oh yeah. I actually liked you guys. But it doesn’t matter, because what you did was wrong. (walks away again, but Chandler catches up with her again)
Chandler: But you did like us. And you should. My wife’s an incredible woman. She’s loving and devoted and caring. And don’t tell her I said this but the woman’s always right…I love my wife more than anything in this world. And I…It kills me that I can’t give her a baby…I really want a kid. And when that day finally comes, I’ll learn how to be a good dad. But my wife…she’s already there. She’s a mother…without a baby…Please?
Chandler wants what he never had: unconditional love, a family, and stability. His list of dramatic needs, on the other hand, is long, and here he checks every box. He’s more (almost completely) serious and confronts the problem in front of him head on. He acknowledges he’s imperfect and wounded, but he’s able to put that in the right-size box in his life so that he can be enough for the people he loves. He puts his vulnerability on display and says what he wants out loud, even though it appears to have been pulled away from him once again. Finally, he answers the question he’s been struggling with.
“When that day finally comes, I’ll learn how to be a good dad.”
They’ve passed the test. Erica agrees to move forward with the adoption. Truth be told, they could have ended the series at the end of the episode.
When we were on our visit to Warner Brothers studios, I don’t think I had acknowledged any of these thoughts or the importance of the series or indeed Matthew Perry to my formative years yet. In fact, I recall never shutting up about The Matrix while we were there. But there were a few clues in the photo above that something was percolating. For one thing, I took the photo myself. My wife was standing right there, and I know she would have been happy to take it. I’m blurry, and I was using whatever the newest iPhone was at the time. It’s as if I didn’t even want to stand still to be present in the moment. I think it’s safe to say I knew I was holding a few things at arm’s length–more than just my phone and my wife.
I’ve started reading Matthew Perry’s memoir, Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing, and I was sorry to learn he and Chandler had so much of that hurt in common without much of network prime time’s comic relief. I hated hearing that his real parents parted ways even earlier than mine did, and that they regularly sent him on flights back and forth all alone as a young child to do parental visitation. It’s a tough read right from the start, full of talk about abandonment, the addiction that gripped him early in life, and the toll it took on his body and mind.
The book came out a year ago Wednesday. It’s surreal to read now because he’s very realistic in its pages about his earlier brushes with death and the fact that, statistically, it was a surprise that he survived to its time of writing. Fame and fortune aside, he deserved much better than he got, and a disease turned his life into a tragedy. He seemed to believe he’d been granted more time to help others beat addiction.
After a closer look, I think I can say he certainly helped someone beat trauma.
Todd Mitchell is a US Midwest-based comedy writer and game developer with bylines at Weekly Humorist, Fanbyte, Slackjaw, End of the Bench Sports, and more. He’s the author of Inside Video Game Creation, the founder of CodeWritePlay, and host of the GameDev Breakdown podcast. Follow him on Twitter @Mechatodzilla.