If only Matthew Perry were here to help us cope with his own death. He would no doubt do it with a joke. You can almost hear the deadpan cadence, see the comically dubious side-eye: A 54-year-old celebrity is found dead at his Los Angeles home in a hot tub? Reportedly a few hours after playing pickleball?
A year after writing a brutally honest memoir of addiction that opens with "Hi, my name is Matthew, although you may know me by another name. My friends call me Matty. And I should be dead"?
Only one person could process that kind of ironic tragedy in real time, only one person could capture the pain and absurdity of it all in a perfectly delivered line or two of canny wit.
And now he’s gone.
Comedy may well be tragedy plus time, but Matthew Perry was that rare performer who could dispense with the time and convey both simultaneously. Which is why he was so easy to love.
He became an entertainment icon for his portrayal of Chandler Bing on NBC’s monster hit “Friends,” one who, with his perfectly timed, peanut-gallery commentary — "could this BE any more awkward?” — directly courted the audience by being both participant and truth-teller.
In an endless series of comedic (and at times emotionally wrenching) situations, all the "Friends" worked through their wacky young adult growing pains, but Perry’s performance included an extra level of difficulty.
It was the deadpan Chandler who regularly acknowledged, with vocal subtext, the ridiculousness of any given event, his friends' foibles and his own shortcomings — "Until I was 25, I thought the only response to 'I love you' was 'Oh crap,'" Chandler says at one point. "I’m not great at advice. Would you be interested in a sarcastic comment?” he says at another.
No matter how well it is written, sarcasm is one of the most perilous blades in a performer’s tool box. Without the right level of humanity, it becomes simply ruthless. Without a certain level of ruthlessness, it has no meaning.
Perry was a sarcasm ninja, honoring both the barb and the inevitable insecurity that launched it. Few performers can convincingly portray both the arrogance and self-doubt, the resilience and vulnerability that fuel so much of human nature as well as he did.
When I first learned of Perry’s death, I thought first not of “Friends” but of the short-lived series “Go On.” In the 2012 NBC sitcom, Perry played Ryan King, a radio sports commentator and recent widower. Forced by his boss into joining a support group, King uses humor not as a shield but as a grappling hook, planting and re-planting it firmly and intentionally in denial lest he fall into the chasm of loss yawning beneath his dangling feet.
As he did in “Friends,” Perry managed to build a convincing character out of opposing forces: his King is quite aware that deflecting pain is not a long-term solution, but it’s pain! What thinking person wouldn’t want to deflect it?
No matter how snarky or self-pitying Perry's characters became, it was impossible not to root for them.
Perhaps because subconsciously it was Perry we were rooting for.
The actor had his own excruciatingly personal relationship with pain and deflection. In the 2022 memoir “Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing,” he wrote unsparingly about his struggles with addiction to alcohol and drugs, as well as his need for affirmation and fame. When “Friends” was at its height, when he was one of the most famous people in the world and earning $1 million an episode, he was either taking huge quantities of opioids and/or drinking his way through each day — or he was in rehab.
For years, any quest for relief inevitably resulted in more pain, physical and emotional. His drug and alcohol abuse led to, among other things, pancreatitis, pneumonia, an exploded colon, and more than a dozen stomach surgeries. While the book came out, he said he had been clean and sober for more than a year and had written it in the hopes of helping others who, while seeking external solutions for internal problems, become trapped in cycles of temporary recovery and long-term addiction.
In 2021, Perry made what would be his final television appearance in the much anticipated “Friends: The Reunion.” While all of the cast members were, obviously, older, Perry seemed subdued and somehow fragile. The big TV star was barely there. While every star of "Friends" has been battered to some extent by demands of fame, Perry had barely survived it.
In the course of conversation at the reunion, he admitted to the constant anxiety he felt while performing on the show, the obsessive need for every joke he told to land, the self-loathing and fear he felt when one did not. His former cast mates — who, by all accounts, were remarkably supportive and tight-lipped during the years when his addictions became obvious — seemed taken aback. Just as they were noticeably moved when he described how, in subsequent years, whenever they would meet each other by chance at a gathering, time would stop as they sat together to catch up.
Clips of these moments began circulating on social media after the news of Perry’s death broke, and it's impossible not to see how Perry is, once again, both a participant in the nostalgic joy of the event and its natural truth-teller. Greatest time of my life, a shame it almost killed me.
This time, the sarcasm was all but gone, leaving only the humanity. Which was precisely why it was so easy to root for Matthew Perry. He was a very talented, deeply funny performer, but more important, he was always obviously and unapologetically human.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.