My initial plan for this piece was to write about Matthew Perry‘s work in The Whole Nine Yards, a really funny movie that, strangely, isn’t being talked about much in the wake of Perry’s death this past Saturday, when almost everything else he did is being, rightfully, discussed at length.
Anyway, I got about two paragraphs in, summing up the plot about Perry playing a dentist living in Montreal named Nicholas Oseransky (who everyone calls “Oz”; it’s a great trait that this movie has a character we just met and he has a nickname) whose wife, played by Rosanna Arquette, hires a hitman to kill Oz. It’s actually a lot more complicated than that, because Bruce Willis plays the hitman, Jimmy the Tulip, but he doesn’t take the job because he’s retired, but tips Oz off about his wife’s plan. But then Jimmy the Tulip does want to kill Oz because Oz falls in love with Jimmy’s ex-wife, who Jimmy does wants to kill. Whatever, it all somehow works. (The sequel? Not as much.) Back to my point, it was around this time in the idea for my original piece, reminiscing about Perry’s performance of Oz, and how it, yes, had some shades of Chandler, but enough differences to make it unique and show off Perry’s talents away from Friends when I stopped and said out loud about Perry’s death, “Fuck. This just sucks.”
It’s a sticky feeling, mourning a person we don’t actually know and have never met. (Even in the context of this job, where I do meet a lot of actors and filmmakers on a professional basis, I had never met or interviewed Perry.) On social media, when a famous person dies, there’s often an outpouring of grief that often turns into a, “No, I loved this person more than you,” competition. But Perry’s death felt different. The initial reaction, and now, even a few days later, still kind of feels like a shock. I think that’s why I had the reaction I did while trying to write about The Whole Nine Yards, just sitting here writing, thinking fondly about Matthew Perry, then getting hit with the stark realization, “Oh, geez, he’s really gone.”
Matthew Perry has been a constant part of our lives for almost 30 years now. Friends debuted in September of 1994 and seemingly never went away. It’s hard to explain, now, what a cultural force it was. I was in college when Friends debuted and Thursday night was the big bar night at Mizzou (I assume this translates to all colleges, especially Big XII — at the time — state schools) and people would not leave their televisions until the entire NBC Thursday lineup was completed, after ER. And the bars closed at 1 am, which didn’t leave a lot of time, so that’s how important these shows were. It’s always weird watching a new show, especially a sitcom, as we are thrust into these people’s lives that we are supposed to care about and like. I will never forget the moment the show hooked me when Chandler asked Ross, “Could you want her more?” Ross answers, “Who?” To which Chandler sarcastically says, “Dee, the sarcastic sister from What’s Happening.” That’s a clever line, just esoteric enough that a lot of people will get the reference at the time (probably not now, but Dee was sooooo sarcastic), but not everyone will. I was hooked and Perry did the hooking.
See, here we go again, this really sucks. I still can’t believe this is true. And I think it’s okay to feel this way.
I remember at the time Perry looked familiar, but I couldn’t place it. I kept thinking maybe he played one of Mallory’s boyfriends on Family Ties, but the math there didn’t quite work. Later, once I got internet access, it was one of the first things I looked up and it turns out Perry played Carol Seaver’s boyfriend on Growing Pains, who was kind of unceremoniously written out after dying after a car accident while driving drunk. But I remember Perry had a lot of heart in that role, which he took with him to Friends, only he’s also hilarious in that role.
The day Perry died I was on vacation with my girlfriend in Jamaica for her birthday. We got the news like everyone else and tried to continue on that night but it wasn’t the same. We felt like someone we knew had died, even though neither of us knew him. And I kind of felt silly about that until I finally realized I have probably seen Perry, honestly, maybe a third of all the days over the last 29 years? That actually might be a low estimate. Whether it be a quote, a gif, a cultural reference, or the fact Friends still runs on a never-ending loop in syndication to this day. Yeah, he’s was a big part of all our lives – and, frankly, he still will be going forward – and that’s why this feels a lot different.
I remember on Saturday thinking what it would be like watching Friends now. Would it be too sad? I got my answer earlier than expected because when we got back to our hotel room, I turned on the television and, there, even in Jamaica, was Friends. I watched. It was, “The One With Joey’s Award,” which is a Joey-heavy episode. I turned it on right when Joey was accepting the Soapy award “on behalf” then keeps it for himself. But, eventually, there was Perry as Chandler and for a very quick moment I forgot because it feels so natural to watch Perry as Chandler. Then I remembered the news from that night that still didn’t seem real and I remember thinking, “Fuck. This really sucks.”
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