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Could he BE any more like Chandler? Matthew Perry’s memoir is fizzing and frank

Friends star tells his story with flair, from teen neuroses and sudden stardom to dating (and dumping) Julia Roberts, plus years of substance abuse and rehab

Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing: A Memoir
Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing: A Memoir
Author: Matthew Perry
ISBN-13: 978-1472295934
Publisher: Headline
Guideline Price: £25

One of the few people in his adult life whom Matthew Perry felt certain that he would not disappoint was his television alter ego, Chandler Bing.

The story of how NBC assembled one of the most enduring and celebrated casts in sit-com history has been told on a thousand talkshows by the six stars of Friends, the beloved and wildly popular show charting the foibles and fortunes of six quirky but nonetheless identifiably all-American types: the Nerd, the Actor/Pick Up Artist, the Kook, the Prom Queen, the Perfectionist and… well, what was Chandler Bing anyway?

Famously, nobody ever knew what he worked as. “A transponder”, blurts out Jennifer Aniston’s Rachel in a competition which sees ‘the girls’ lose their apartment. Perry felt a kinship to Bing: he knew him; he was him. It turns out that Chandler’s phrasing – “Could I Be any more...” – was all Perry, a mock affectation he developed with his childhood friends in Canada.

Humour was his defence mechanism, he developed a thousand neuroses and a teenage fondness for alcohol and, like Chandler, spent years trying to kick smoking

Perry’s childhood mirrored Chandler’s. His parental models were lively (his beauty-queen mother and actor/singer father who became the Old Spice Guy were, Perry writes “two of the most gorgeous people on the face of the planet”). Humour was his defence mechanism, he developed a thousand neuroses and a teenage fondness for alcohol and, like Chandler, spent years trying to kick smoking.

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Unlike Chandler, he also made over $60 million in his career, became hopelessly addicted to opioids and alcohol, almost died when his colon exploded, had his entire row of upper teeth fall out when biting into peanut butter (he gathered them in a doggy bag and headed to the dentist), was so haunted by the fear of abandonment that he blew a series of relationships and spent an untold number of his days having lonely conversations with strangers in rehab.

He got through his decade of Friends (256 episodes, a million dollars per show at the end) in states of self-loathing and loneliness

There’s a haunting what-if element running through the story. Perry was not the first choice to play Chandler: the role had been offered to Craig Beirko, for a while the most in-demand television heart-throb in mid 1990s LA and, Perry says, “the quickest comedic mind I ever met.” Beirko told Perry he had been offered two roles: a show called Best Friends and the other, Friends Like Us. Perry was crushed but loyally advised his friend to take the Chandler role. He opted for the other and Perry finagled an audition which made it plain that to the producers that he was their living and breathing Chandler. His life exploded, years before his colon followed suit.

There are so many pills contained within this book that the reader will be tempted to shake it to see if it rattles. The memoir, which Perry began writing on his notes app during the pandemic, is spiky, fast paced and relentlessly self-lacerating. Perry’s grudges (he quotes a harsh review, “anaemic and unworthy of its Thursday-night time slot”, from the Hartford Courant) are amusing and specific. He got through his decade of Friends (256 episodes, a million dollars per show at the end) in states of self-loathing and loneliness.

Love affairs

He dishes zero gossip on his five co-stars but confirms that off-set, they are all good eggs. He chronicles his various love affairs with a candour that other famous names will not relish. Friends had debuted in autumn of 1994 and went stratospheric: the following New Year’s Eve, a disbelieving Perry finds himself on a mountain top in New Mexico with Julia Roberts, the most bankable star in Hollywood, watching the snow fall. It was literally a peak moment in his life, so naturally he sabotaged it, calling it quits with her.

Perry drove through LA and saw a huge billboard featuring his name along with Bruce Willis for The Whole Ten Yards. He blithely assumed movie stardom followed. The movie tanked

“I can’t begin to describe the look of confusion on her face,” he writes. But he doesn’t need to: we’ve all seen that Roberts expression, in everything from Notting Hill to Erin Brockovich. Perry had entered that strange realm where screen character and person become indivisible to the public. The wild success of Friends meant that the cast were fated to never fully escape their characters, even now, as they move through middle age.

On the night that the final show was filmed, Perry drove through LA and saw a huge billboard featuring his name along with Bruce Willis for The Whole Ten Yards. He blithely assumed movie stardom followed. The movie tanked. Instead, he negotiated the tricky afterlife of gargantuan sitcom success. The money kept flowing in, but the choice roles did not. The recent Friends reunion returned to the famous couch for a nostalgia-fest ruined by host James Cordon.

This book makes it clear why Chandler/Perry wore the march of time more clearly than the others. And that reunion felt like an acceptance among the six stars that they will never outrun the popularity or legacy that has made their faces an indelible part of America’s pop culture. As his co-star Lisa Kudrow notes in her foreword, Perry “has survived impossible odds, but I had no idea how many timed he almost didn’t make it.” He achieves something approaching peace towards the final pages. Being Chandler Bing must be a strange and curious fate for an actor, but with it Perry has produced a fizzing account of wrestling the demons of television fame.

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan is a features writer with The Irish Times