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Matthew Perry – The Best Friend.

Well, this is the one where we grieve.

I’m not going to spend much (any) time editing this, I just want to get it out.

“I don’t believe it,” is the first, predictable response. Denial. The first stage of grief. Of course, once that passes we can reflect that given his well-documented troubles, it was inevitable that he would be the first of the Friends cast to go.

I won’t apologise for feeling so sad about this, even if, like many, I look back at the national outpouring of grief that followed the death of Diana with a mixture of confusion, admiration, scepticism, shock, and a little sadness of my own. It was, of course, a generational shift, a society moving on from its own national stereotype to a degree and entering a world of celebrity obsession at the same time.

That’s the most sense I can make of this, a generational one.

When Bowie died, I had many thoughts and feelings. First, it was the move from intellectual understanding to really feeling, really knowing in your bones for the first time that these great constant figures will leave us. Death, taxes, and change come to us all: knowing that is one thing, experiencing it quite another.

Secondly, I felt real regret for not valuing the man enough while he was alive. Finally, in retrospect and with the realisation that he had managed to make his death a final piece of art, there was a sense of an old soul checking out before the world went mad in the remainder of that year, 2016.

We’ve lost many truly wonderful people since then. It’s been hard every time to know that they won’t be able to create anything new for us to fall in love with.

Why does this one hurt so much? Generations.

When Keith Flint died in 2019 I was heartbroken. I sat there in the car while my Wife drove us and the dogs out to the Old Hills in Malvern, and I cried. He and Matthew Perry were the same age. My age, near enough.

Flint’s band The Prodigy were so core to so many wonderful adolescent and young adult experiences. He soundtracked my youth in sweaty nightclubs, queuing outside HMV for The Fat of the Land album in 1997 as I took my first foggy steps toward adulthood (I’ll let you know if I ever get there).

Unlike Matthew Perry, there was no hindsight when Keith Flint died. It was a terrible shock. It felt like he was the first of ‘us’ to die, which feels like a ridiculous thing to admit to, but there it is. Flint and The Prodigy didn’t change the musical landscape in the way that Bowie did, but the queue at his funeral was a mile and a half long.

Here’s the thing: maybe not everyone in Gen X loved The Prodigy as much as we did, but Friends was universal. Friendships were made over it. Everyone quoted it. Everyone watched it, at least a few times, and everyone could name the characters and spot the archetypes. It didn’t matter whether you liked Friends or not, it became a generational language. And Chandler, played by Perry, was the best, funniest character.

This probably hit me as hard as it did though, not because of Friends, but because only last week my Wife and I finished rewatching a series now largely forgotten that we happen to love: Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.

Written by Aaron Sorkin, the series is set behind the scenes of an American live comedy show – it’s an analogue for Saturday Night Live which launched the career of most of the most successful American comedians from the last four decades. Perry co-starred with Bradley Whitford in the lead roles as the executive producer of the show within a show. It pretty much bombed and never made it to a second series, but we adore it and – both times we’ve watched it – bemoaned the fact that Perry did not go on to be an even bigger star. The talent he had was obvious. No offence to Jennifer Aniston, who has made some fine films, but it seemed crazy that she went on to be the biggest breakout star of Friends and Perry stumbled.

Of course, now we have some insight into why. His autobiography, ‘Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing,’ has been sitting on my bookshelves all year and now I feel lousy for not having read it while he lived.

I think I first really understood about his battles with addiction in 2013 when I saw him on Newsnight talking about it in a debate with the right-wing commentator Peter Hitchens. What savage contrasts dwell there. Hitchens is a man who doesn’t need any help to make himself look small but put against a man who brought happiness to millions, he shrank yet further. Hitchens’ brother Christopher had been lost two years earlier, another man renowned for his wit and another whose death, as he remarked himself, was eminently foreseeable. My Mum-in-law has a sign up in her kitchen which reads: “Everyone who visits this house brings joy – some when they arrive and some when they leave.” It’s obvious to which of those categories Matthew Perry and the Hitchens brothers belong.

So yeah, this hurts. It hurts because he really felt like a Friend. It hurts because it reminds us that our real-life friends and our family will follow him all too soon. It hurts because another part of our youth has gone. It hurts because we don’t need anything else right now to show us how damned fragile our lives and happiness are.

It hurts badly.

At least we have his work, which is glorious. If you’ve never seen Studio 60, give it a try. 17 Again is pretty good too, albeit he’s not in it as much as I’d like. Read his book. Understand him and people like him … he wanted it to be used to help them, after all.

When I read about Keith Flint’s death that day, it was music from another band that gave me some small solace. We had Jimmy Eat World on in the car and their song Hear You Me helped. For what it’s worth, I’ll leave you with some of the lyrics. With apologies to Chandler Bing, maybe they’ll turn your knapsack back into a parachute:

“And if you were with me tonight

I’d sing to you just one more time

A song for a heart so big

God wouldn’t let it live

May angels lead you in

Hear you me, my friends

On sleepless roads, the sleepless go

May angels lead you in”

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One Comment

  1. Apologies, the third paragraph should recognise that we lost James Michael Tyler in 2021, who played Gunther. I’m sure there have been others.

    Matthew Perry was the first of the *main* Friends cast to pass.

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