On comfort comedy, and the death of old friends


Look. I didn’t plan to write about this. I had another Substack lined up this week. Also, every timeline I’m on is full of pictures and memes and twee illustrations of Matthew Perry. Why add more to it?

I also feel that I can’t move past it. I’ve been trying to write about other things, but I can’t. I want to talk about Matthew Perry. So that’s what we’re doing this week.

Like many people, Friends was a comfort show for me. For the last couple of months, I’ve had periods of being deeply, crushingly sad for no particular reason. It’s frightening to lose control of your emotions in such a way. Some days, I dread the moment after the school drop-off when I get home to an empty house. In the past few weeks, on those dark days, I put on Friends. Starting again from the beginning. I probably know every line of the first few seasons by heart, but that doesn’t matter. When it plays in the background, I feel less alone.

And this is how it has always been with Friends. As a teenager, I could never sleep at night. I would lay awake, worrying about school and puberty and friends and bullying and the feeling of just not belonging anywhere. So I’d put on a VHS tape of Friends and let their familiar voices lull me off to sleep. The warmth of their friendship just made me feel better. It made me feel safe.

I always feel a bit weird to grieve a celebrity. I remember when Rik Mayall died, I berated myself for my emotional response to it. It was silly, and maybe intrusive, to be walking around feeling genuine sadness about the death of a man I never met. And part of me thinks that it’s probably a parasocial thing. But then, inviting six people into my bedroom to help me sleep every night for five years in a row is, I suppose, quite intimate, if very one-sided. These people were part of my life every single day for a long time. Easy to forget that I didn’t really know them at all.

I always clicked the most with Chandler. His character helped me identify that a good sense of humour was probably up there in the top three things I needed in a boyfriend.

But more importantly, Chandler’s self-deprecating, sometimes slightly-too-sharp wit became my thing, too. I’ve always been nervous and unsure of myself in any social situation, and part of the reason why I turned to Friends for comfort was because I actually found school terrifying. I was short. I had a big frizzy mane of ginger hair. I had glasses and teeth slightly too big for my face. And I was ugly (according to my own opinion at the time. If I’m being charitable now, I’d at least say I was quite awkward-looking).

I decided I’d deal with looking a bit weird by trying to be sarcastic instead. If I poked fun at myself, I’d at least be one step ahead of everyone. Being silly and at least attempting to be funny was all I had. And to be honest, between Chandler and the entire cast of Buffy as my role models, I was probably a bit insufferable, but we all were, so I got away with it.

Anyway, I still do this sometimes. I make jokes to cover up the fact that I feel a bit inferior.

By his own admission, Perry was Chandler. He had a genuine quick wit that I think is quite rare, and I think most people would argue his humour elevates the entire show. He was an icon for the awkward among us, and I loved him for that.

Going back to the comfort thing. I listened to a two-part Comfort Blanket podcast on Friends. Host Joel Morris and guest Larry Rickard talk about how sitcoms work by essentially forcing the characters to stay in the same place. Like plunging them into poverty and having them live in the same motel (ala Schitt’s Creek). Or by having all the characters be spirits stuck in the house they died in (ala Ghosts). Or making them desperately sad and lonely with only each other for company (ala Bottom).

Part of the joy of a sitcom is the fact that you can expect the characters to be in the same place and stage of life, whether you’re in season one or season ten. The moment you start changing things, people get upset because it doesn’t feel right.

And I think that hits the nail on the head for me. The reason why Friends feels so comforting is because I know where they’ll be, no matter what episode I watch and no matter how many years pass in my own life. I can expect the six of them to be there, in one of their familiar locations, struggling with their careers, their families, and their sex lives. They’ll all be there, stuck in a kind of perpetually looping limbo, for the rest of time.

I’ve made that sound depressing, but it’s kind of nice, in a way. And I think the ‘But Friends is just mediocre comedy!’ conversation misses the fact that, somehow, the show’s creators managed to make something that comforts millions of people across the globe, which is no small feat. There’s a need for it, you know? I need it. We, as a culture, need entertainment that makes everything feel a little bit less bleak. The familiarity, at this point, is a gift.

I keep thinking about the last episode of Friends, when they leave the keys on the side and close the door behind them. How sad that last episode feels as the characters are thrust into an era of great, unprecedented change, as they move onto something that we no longer have access to.

Perry was his own person, obviously. He had a deeply complex life, marked with incredible difficulties, and I’m sure that, on drugs and alcohol, he wasn’t the easiest person to be around. He dedicated a large portion of his life - and finances - to helping people with addictions. He had a family and friends and a whole life outside of the phenomenon that was Chandler Bing.

But I guess I find (or rather, found) the ongoing presence of all six Friends actors to be a comfort in itself: to lose one is a shocking reminder that, in reality, you can’t keep people in stasis forever. In real life, friends grow apart. They change, they grow, they move cities or emigrate or have families or get busy or slowly become people you don’t get along with anymore, or they even die, far too young.

You can’t take anything for granted, I guess. Especially people.