CHANDLER: I’m not great at the advice. Can I interest you in a sarcastic comment?
CHANDLER: I say more dumb things before 9 a.m. than most people say all day.
PHOEBE: One of my clients died today on the massage table.
CHANDLER: Well that’s a little more relaxed than you wanted him to get.
CHANDLER: I can handle this. “Handle” is my middle name. Actually, “handle” is the middle of my first name.
Friends is the 1990s NBC sitcom that focuses on the lives of six companions who share a place in New York City. The show focuses on the insecurity and longing of both the female and male characters who have many sexual endeavors and feel the constant need to be in the lead. Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) struggles with being spoiled and Monica (Courteney Cox) with her past obesity and need for a relationship. Ross (David Schwimmer) has the constant need to be right, and Joey (Matt LeBlanc) simply loves sex and has no money. Each character can be summed up and explained easily, all except for Chandler.
The secret of Friends‘ success is Chandler who displays deep, emotional issues and is one of the few dynamic characters in the show. Unlike the others, Chandler (played by Matthew Perry) shows maturity and learns much throughout the ten seasons. I believe that without his comedy and development as a character, viewers would have grown tired of the show long before it went off the air. This is because a key feature of Friends is that each of the characters are static: they do not change (or they do not change much) throughout the many years they are televised. But why are the characters static?
Sociologist and comedy theorist Murray Davis suggests that in order for something to be comedic, it must be present or exist in a system outside of the one the audience is in. Davis argues that for the audience, we are able to see incongruities between systems, not only between the system in which they exist but also between systems within the piece. The unexpected is comedic, and the inconsistent is hilarious. French philosopher Henri Bergson argues that the natural quality of comedy is that it seeks to distance the audience from the system that elicits its laughter, which entails that we are able to enjoy things that might seem crude, harmful, or unorthodox because we are unaffected by what is happening within the system.
These theories help explain the dilemma the producers had. As a show that ran for 10 years, Friends faced the same paradox that other long-running shows do: the characters had to experience a modicum of development, yet remain in the same system. While the outside world and audience adapted and changed, the characters had to remain the same, or the audience might have lost interest in the show. If the characters were dynamic, the viewer may view the system differently and the comedic events that take place would no longer be entertaining, but would become saddening or even disheartening.
The shallow nature of the show, in that the cast remains in the same system and grow and mature very little, is one of its most brilliant comic strategies. Chandler in his sarcastic banter often embodies Davis’ theories of comedy because he is part of the comedic ensemble, yet he often presents himself as distanced from that same system which enables us to connect with him through our laughter; however, Chandler remains within the system and is prevented from eliciting our pity. In one sense, he is merely another twenty-something living a certain lifestyle in New York City, yet Chandler provides commentary for the audience when the unexpected and absurd happens.
Something else that sets Chandler apart is the actor who plays him. Often times a character takes on the attributes and nature of the actor playing him. Sometimes it is even impossible to differentiate between the two. Matthew Perry once used the pickup-line in a bar, “Hi, I’m completely filled with fruit and cheese.” A similarity between Matthew Perry and his character Chandler Bing is their speech. Perry developed his idiosyncratic way of talking, overemphasizing certain words to make them more sarcastic, enabling him to deliver punch-lines effectively. According to Perry, his favorite Chandler quote occurs in a scene when Joey is recommending a tailor to Chandler:
JOEY: You should go see Frankie, my family has been going to him forever. He did my first suit when I was 15… No wait, 16…No, excuse me, 15…When was 1990?
CHANDLER: Okay. [Chandler calmly stoops down to eye level with Joey who is sitting on the couch.] You have to stop the Q-tip when there’s RESISTANCE!
Though there are many differences between the actor and character, Matthew Perry related deeply to Chandler, thus he was able to make the role more convincing; because he related to Chandler, we as the audience are able to relate to Chandler, seeing his character on a deeper level. Matthew Perry related deeply to Chandler so much so that we wonder how much he was acting when he played him for the show. Could Perry have been merely being himself?
While these questions are hard to answer, I believe that had Perry needed to force the role in a different direction, Chandler would not have been nearly as convincing. The authenticity of the role is what makes Friends an enduring comedy.
(1). Attallah, Paul. Television Discourse and Situation Comedy. Canadian Review of American Studies, (2010). p. 1-24.
(2). Cawley. “Matthew Perry: A Lot Like Chandler Bing, Only Better.” Biography, vol. 3, no. 10, Oct. 1999, p. 89.
(3). Diogenes, Marvin. Laughing Matters. Pearson Inc., 2008. p. 13-34.
(4). Fink, Edward J. “Writing The Simpsons: A Case Study of Comic Theory.” Journal of Film &Video, (2013). p. 1-14.