For Matthew Perry, the Curse of a Wish Come True

From a Washington Post column by David Von Drehle headlined “For Matthew Perry, the curse of a wish come true”:

“Nobody wanted to be famous more than me,” Matthew Perry said this year. He had come to question that ambition, because, he said, “fame does not do what you think it’s going to do.”

Perry spoke from experience. At 25, he became one of the most famous men in the United States, instantly recognizable to tens of millions of fans as the droll, wisecracking Chandler Bing of the smash hit comedy series “Friends.” The show was one of the last mass experiences of the network television age, anchor of NBC’s “Must See TV” branding that drew audiences around the turn of the century much larger than even the biggest hits of today.

Getting what he most wanted from life was no blessing — and perhaps a curse for Perry, whose decades of addiction were facilitated by his bottomless bank account and a star’s galaxy of enablers. He had all the attention he ever could have imagined. The lavish salaries he and his co-stars eventually commanded — $1 million per episode in the last seasons, along with royalties that flood their bank accounts to this day — were fodder for the worldwide news.

Perry’s body was found in his Los Angeles hot tub late on an autumn Saturday afternoon.

This early passing will likely provoke a lot of grim conversation. I hope it will also send people back to Perry’s work, especially on “Friends,” which is among the great ensemble sitcoms of television history. Built around the lives — but mostly the banter — of six young adults in New York trying to get themselves launched, the show was like a jam session of brilliant dialogue, with the actors stepping into and out of the spotlight to bring down the house in front of a live studio audience.

Perry’s Chandler was a carefully tuned mixture of swagger masking insecurity, neither as smart as his scientist friend Ross Geller (played by David Schwimmer) nor as hot as his dumb actor friend Joey Tribbiani (played by Matt LeBlanc). Yet, as the seasons went by, it was Chandler who arguably matured fastest, settling happily into a boring grown-up job and a faithful marriage to Monica, Ross’s sister (played by Courteney Cox).

“Your job’s a joke, you’re broke, your love life’s DOA,” the Rembrandts sang in the show’s catchy theme song. “It’s like you’re always stuck in second gear.” The show captured a phase of life that used to define White middle-class people in their 20s: Childhood was over; it was time to start adulting. But how, exactly, was that supposed to work?

This was before the internet made millionaires of teenagers and generally scrambled the sequence, sowing discontent. (Although, if “Friends” were still being made, the writers could have a field day with the Sam Bankman-Fried story; I picture the daft free-spirit Phoebe Buffay, played by Lisa Kudrow, as an overnight crypto billionaire, making and losing an unimaginable fortune in the space of a season working in a business no one understands.)

I’m not sure, but this might be the only discussion of “Friends” ever written that mentions Jennifer Aniston last among the cast members. Her portrayal of preppy Rachel Green launched a career in screwball comedy and tabloid celebrity. If anyone could give advice on surviving fame, she would be the one, and indeed she tried to help Perry, but some people are very, very hard to help.

Hunger for fame has become one of America’s epidemics. It motivates mass shooters and members of Congress. Young people count the likes on their phones to decide how they feel about being alive. A future president of the United States once told me that the only thing that matters is ratings.

But fame does not do what you think it’s going to do. It doesn’t fill an empty soul, and it doesn’t build a bridge across loneliness. Indeed, it can amplify alienation by bringing the whole world close but no one near. Apart from a narcissist, no one wants attention for its own sake. We crave connection, community and the worthwhile feeling that comes from being useful.

It is the lesson of Ozymandias, whose mighty works lie broken and decayed; the lesson of “Citizen Kane,” who would trade his empire for another day of loving childhood. All the money and parties and fine shirts in the world cannot supply the vacancy in Jay Gatsby’s heart left by Daisy Buchanan.

I wish for Matthew Perry’s sake that he could have been, for just a little while, unfamous — a random face in the crowd again. I wish he could have watched, unnoticed, as a group of millennials revisited their favorite show or as a posse of Gen Z kids discovered “Friends” for themselves. Perhaps what he needed was to experience their delight in his work, to see what he had done for others instead of what he had failed to do for himself. He made a lot of people happier, co-creating countless millions of cheerful half-hours. That’s more than enough for a person to feel good about, and it’s a shame that he apparently didn’t see things that way.

David Von Drehle is a deputy opinion editor for The Post and writes a weekly column. He was previously an editor-at-large for Time Magazine, and is the author of four books, including “Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year” and “Triangle: The Fire That Changed America.”

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