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The joker who became the romantic lead

Perry with Julia Roberts in a 1996 episode of Friends. Warner Bros/Everett Collection/Alamy

Matthew Perry was never meant to be the “leading man” on Friends, says Zoe Williams in The Guardian. His character, Chandler, was always the second string: the “maladroit loser to Joey’s lothario, the joker skating beneath Ross’s romantic gravity”. But when Chandler and Monica hooked up at the end of season four – in what was intended to just be a one-night stand – the studio audience screamed with so much delight that the writers made the relationship permanent. The joker became the romantic lead. “It’s the classic stuff of romance, the Emma plot: the guy who creeps up on you, because, duh, he’s everything.” Except Chandler – which is to say, Perry – did it “to his own creators”.

Perry always noted how similar he was to his character. He, too, was an only child of divorced parents. His dad was a recovered alcoholic; his mum a press aide to Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau. And much like Chandler, he struggled with relationships. After somehow wooing Julia Roberts by fax, he broke up with the megastar actress to avoid being dumped. As he later wrote: “I can’t begin to describe the look of confusion on her face.” But of course, Perry’s life “diverged in one critical way” from that of his character: his alcohol and drug addiction. The story of his dependency is told through Chandler’s changing appearance on the show: larger when he was drinking; thin when he was on drugs, “thin with a goatee when he was on a lot of drugs”. His death, at just 54, feels “tragically discordant – an unjust end to a life lived in the service of the punchline”.