“All spiders are named ‘Phil'”: On Matthew Perry

This is one of my favorite little scenes from Friends. I’ve always loved this little exchange, and in tribute to it, I have ever since referred to all spiders as “Phil”. (In this case I now assume that Phil can be a genderless name: Philip, Philomena, Philopina, you get the drift.)

Actor Matthew Perry died yesterday–that’s him in the clip–after apparently having drowned in his own hot tub.

I expect that there will eventually be more sordid details about his passing, considering his long struggles with addiction and other medical issues. But that doesn’t matter now. Perry did a lot of good work, primarily comedic, most notably on Friends. That particular show was a favorite of mine during its run, and I still love a great deal of it, even if much of it hasn’t aged very well; right now, Friends is kind-of in that middle area where it hasn’t aged enough for its problematic aspects to be seen as being “of its time”, but I do think that it earned its claims to be a classic sitcom. Friends did manage to capture something of the 90s zeitgeist for young people in that era. The people who were on it were my age group, or slightly above it (I’m 52; Perry was 54). But Friends wasn’t just that; it was usually written with wit and crisp attention to character and structure. Friends has never quite gotten its due for its writing, in my opinion. The show really excelled at things like setting up a big episode-ending punchline in the first minutes, and also at having big moments come as complete surprises while still being entirely consistent with the characters. Yes, Friends probably endured a season or two longer than it should have, but its drop-off toward its end wasn’t that bad.

Perry played Chandler Bing on Friends. Chandler was the neurotic jokester of the group who always seemed to have a quip ready at hand. The Friends producers made a lot of hay out of this, but they were also aware enough to know that sometimes that guy (there’s one in every group!) will make jokes that don’t quite land, that fall awkwardly, and that ultimately mask a certain level of weird insecurity. A low-level subplot that unfolded over the series’s run was Chandler’s growth and maturity, as he progressed from the smart-mouthed and insecure jokester to being one of the first members of the group to settle into a stable, long-term relationship (with Monica, another of the show’s regulars). As Friends ended, the group was transitioning as Chandler and Monica started a family and decided it was time to move to the suburbs.

Perry anchored Chandler Bing nearly perfectly, giving him a voice that was so distinctive that to this day people remember certain of Chandler’s phrasings and verbal tics. However, when I saw Perry in other projects, I realized that he had a good deal more range even than Chandler Bing afforded him.

Perry turned up on The West Wing as Friends ended. His character there, a lawyer newly hired for the White House Counsel’s office who happens to be a Republican, was an interesting addition…but sadly he came along right when Aaron Sorkin was exiting the show, which meant that Perry didn’t get to do much with Sorkin’s signature style, and he showed up a few times on a recurring basis. I’ve always found it perplexing that Aaron Sorkin left The West Wing after he added talent like Lily Tomlin and Matthew Perry to his roster. It was all a money thing, from what I remember, but sheesh–I’m not a rich writer, but if I was one, I think I might find my way to taking a pay cut to write for Tomlin and Perry.

Sorkin got another shot later on, though, at least with Perry: he was one of the leads on Sorkin’s backstage-at-a-teevee-show show, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. I watched every episode of Studio 60 with anticipation at first for a good show, and then with the anticipation one feels as one approaches the scene of a car wreck on the thruway. Studio 60 had…issues. Gigantic issues. The show was one of the most highly hyped new shows of its season, and then it winded up getting axed after that singular first year, for many reasons. But none of those reasons was Matthew Perry, who again anchored the show as the head-writer for a late-night live comedy show, Matt Albie. Studio 60 provided yet another data point in my long belief that Aaron Sorkin may be a good writer on individual projects (though not so great as many believe), but he’s simply not a very good show-runner for long-term television. The focus on Studio 60 was all wrong, and the best material came not when he focused on the struggles and the love lives of the Big Main Characters, but when he instead looked at the lower-level workers in television, the underappreciated people, the ones who aren’t household names: the writers.

As Studio 60 begins, Matt Albie (Perry) and Danny Tripp (Bradley Whitford) are hired to take over and restore to prominence a long-suffering SNL-esque live comedy show. One big issue is that the writers’ room for this show is a big collection of hacks, overseen by two guys who hate Matt and Danny with a passion. These conflicts simmer in the background of Studio 60‘s one season, and at one point Matt hires two new writers, who have collectively about eight minutes of comedy writing experience, for the room. Shortly thereafter, the two guys who hate Matt and Danny quit, and they take all the other writers with them–leaving only the two deeply green newbies as the only writers Matt has left. In desperation, Matt brings in another comedy writer just to mentor these two into a level of competence. This, as it unfolds, is one of my favorite things that happened in the entire run of Studio 60. This video stitches together the entire storyline–it’s less than five minutes during one episode, and excuse the quality, this is where someone aimed their phone at their teevee–and while Perry doesn’t play a huge role in it, he still anchors it as the straight-man to the comedy that is unfolding two floors below his big office.

I’ve seen Matthew Perry in other things over the years–not a lot, but enough–and I think he always was somehow the “grounding” force in his projects, the guy who seemed like a real guy in the middle of whatever other weirdness was going on around him. Going back to Friends, someone had to be there to react to the weirdness of Phoebe, the goofball shit that always surrounded Joey, and the straight-up embodiment of “What are you doing?!” that was Ross.

I don’t want to speculate much about the facts of Perry’s death or the degree to which his personal demons may have played a role. I just want to point out the quality of his work over the years, and that he’ll be missed.


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One Response to “All spiders are named ‘Phil'”: On Matthew Perry

  1. Roger says:

    Vaguely related: I get really annoyed with media’s obseession with people needing to make a comment right away about everything. A Page Six article today was about David Schwimmer keeping a “low profile” after MP’s death, with a photo of him walking, wearing a COVID mask. It SO irritates me. Leave the man alone; you have the joint statement of the remaining “Friends.”

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