Andrew Potter: Matthew Perry was at the centre of the Gen X scene
With the Friends actor's tragic death, it's time for the forgotten generation to start taking something seriously for a change.
By: Andrew Potter
Like a sort of pop-cultural version of Skynet, we know the precise date on which Generation X became self-aware. It was Thursday, September 21st, 1995. Douglas Coupland was doing an evening event at Convocation Hall at the University of Toronto as part of the promotional tour for Microserfs, which was getting solid reviews after the stutter-steps of Shampoo Planet and Life After God.
It was a completely sold out show. I had managed to finagle a pair of tickets through a friend who worked at HarperCollins, Coupland’s publisher at the time. Even outside in the lineup to get in there was a snap in the air, of the sort you would normally get at a small club concert by a suddenly hot indie band, not a book reading. But there was also a twinge of unease to the proceedings; there were reports that Coupland had been acting a bit erratic on the tour, and he had built up a bit of a reputation for being a difficult or even unwilling performer. So we took our seats, sat tense and waited, and wondered just what fun weirdness the night might bring.
Apart from the atmosphere in the hall, which I can still taste like it was this morning, I don’t remember much about what Coupland talked about that night. But it didn’t really matter, because his opening line hit like a lightning strike. He walked out onto the stage, in sneakers, jeans and a puffy vest, took a look around the room, and said: “Shouldn’t you all be at home watching TV?”
There was a pause as everyone took a second to parse what he was getting at, then bedlam. Because as we sat there, a deviceless collective, everyone else we knew was at home getting ready to watch the first episode of the second season of Friends.
What Douglas Coupland has always understood better than almost anyone is that a generation is a scene. Whatever else it is — a demographic artifact, a marketing ploy — a generation is something that has its own tastes and moods and fashions and jargon, its own sense of what is in and what is out, what is cool and what’s square, and who belongs and who does not. It is about who and what you claim as your own, and who claims you.
And with that one arch and knowing opening line, Coupland was laying claim to a scene, not so much referencing it as calling it into being. You might be here, he was saying, but you also probably want to be there, because it’s all part of our scene.
Along with Seinfeld, Friends was the great powerhouse sitcom of the late 1990s, the two shows that dominated the last years of the 20th-century monoculture. But while the Seinfeld cast was almost entirely mid- to late-Baby Boomer, the six Friends actors were all pure laine Xers. (Yes, Julie Louis-Dreyfus was born in 1961, the same year as Douglas Coupland, but she’s culturally a Boomer through and through),
The ratings for Friends were remarkably consistent over its decade-long run, though I lost interest around season four. There are only so many combinations of hookups and breakups the writers can do much with before it gets repetitive. But also, as the 90s gave way to the post-9/11 noughties, the culture changed. The actors aged out of their twenties, the audience did too. At a certain point everyone needed to stop hanging around the coffee shop and get a little more serious.
A while ago a friend suggested I give the show another look. His Gen Z kids and their friends had all started watching the show, and they loved it — probably as a form of what Douglas Coupland once described as “historical slumming.” But I streamed a few episodes from the middle seasons, and on rewatching, it was a bit surprising to realize (as my friend had noted) just how central Matthew Perry was to the show. He wasn’t the breakout star of the ensemble — that was Jennifer Aniston, by a longshot. But it was largely due to Perry that the show worked the way it did. He was easily the most natural comedic talent of the bunch, and brought the most energy and dynamism to his scenes. The camera might have preferred the women, but the audience was fully on Matthew Perry’s side.
What is a bit disappointing, though, is to see how little the show had to say that had any lasting merit. In many ways, Seinfeld’s bleak nihilism and relentless interrogation of urban status markers showed a deeper understanding of Gen X culture than the slacker escapism of Friends, whose characters notoriously lived in a parallel universe of (among other oddities) affordable Manhattan apartments. Yes, the show was a smash from the start: Six great looking, underemployed, and hugely charming twenty-somethings spending their days hanging around a coffee shop telling jokes and making fun of one another. What wasn’t to like? But the world it depicted was a fantasy island version of what Generation X was actually going through.
And what we were going through was pretty bleak. Kids today whinge about the prospect of being the first generation to do worse than their parents. Sorry, but we got there first. And while Kurt Cobain is the most well-known example, it is astonishing how many actors and musicians and artists from that period are already dead, done in by suicide, overdose, or just bad living.
That list now includes Matthew Perry, who died Saturday, at 54, found drowned in a jacuzzi in his Hollywood home. No foul play is suspected.
Could we be any less surprised? Perry had been a mess for decades, stacking addictions to alcohol, painkillers, opioids and amphetamines until his stomach couldn’t take it anymore and he suffered a ruptured bowel, which almost killed him in 2018. While supposedly clean and sober, Perry didn’t seem much better during last year’s Friends reunion episode. He said little, and what he did say came out slurred and confused. His 2022 memoir Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing got decent reviews, but there was a meanness to parts of it that suggested he hadn’t quite put his demons to rest.
His death is no less sad and tragic for being so foreseeable. But if, as I said, to be a member of a generation is about who you claim as your own, then it is also, ultimately, about who you choose to mourn, and how. Perry himself worried that Friends would be his legacy, when he wanted to be known more for how he was able to help people.
This is doubly heartbreaking. First, as he surely knew, he will be remembered for his central role in Friends, a sitcom that was crucial to a generation’s self-awareness, but which ultimately had little to say about it, and them. But more tragically, his desire to be known primarily for his work in helping people deal with their addictions will be eclipsed by the fact that he wasn’t even able to help himself.
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