Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing (10 page)

BOOK: Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing
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4
Like I've Been There Before

It was so special it felt like we'd all been together in a previous life or something. Or in a future life, but certainly this one. This was a real day. But a day that dreams were made of.

For the longest time I didn't really want to talk too much about
Friends.
Partly that was because I'd done plenty of other stuff, too, but all anyone ever wanted to talk about was Chandler—it's like James Taylor talking about “Fire and Rain” (a gruesome little tale if you've ever heard what that's about). It's like a band who've written a brilliant new album but all anyone wants to hear when they play live is the hits. I always admired Kurt Cobain's refusal to play “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” or Led Zeppelin's refusal to play “Stairway to Heaven.”
The New York Times
once said that “
Friends
 … sticks to [Perry] like a sweaty shirt.” They weren't right about that—in fact, that's just fucking cruel—but they weren't the only ones to think it. I was so good at something, yet I was being penalized for it. I left my blood, sweat, and tears onstage every Friday night—we all did. And that should be a good thing, not something that says we can only excel at
that.

I'm not complaining. If you are going to be typecast, that's the way to do it.

But in recent years, I've come to understand just what
Friends
means to people. And we knew from the very start that it was something very, very special.

I was the last actor to be cast in the entire pilot season of 1994—in fact, I got the gig on the actual final day of pilot season.

With
L.A.X. 2194
thankfully in the rearview mirror, I was free to be Chandler Bing. The following Monday after the Friday I was hired was day one of my new life—this was big, and I guess we all felt that way, because we all showed up dead on time. Well, Matt LeBlanc was first, every single day; Aniston last, every single day. The cars got nicer, but the order stayed the same.

We sat around the table, and all met each other for the first time. That is, except me and Jennifer Aniston.

Jennifer and I had met through mutual acquaintances about three years earlier. I was immediately taken by her (how could I not be?) and liked her, and I got the sense she was intrigued, too—maybe it was going to
be
something. Back then I got two jobs in one day—one was
Haywire,
an
America's Funniest Home Videos
–type show, and the other was a sitcom. So I called Jennifer and I said, “You're the first person I wanted to tell this to!”

Bad idea—I could feel ice forming through the phone. Looking back, it was clear that this made her think I liked her too much, or in the wrong kind of way … and I only compounded the error by then asking her out. She declined (which made it very difficult to actually go out with her), but said that she'd love to be friends with me, and I compounded the compound by blurting, “We can't be
friends
!”

Now, a few years later, ironically we
were
friends. Fortunately, even though I was still attracted to her and thought she was so great, that first day we were able to sail right past the past and focus on the fact that we had both gotten the best job Hollywood had to offer.

Everyone else was brand-new to me.

Courteney Cox was wearing a yellow dress and was cripplingly beautiful. I had heard about Lisa Kudrow from a mutual friend, and she was just as gorgeous and hilarious and incredibly smart as my friend had said. Mattie LeBlanc was nice and a cool customer, and David Schwimmer had had his hair cut really short (he had been playing Pontius Pilate for his theater troupe in Chicago) over his hangdog face and was incredibly funny right away; warm and smart and creative. After me, he was the guy who pitched the most jokes—I probably pitched ten jokes a day and two of them got in. They weren't just jokes for me; I'd pitch jokes for everybody. I'd go up to Lisa and say, “You know, it might be funny if you tried to say this…” and she'd try it.

The director, Jimmy Burrows, was the best in the business, too—he'd directed both
Taxi
and
Cheers
. He knew instinctually that Job One for us was to get to know each other and generate chemistry.

Immediately, there was electricity in the air.

I'd always wanted to be the only funny one. But now, at the ripe old age of twenty-four, I quickly realized that it's better if everyone is funny. I could already tell that this was going to be big; I knew it from the start, but I didn't say anything out loud. Partly that was because it isn't unheard of for an actor to fuck up a table read so badly that they were politely asked to leave before a minute of shooting took place. But that would be tomorrow—for now, Jimmy took the six of us to Monica's apartment set and told us just to talk to each other. And so we did—we talked and joked, about romance, our careers, our loves, our losses. And the bond that Jimmy knew would be critical had begun.

The six of us ate lunch together, outside on a beautiful spring day. As we ate, Courteney—the only established name of the group back then—said, “There are no stars here. This is an ensemble show. We're all supposed to be friends.”

Given her status—she'd been on
Family Ties
and in
Ace Ventura
and in a guest spot on
Seinfeld
and had danced with Bruce Springsteen in the video for “Dancing in the Dark”—she could have been everything and everybody; she could easily have said “I'm the star.” Hell, she could have had her lunch somewhere else, and we would have to have been fine with it. Instead, she simply said, “Let's really work and get to know each other.” She said it's what she'd noticed about how it worked on
Seinfeld,
and she wanted it to be true about
Friends,
too.

So we did what she suggested. From that first morning we were inseparable. We ate every meal together, played poker.… At the start, I was full-on the joke man, cracking gags like a comedy machine whenever I could (probably to the annoyance of everyone), trying to get everybody to like me because of how funny I was.

Because, why else would anybody like me? It would take fifteen years for me to learn that I didn't need to be a joke machine.

That first afternoon we were assigned dressing rooms, which eventually didn't matter because we were never in them. We were always together. As we all walked to our cars and said goodbye that first evening, I remember thinking,
I'm happy.

This was not an emotion I was altogether used to.

That night I called my friends (except for Craig Bierko, given what had happened) and told them what a wonderful day I'd had. I then spent yet another night “at college” (the Formosa), as was my custom. I remember saying that night that I was on a show that was so good it was better than anything I could have dreamed of writing myself.… My friends were all so happy for me, but even then, I could sense a shift.

Maybe I was growing out of this Formosa thing? I had a life-changing job that I had to—hell, desperately
wanted
to—report to in the morning, so I drank far less than usual. My apartment even had
a Lifecycle in the back, and I used it every day, dropping about ten pounds of baby/alcohol fat between the pilot and the first episode.

That night I went to bed thinking,
I can't wait to get back there tomorrow.
Next morning, as I drove from Sunset and Doheny over the Cahuenga Pass to the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, I realized that I was leaning toward the windshield as I drove. I wanted to be there.

That would be true for the next decade.

Day two was big. We reported to a new building—Building 40—for our first table read. I was nervous and excited, and yet confident, too. I had always been good at table reads. But there was still the looming thought that anyone could be fired and replaced (Lisa Kudrow, for example, had originally been cast as Roz on
Frasier
but had been fired during the rehearsal process by none other than …
Friends
director, Jimmy Burrows). If jokes didn't land, or something was off, well, anybody could be replaced before they'd even properly found their way to their dressing room.

But I
knew
Chandler. I could shake hands with Chandler. I
was
him.

(And I looked a hell of a lot like him, too.)

That day, the room was packed—in fact, it was standing room only. There were writers, executives, network people. There must have been a hundred people in the room, but I was a song-and-dance man, and this is where I excelled. We got reacquainted with Marta Kauffman, David Crane, and Kevin Bright—the people behind the show, and who had hired us—and almost instantly we all felt they were our parental figures.

Before the table read began, we all went around the room introducing ourselves and saying what we did for the show. Then it was time to read. How would it go? Would the chemistry we'd only just started to
create show up, or were we just six young hopefuls making believe that this would be our big break?

We needn't have worried—we were ready, the universe was ready. We were pros—the lines flew out of our mouths. No one made a mistake. All the jokes landed. We finished to thunderous applause.

Everyone could smell money.

The cast could smell fame.

After the read the six of us piled into a van and were brought to the actual set at stage 24 to begin rehearsing. But it was the run-through at the end of the day that sealed the deal—the jokes, the chemistry, the script, the direction, everything was magical. All the elements seemed to meld into one hilarious, cogent, powerful whole. And we all knew it.

This show was going to work, and it was going to change everyone's lives forever. I swear there was a popping sound; if you listened really closely, you could hear it. It was the sound of people's dreams coming true.

It was everything I thought I wanted. I was going to fill all the holes with
Friends Like Us.
Fuck Charlie Sheen. I was going to be so famous that all the pain I carried with me would melt like frost in sunlight; and any new threats would bounce off me as though this show was a force field I could cloak myself in.

There is an unwritten law in show business that to be funny, you had to either
look
funny, or be older. But here we were, six attractive people, all in their twenties, all knocking every joke out of the park.

That evening, I drove home on a cloud. There was no traffic; all the lights were green; a trip that should have taken half an hour took fifteen minutes. The attention that I always felt had eluded me was about to fill every corner of my life, like a room illuminated by a
flash of lightning. People were going to like me now. I was going to be enough. I mattered. I wasn't too needy. I was a star.

Nothing was going to stop us now. No one walking into a ballroom would have to turn around and notice me. All eyes would be on me now, not the pretty woman walking three feet in front of me.

We rehearsed the rest of the week, and it was then that we began to notice something else. I have been an actor since 1985 and that has never happened before or since, and it was beautiful: the bosses were not in the least tyrannical. In fact, it was a truly creative atmosphere. We could pitch jokes, and the best joke won, no matter where it came from. The craft services lady said something funny? Put it in, it didn't matter. So, not only was I there as an actor, but my creative juices were flowing, too.

The creators took each of us out for lunch, too, to get to know us, so they could incorporate some aspects of our real personalities into the show. At my lunch I said two things: one, that even though I considered myself not unattractive, I had terrible luck with women and that my relationships tended toward the disastrous; and two, that I was not comfortable in any silence at all—I have to break any such moment with a joke. And this became a built-in excuse for Chandler Bing to be funny—perfect for a sitcom—and Chandler wasn't much good with women, either (as he shouts at Janice as she leaves his apartment, “I've scared ya; I've said too much; I'm awkward and hopeless and desperate for love!”).

But think of a better character for a sitcom: someone who is uncomfortable in silence and has to break the silence with a joke.

This was all too true, both for Chandler, and for me. Fairly early in the making of
Friends
I realized that I was still crushing badly on Jennifer Aniston. Our hellos and goodbyes became awkward. And then I'd ask myself,
How long can I look at her? Is three seconds too long?

But that shadow disappeared in the hot glow of the show. (That, and her deafening lack of interest.)

On tape nights, nobody made a mistake. We might have run scenes over if a joke didn't land—all the writers would huddle together and rewrite—but mistakes? Just never happened. So many shows have blooper reels, but there are only a few for
Friends.
From the pilot on … in fact, that pilot was error-free. We were the New York Yankees: slick, professional, top of our game from the very start. We were ready.

And I was talking in a way that no one had talked in sitcoms before, hitting odd emphases, picking a word in a sentence you might not imagine was the beat, utilizing the Murray-Perry Cadence. I didn't know it yet, but my way of speaking would filter into the culture across the next few decades—for now, though, I was just trying to find interesting ways into lines that were already funny, but that I thought I could truly make dance. (Marta Kauffman was later to say that the writers would underline the word not usually emphasized in a sentence just to see what I would do with it.)

Even when there were issues with the characters, we were able to work them out to the point where the solutions created their own iconic moments.

When I first read the script, I knew it was different because it was so character driven and smart. But early on, Matt LeBlanc was concerned that because he was this kinda cool, macho, ladies' man in the script, Rachel, Monica, and Phoebe wouldn't be friends with him, wouldn't like him that much, and that made his character less believable.

BOOK: Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing
3.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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