Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing (11 page)

BOOK: Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing
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It didn't help that Matt was very good-looking—he had leading man looks, even to the point where I was a little jealous of that when I first saw him. But he was so nice and funny that any jealousy I had soon disappeared—but still, he hadn't been able to find the right way into his character. He was the one character in the show that had not been properly defined—he was described as a cool, Pacino-type, out-of-work
actor, so that's how he was playing it, but it still wasn't working. At one point during a wardrobe session, he put on brown leather pants, which were thankfully nixed by everyone, especially Marta, who was in charge.

Then came the moment early in the run where he has an exchange with Courteney about a woman he's been seeing and how the sex wasn't working out. Courteney asks him if he's thought of being there for the girl, and Joey just simply doesn't understand the concept. That was the moment he turned from being a ladies' man to a loveable, useless, dumb puppy. He underlined this by doing a running joke of things being repeated to him and him not following them. He had found his position in the show, which was basically as a big dumb brother to Rachel, Monica, and Phoebe. Everyone was in place.

Occasionally Matt would come into my dressing room, mostly during season one, and ask me how to say his lines. And I would tell him, and he would go downstairs, and he would nail it … but he gets Most Improved Player because by season ten, I was going into his room and asking
how he would say certain of

This was all to come. For now, we were filming shows ahead of our fall 1994 air date. And as yet, no one knew who we were.

With the shows in the can, all that was left to find out was our time slot. NBC knew they had something special, so they put us right between
Mad About You
It was the perfect spot; plum. This was before streaming, so your time slot was crucial. It was still the days of appointment TV, when folks would rush home to catch the 8:00
show or the 9:00
show. And people organized their lives around their shows, not the other way round. So, 8:30
on a Thursday, between two huge shows, was a massive deal.

We flew to New York on the Warner Bros. jet for the “upfronts.” The
upfronts are when a show is presented to the affiliates. It was on this trip that they told us the name of the show was now
(when they renamed it I thought it was a horrible idea—I never said I was a smart person), and
was a smash with the affiliates, too—everything was lining up. In New York we were celebrating, getting drunk, partying; then on to Chicago for more upfronts, more partying.

Then we had to wait a summer before the show first aired. I filled that summer with three notable things—gambling in Vegas at the behest of Jimmy Burrows; a trip to Mexico on my own; and a make-out session in a closet with Gwyneth Paltrow.

I was back in Williamstown, Massachusetts, when I met Gwyneth. She was doing a play there, and I was visiting my grandfather. At some big party we slipped off into a broom cupboard and made out. We were both still unknown enough that it didn't make it to the tabloids, but with that in mind, it fell to Jimmy Burrows to give me a reality check.

After the upfronts it was clear the show was going to be a hit, so Jimmy flew us all to Vegas on the jet—we watched the pilot of
on the way—and once we arrived, he gave us each $100 and told us to go gamble it and have fun, because once the show aired in the fall, we'd never be able to do it again.

“Your lives are going to utterly change,” Jimmy said, “so do some things in public now because once you're as famous as you're about to be, you'll never be able to do them again.” And that's what we did; we six new friends got drunk and gambled and wandered through the casinos, just six close strangers on a weekend trip, unknown to anyone, no one asking for autographs or photos, none of us being chased by paparazzi, a million miles from what was coming, which was every single moment of our lives being documented in public for all to see forever.

I still wanted fame, but already I could taste a wild and weird flavor in the air—would fame, that elusive lover, really fill all the holes I carried around with me? What would it be like to not be able to put
twenty on black in some harsh-lit casino, a vodka tonic in my hand, without someone shouting, “Matthew Perry just put twenty on black, everyone, come and see!” This was the last summer of my life when I could make out at a party with a beautiful young woman called Gwyneth and no one, save Gwyneth and I, cared.

Would the payoff be worth it? Would giving up a “normal” life be worth the price paid, of people digging through my trash, clicking pictures through telephoto lenses of me at my worst, or best, or everything in between?

Would I ever again be able to anonymously replicate my twenty-first birthday, when at the Sofitel across from the Beverly Center, I'd drunk seven 7 and 7s, poured a bottle of wine into a huge brandy snifter—you know, the one they put on the piano for tips—ordered a cab, gotten into the back of the cab with the snifter, still sipping the wine, tried to give directions to my home when I could only pronounce the letter
only for the guy up front to yell, “What the fuck are you doing?” because he wasn't a cabdriver—it was just some random car?

Most important, would these holes get filled? Would I want to trade places with David Pressman or Craig Bierko, or they with me? What would I tell them down the line when my name became a shorthand for stand-up comedians and late-night hosts, a shorthand that meant “addict”? What would I tell them when complete strangers hated me, loved me, and everything in between?

What would I

And what would I tell God when he reminded me of my prayer, the one I'd whispered three weeks before I got

God, you can do whatever you want to me. Just please make me famous.

He was about to keep one half of the bargain—but this also meant he could do whatever he wanted with me as the other half. I was com
pletely at the mercy of a God who was sometimes merciful, and sometimes thought it was perfectly fine to put his own son on a fucking cross.

Which way would he choose for me? Which one would Saint Peter pick? The gold, the red, or the blue?

I guess I was about to find out.

With Jimmy Burrows's words about impending fame still ringing in my ears, I figured I should take one last trip as an anonymous person.

Late in the summer of 1994 I flew alone to Mexico. I'd recently broken up with my girlfriend, Gaby, and decided to go on a booze cruise, solo. In Cabo, I wandered about, getting drunk and calling girls in LA from my room. Then, each night on the cruise, I'd head to some kind of weird party where everybody was all nervous until they brought out a jug of booze, then it was on. I was lonely; I didn't get laid; it was hot in Cabo but cold inside me. I could feel God watching me, waiting. The most unnerving part was, I knew God was omniscient, which meant that he knew, already, what he had in store for me.

premiered on Thursday, September 22, 1994. It initially hit number 17 in the rankings, which was really good for a brand-new show. The reviews were mostly stellar, too:

“Friends” … promises to be … offbeat and seductive.… The cast is appealing, the dialogue is pitch-perfect 1994.… “Friends” comes as close as a new series can get to having everything.

—The New York Times

“Friends” has so many good moves that there's really nothing to dislike. It's all so light and frothy that after each episode you may be hard-pressed to recall precisely what went on, except that you laughed a lot.

—Los Angeles Times

A game cast delivers the barrage of banter with an arch coyness that suggests they think they're in some Gen X Neil Simon play.


If fans of “Mad About You” and “Seinfeld” can handle the age difference, they should feel right at home with the six as they sit around riffing on life, love, relationships, jobs and each other.

—The Baltimore Sun

A couple of reviews hated it:

One character says he dreamed he had a telephone for a penis and when it rang, “it turns out it's my mother.” And this is in the first five minutes. [It's a] ghastly creation … so bad.… The stars include that cute Courteney Cox, formerly funny David Schwimmer, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc and Matthew Perry. They all look nice, and it's sad to see them degrading themselves.

—The Washington Post

Anemic and unworthy of its Thursday-night time slot.

—Hartford Courant

But then, Dick Rowe, an A&R man from Decca, in turning down the Beatles, told Brian Epstein in 1961 that “guitar groups are on their
way out.” I wonder how those reviewers feel now, having dissed arguably the most beloved show of all time. They really missed the boat on that one. Had they also hated
St. Elsewhere

We were not on our way out. We were the very definition of prime time, when prime time still mattered. The gold rush of television. Even more important than the great reviews, we'd dropped only about 20 percent of the audience for
Mad About You,
which was an incredibly strong performance for a new show. By episode six, we were beating
Mad About You,
which meant we were a smash hit. Pretty soon we hit the top ten, then the top five, and we wouldn't leave the top five for a decade. This is unheard of, still.

So here it was—
Just as we'd predicted,
was huge, and I couldn't jeopardize that. I loved my co-actors, I loved the scripts, I loved everything about the show … but I was also struggling with my addictions, which only added to my sense of shame. I had a secret, and no one could know. And even making the shows could be painful. As I admitted at the reunion in 2020, “I felt like I was gonna die if [the live audience] didn't laugh. And it's not healthy for sure. But I would sometimes say a line, and they wouldn't laugh, and I would sweat and—and just, like, go into convulsions. If I didn't get the laugh I was supposed to get, I would freak out. I felt like that every single night.”

This pressure left me in a bad place; and I also knew that of the six people making that show, only one of them was sick. The fame I'd yearned for had arrived, though—in London it was as if we
the Beatles, with people outside our hotel rooms screaming—and the show ended up covering the globe.

In late October 1995—between the airing of episodes five and six of season two—I flew to New York to notch my first appearance on the
Late Show,
when going on Letterman was the pinnacle of pop culture
fame. I was in a dark suit—at one point, Letterman would finger my lapel and describe it as “late 1960s, British Invasion, kinda mod.”

“Ladies and gentlemen, this man is on the number one show in America, please welcome Matthew Perry.”

I sauntered out a star. I had made it. But I was so nervous I could barely stand, which was why I was quite happy to be sitting.

I shook hands with Mr. Letterman and dove into my well-rehearsed routine, a long description of a typical
Gilligan's Island
episode. I somehow swung it so that I'd told the same story to Yasser Arafat, who was staying in my hotel (it was during the fiftieth anniversary of the UN, and everyone was in town). This was just the kind of bizarre, wordy story Letterman loved. The laughs landed—I even got Dave to crack a few times—and my earth-shattering fear had been properly hidden.

Everything was good. Everything was golden. I had just turned twenty-five. I was in the biggest sitcom on the planet; I was in a hotel in New York, watching as world leaders were hustled into elevators by flanks of security, putting on a thousand-dollar suit ahead of joshing it up with Dave Letterman.

This was fame. And just beyond the glare of the city, beyond the skyscrapers and the faint stars twinkling beyond the midtown skies, God looked down on me, just waiting it out. He's got all the time in the world. Fuck, he invented time.

He wouldn't forget. Something was looming. I had an idea what it was, but I did not know for sure. Something to do with drinking every night … but just how bad was it going to be?

The juggernaut was just getting going, though. The show was a cultural touchstone; we were getting mobbed everywhere we went (David Schwimmer would later tell the story that he was accosted by a gaggle of young women on the street who physically pushed his girlfriend out of the way to get near him). By late 1995, right around the time of the Letterman appearance, I also had a new, and very famous, girlfriend of
my own. But before we get there, I had some unfinished business with the “other” Chandler.

I didn't hear from Craig Bierko for two years after I got Chandler—he had moved to New York, and we lost touch.

Best Friends,
the show he chose over
Friends Like Us,
had gone nowhere. (Later, Warren Littlefield, former network president of NBC, wrote in his memoir about Craig not choosing
“Thank God! There was something Snidely Whiplash about Craig Bierko. He seemed to have a lot of anger underneath. The attractive leading man who you love and can do comedy is very rare.”) He was working steadily—he'd eventually star in
The Music Man
on Broadway and
The Long Kiss Goodnight
with Geena Davis and Sam Jackson, among a lot of other really awesome stuff—but the divergence of our fortunes had left our friendship in flames.

I missed him. He was still the quickest comedic mind I'd ever met, and I loved that—and much else—about him. I could no longer go to the Formosa to just hang out, either; I missed that life, too. I'd taken to drinking alone in my apartment because that was safest. The illness was deepening, but I couldn't see it, not then. And if anyone saw how much I was drinking, they might be alarmed and ask me to stop. And stopping was, of course, impossible.

BOOK: Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing
2.65Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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