Star of the Sitcoms
As Friends leads the Gen-X TV invasion, Canadian Matthew Perry is riding high
Matthew Perry is sitting on top of the world— make that on top of the Hollywood Hills. Well, actually, he is sitting on a couch, in his house near the top of the Hollywood Hills. But it is a nice house, with a spectacular view—smog notwithstanding—of Los Angeles to the south. There is a black Porsche sitting outside the secluded three-bedroom bungalow, which he moved into only four months ago. In the kitchen, there is a brand-new refrigerator, also black. “Pretty neat, huh?” Perry says as he grabs two Cokes from the fridge (not much else in there, by the way). And in the east bedroom, Hispanic workmen are busy putting the finishing touches on a mahogany monstrosity of shelves and drawers. “They’re just making a desk in my office,” says Perry—but then he catches himself. “I sounded so adult there—‘a desk in my office.’ I even threw in the word ‘office’just to make you really impressed.”
He doesn’t need to boast: Matthew Perry is obviously all grown up—and at just the right time. Now 26, the Ottawa native has caught a wave that is changing the face of network television, not to mention his material circumstances.
In its first season last year, the half-hour NBC sitcom Friends, in which Perry co-stars as the wisecracking but basically unhappy Chandler in an ensemble cast of twentysomethings, consistently ranked in the top 20 in the ratings, in many weeks grabbing the No. 3 spot, behind the longrunning hit sitcom Seinfeld and the medical drama ER. During the summer, Friends was often the No. 1-rated show in rerun in the United States, and its season opener last week (on CanWest Global in Canada) was one of the most hotly anticipated premières of the new TV season.
Call it the Friends phenomenon. The faces of the cast— Perry, David Schwimmer (Ross), Matt LeBlanc (Joey), Lisa Kudrow (Phoebe), Jennifer Aniston (Rachel) and Courteney Cox (Monica)—have been staples of lifestyle and entertainment magazine covers for the past year. The show’s theme song, an insipidly catchy tune called I’ll Be There for You, topped the pop charts this summer. Even Maurice—the cute little monkey owned by Ross on the show—got some highx profile movie work during the off-season with a starring role § in the Dustin Hoffman thriller Outbreak. g
As a successful Generation X sitcom, the show is a breaká through. And that does not surprise Perry, who ascribes °
the success of Friends to a simple fact: “I knew that it was good from the time I read the pilot.” He adds, “It is character-driven comedy, that comes from conversation, not situation. And it is intelligent.”
The premise is simple. Three attractive young women and three attractive young men hang out in a New York City apartment, drink coffee and make jokes. They are single and basically dissatisfied, too busy struggling with their dead-end jobs, their failed sex lives and their feelings for one another to settle down and make babies. The show pushes all the now-familiar buttons of Generation X: dissatisfaction with middle-class jobs and values, sexual angst in the age of AIDS, the disintegration of the nuclear family, and—most tellingly—fear of commitment to either love or career.
Like it or not, that recipe provides the dominant flavor of the new TV season. In the wake of Friends, the old babyboomer formulas for attracting audiences are fading, and all of the Big Four U.S. networks—NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox—are scrambling to snare younger viewers. This season, the nets have produced a host of Friends clones— among them Caroline in the City and The Single Guy (NBC), Too Something and Partners (Fox), The Drew Carey Show (ABC) and Can’t Hurry Love (CBS). Such cloning, of course, has long been a fact of life in a medium remarkable for its lack of originality. But the Friends phenomenon is the hallmark of something different in television. Boomers and seniors beware: TV, in the lingo of media analysts, is “aging down.”
And that suits Matthew Perry just fine.
Sitting across from a 40-inch TV (equipped with surroundsound, ambient speakers and all the latest video gizmos),
Perry munches on a nondescript sandwich and Doritos tortilla chips, occasionally glancing at the screen to watch Andre Agassi take on Pete Sampras in the finals of the U.S. Open tennis tournament. He fields questions with the air of someone familiar with media attention—he has, after all, done little else but interviews in his spare time this summer. And he talks with enthusiasm, preternaturally green eyes beaming, about Friends and his admiration for its producers and writers. But when asked to talk about his childhood, Perry assumes a serious air and deadpans: “Shall I lie down?”
Born on Aug. 19,1969, in Williamstown, Mass., Perry is the son of actor John Perry—familiar in the 1960s as the face of Old Spice cologne—and Suzanne Perry, then a model. His parents’ marriage was short-lived, however, and before his first birthday he and his mother moved in 1970 to her native Ottawa, the city he still considers home. His mother got work with the federal Liberal party, first in the caucus research bureau and then as a special assistant to Liberal cabinet minister Gérard Pelletier. The single mother and her son moved around a lot—first to Montreal, then Toronto, then back to Ottawa. But their life settled in 1978 when she became a press aide to Pierre Trudeau— gaining prominence as the woman often at his side in TV news clips. “My recollection of that time mostly was, Wow, she’s working a lot, and I wish she wasn’t,’ ” Perry says. As for Trudeau, Perry recalls meeting him only once—and not being particularly impressed. “I was only 9,” he explains, “so I was just, like, ‘Oh, a guy who speaks with a French accent. That’s neat.’ ”
School? “I’ll narrow this down and answer really simply: I was a horrible student,” he says. He spent much of the day at Ottawa’s exclusive Ashbury College just goofing around—and honing the unusual verbal tic used by his Friends character Chandler, a way of emphasizing certain words for sarcastic effect. “That’s just the way I talked when I was in, like, fifth grade,” he recalls. “ ‘Could that teacher be any meaner?’ ”
His mother, however, remembers a more stoic side. “He’s very, very, very serious,” says Suzanne Perry Morrison, now a Toronto-based writer and consultant, married to former CTV anchorman Keith Morrison since 1980. From an early age, she recalls, her son had a clear idea of his priorities—and school was not among them. “He used to say to me, “Why do I have to go to school? I will never use this. I want to play tennis and I want to act,
and the rest is unimportant.’ So he’s been very driven for, I don’t know, 20 years.”
Perry spent his childhood on the tennis court. “When everybody else was hanging out, I was going down to the Rockcliffe Lawn Tennis Club, which was frequented primarily by 60-year-old men, and hoping that one of them wouldn’t show up, and I could be the fourth in a doubles match.” By the time he was 13, Perry was the No. 2 player in Ottawa. In doubles, he and his partner placed third at the Canadian National Championships in his age group. “It would have been cool, except the tournament was sponsored by Disney,” he explains. “So there’s this big Goofy on the bronze medal—I can’t impress women with that."
Perry discovered his other passion in Grade 7, when he was cast in a lead role in the school play—a comic western call The Life and Death of Sneaky Fitch. Perry played Rackem, the fastest gun in the West. “Of all my childhood memories, doing that play was the greatest one,” he says now. “I just absolutely loved it.”
Still, Perry’s goal was to become a tennis professional. At 15, he decided to move to Los Angeles to pursue that dream, and to live with his father, who had moved there to work. “It was an opportunity for me to get to know him,” says Perry. His mother, meanwhile, says the move was “a killer” for her. Within two years, however, Suzanne and her new family moved to Los Angeles, too, when Morrison landed an anchorman job at a local news station. Ever since, says Perry, he has had a close relationship with his half brothers and half sisters— he says he hates the “half’ part—Caitlin, 14, Emily, 10,
Willy, 8, and Madeleine, 6. ‘They are literally the cutest people on the face of the planet,” he beams. Despite his ambitions, tennis was not in the cards for Perry. In front of his whole family, he played his first big match in Los Angeles—and got slaughtered. Meanwhile, his temper on the court, fuelled by his idolatry of Jimmy Connors—was beginning to make tennis an unpleasant experience. Durjng matches at LA’s private Buckley School, “Nine times out of 10 I’d win, but I’d still be upset,” he recalls. “So I completely stopped playing after graduation.” Now, except for the occasional charity tennis event, he satiates his competitive desires with paddle tennis, a half-court game played with a dead ball and wooden racquets. His tennis dreams were quickly supplanted by acting ambitions. One day,
while sitting in a restaurant (“I was skipping school—this is not a good lesson for the children”), a waitress handed Perry, then 16, a note saying that a director had just seen him and wanted to cast him in a new movie. As a result, he landed his first big job, opposite River Phoenix in the 1988 teen-rebellion movie A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon.
Graduating from high school with poor marks, Perry made a deal with his father: a year to find work as an actor, or it was off to college. “Being an actor,” Perry says, “my dad knew the ups and downs of the life.” Just a week after graduation, Perry got a starring role in a sitcom. For the record, the show was called Second Chance, a Fox production about a 45year-old man who dies, visits St. Peter, then is sent back to Earth—and back in time—to convince his 15-year-old self (played by Perry) to lead a
With the success of Friends,networks are scrambling for young viewers
virtuous life so he can go to heaven. “It was the lowest-rated show in the history of shows,” Perry says. It was killed after 13 weeks.
So began a series of actor incarnations that could exist only in Hollywood. After cancelling Second Chance, Fox gave Perry his own show, called Boys Will Be Boys. “We skyrocketed to 92nd in the ratings,” Perry says. That show, too, lasted 13 weeks. Then, as Perry tells it, he was “Guest Star Guy” for a year, appearing briefly on such shows as Highway to Heaven and Empty Nest. He landed a regular stint on Sydney, starring Valerie Bertinelli—which was cancelled after 13 episodes. After that, Perry became what he calls “Development Guy,” a role that had him engaged in endless negotiations for new sitcoms. Finally, in 1992, he starred in an ABC sitcom called Home Free, which lasted—no surprise here—13 episodes.
“And then I said, ‘You know what? I’ve had it. I’m going to write my own thing.’ ” Perry took a year off from the business and, living off his savings, penned his own sitcom, entitled Maxwell’s House. Its premise, almost unbelievably, was about six people in their 20s “who kind of hung out and talked to each other a lot,” Perry says. By early 1994, Perry found himself in the same situation as many other actors in Los Angeles—flat broke. Grudgingly, he took a part in a Fox sitcom “about baggage handlers in the year 2194,” he explains. “And I was the head baggage handler.” The pilot, needless to say, has yet to air.
Perry began helping his friends to read for parts in a planned NBC sitcom, tentatively titled Friends Like Us. Intrigued by the script, he convinced the show’s creators, Marta Kauffman, Kevin Bright and David Crane, producers of the Emmy-winning HBO show Dream On, to audition him for the part of Chandler, a character with whom the actor feels a definite affinity. “He’s a guy who is just completely not comfortable in his own skin—he’s got a great excuse to be funny,” Perry says. “He’s an exaggerated form of me.”
Within a week of his audition, Perry landed the job. “And now here we are,” he says, “and there’s, like, a desk in my office there.”
RACHEL: Guys, guys, guess what! CHANDLER: Lemme guess. The fifth dentist caved and now they all recommend Trident.
Friends, of course, is not wholly original. It follows the sitcom basics: more or less believable yet somewhat eccentric characters who are defined by style, not substance. There is the anal-retentive perfectionist (Monica), the ditzy blonde (Phoebe), the dull hunk Qoey), the neurotic (Ross), the superficial debutante (Rachel) and the resident wiseacre (Chandler). The humor is elliptical and offbeat, in the tradition of Seinfeld, and the story lines typically run to the trivial: Can girls play poker? Can Joey tell Phoebe apart from her twin sister, whom he is dating? Friends also throws in a few elements of soap opera, hooking viewers with continuing story lines such as Ross’s notso-secret crush on Rachel.
But Friends distinguishes itself more for its
appeal than for its substance. It is the first Generation X entertainment vehicle that has really caught on. “We were told at the beginning of the run of the show by every publicity person,
‘Don’t mention Generation X,’ ”
Perry says, “Because no Generation X thing has really been successful. Singles and Reality Bites [two Hollywood movies about people in their 20s that failed miserably at the box office] were both good, but they weren’t successful.” Friends has broken through the generation barrier—and the networks have taken notice.
The host of new sitcoms geared to the twentysomething set rely for the most part on the same formula, which goes something like this: 1) Age— the characters must be young (under 35) and hip. 2) Location, location, location—the characters are not only hip but also urban, meaning that they must live, with few exceptions, in New York City. 3) Angst—they must be riddled with self-doubt and a fear of commitment. 4) Their jobs suck. 5) They are single.
As similar as the new shows are to Friends, however, the grab for younger viewers is not just a network-see, network-do manoeuvre. Karen Newton, vice-president of broadcast operations for Media Buying Services Ltd. in Toronto, says that “what we’re seeing is a real shifting demographic in television. The American networks have made a real attempt to lower their age group, because I think that’s where they see a lot of potential commercial opportunity.”
Another factor at play in the new cult of youth on television is that entertainment media are diversifying rapidly. CDROMs and the Internet promise fingertip, customized entertainment, and pay-per-view and cable specialty channels cater to the specific tastes of viewers. That translates into potential loss of audience share—and of ad revenues—for traditional TV networks, which are scrambling for loyal viewers. One solution: snare them while they are young. “They want to patriate young viewers and carry them through,” says Newton. “The idea is that if you don’t snag them now, you might miss them in the long term.”
Perry is not spending much time worrying about the competition this season from Friends clones. “I think the bulk of those shows aren’t as well thought out and won’t be as well executed as Friends,” he says. The clones he takes in stride: he even taped a promotional postcard for Central Park West onto the refrigerator in one of the Friends sets—
Perry: The bulk of those shows won’t be as well executed as
the producers, he says, have not noticed it yet.
Meanwhile, he is not resting on his career laurels. He has received a number of film offers—and so far turned them down. Not that the movies are far from his mind: he is now writing a script for what he describes as “a delightful romantic comedy—it’s epic.” He acknowledges modelling his career after that of Tom Hanks, who made the leap from sitcoms (he co-starred in the 1980s cross-dressing comedy Bosom Buddies) to film and I became Hollywood’s hottest property in the process.
But Perry, who has a fiveyear Friends contract, is taking his time. Unlike Chandler—a successful corporate executive who cannot stand the corporate world—Perry is “right on track” in his career. “I’m doing exactly what I want to be doing,” he declares. He says he likes his fellow cast members, who are not only co-workers but, well, friends. And he is attached to the depressive Chandler—who, he reveals, will finally have a love interest this season. That concerns him. “I think if you make Chandler happy, his reasons for being funny all the time go away,” Perry says. “All his comedy, all his jokes, come out of hiding pain.”
Perry insists that success has not changed him. “I’m still the same guy I always was,” he adds, “except I dress better.” He is still a huge hockey fan—the L.A. Kings and the Ottawa Senators are his favorite teams (‘Yeah, I know, enjoy me in my misery”). But the trappings of success seem to be taking some getting used to. His black Porsche—with a customized licence plate reading 92 JAYS in honor of the Toronto baseball team’s 1992 World Series victory—embarrasses him now. “It’s too Hollywood Asshole Guy for me,” he says. And the new house—still barely furnished, except for his couch, fridge, TV, a Foosball table and arcadestyle Galaga video game in his dining room—seems to have been an obligation. “I have a theory that if you’re on a television show that gets picked up for the second season, you have to buy a house, or, like, Bob Newhart comes and beats you with a stick,” he says. Perry does not have a steady girlfriend—he dates, but says he has not had time to get into a serious relationship, adding, “I’m kind of picky.” Success, too, has more immediate costs. His beloved Galaga machine has been sitting idle for about a year—no time to play, he says. What’s worse, Perry adds: “My interior designer is telling me I have to get rid of it.” Even for Matthew Perry, it seems, growing up is hard to do. □