In the immediate wake of Matthew Perry’s death last month, the first words from his five Friends co-stars seemed heart-wrenchingly appropriate. Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc and David Schwimmer released a joint statement a day after the news broke, saying they were “so utterly devastated”, and were “going to take a moment to grieve and process this unfathomable loss”. During the show’s heyday, they had, in a very rare move for a TV cast, always negotiated as a team, pushed for equal salaries six ways; this was a cast that had always acted in unison.
This week, the five actors shared their own individual tributes to Perry, and they were just as moving as you would expect. Aniston shared a recent text Perry had sent her. Cox and Schwimmer reminisced about favourite memories of their co-star. Kudrow shared a poignant unseen photo of the two of them. LeBlanc managed to crack a bittersweet joke. The stars’ deep-felt love for their former collaborator is palpable. For the legions of fans who were in their own way also devastated about the actor’s death at the age of just 54, these tributes are both healing and painful to read. “Spread your wings and fly brother. You’re finally free,” wrote the Joey Tribbiani actor, in words that are sure to have reduced many readers to tears.
We don’t grieve the same ways we used to. The digital age has changed this for everybody, but especially for celebrities. Whenever any famous person passes away, there is always, now, a rush to share tributes, to make one’s grief public and visible. In the worst cases, this sometimes has the ring of obligatory self-promotion; even when sincere and heartfelt, there is still an unshakable sense of expectation. Actors live in an economy of performance and attention, and somehow, grief has become a part of this. It’s to the credit of Aniston, Schwimmer, and co that their tributes do not feel like some act of duty. They asked for time, and of course they were given it. Their eventual words were moving, honest, and helpful.
Even within the realm of entertainment, sitcoms – perhaps Friends more than any other – have performed a unique function for audiences. They aren’t just something to be consumed once, but something that’s present in people’s lives over long stretches of time. They become part of a routine – both as a weekly fixture during the show’s original run, then, later, as a kind of dependable constant through daily reruns (in the UK, early evenings on E4), and, finally, as one of the most-viewed shows throughout the streaming era. The comfort this consistency affords is the very essence of sitcom methodology, but particularly Friends, a show whose very premise revolved around the appeal of simply hanging out with a great group of pals. There are millions of people out there grieving the loss of Perry the actor, Perry the sarcastic joker, Perry the ever-present character who appeared on their screens night after night, morning after morning. But his co-stars’ tributes remind us that there are people who are grieving the loss of a man. Grieving not just a Friend, but a friend.
Throughout his life, Perry faced all manner of personal demons. When he was alive, he was an outspoken addiction activist, putting his money and resources where his mouth was. After his death, a foundation was launched in his name to help people struggling with addiction. But his personal legacy goes beyond even this. In the outpouring of love he has received from those who knew him best, we see just how much he meant to people. And what a blessing it is to be shown that.
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