Matthew Perry Couldn’t Be Boxed In

As the jokester who wears snarkiness as emotional armor, Matthew Perry stole every Friends scene — even ones where he was theoretically absent. Photo: NBC/NBC via Getty Images

Matthew Perry was so good on Friends that even when he was trapped inside a box, he could steal an entire episode from his just-as-talented co-stars. In season four’s “The One With Chandler in a Box,” one of the best in a long line of Friends Thanksgiving episodes, Perry spends half the episode entirely out of view. After falling in love with Joey’s ex-girlfriend, Chandler has volunteered to stay in a wooden crate for six hours to prove how much he values their friendship. Though Perry, who died unexpectedly Saturday at the age of 54, can only be heard, not seen, for the duration of the ep, he’s able to demonstrate the breadth of his comedic gifts and a mastery of his character, the jokester who wears snarkiness as emotional armor.

Early in the episode, before Chandler goes into solitary confinement, he objects when Phoebe tells him that Rachel returns every gift she receives. “That’s not true,” Chandler says. “I got her that backpack and she loved it. I remember how much she was crying the day that big dog ran off with …” He pauses for a second, then says: “Well, there was no big dog.” Perry could have posed those five words as a question, as though he were wounded to just now discover Rachel’s deception. Instead, he states them matter-of-factly, with a syllabic emphasis on the “no,” suggesting he was mildly stunned and also a little disappointed in himself for believing the dog story until seconds ago. In the same scene, when Phoebe looks confused after Chandler says he bought Rachel a briefcase with the letters R and G, Perry offers, “Her initials …” with a tone that sounds helpful but has a thick coating of “Jesus, do I really have to explain this to you?” on top. Some of Perry’s best line deliveries come in that flavor.

His timing was so perfect that he rarely sounded even a millisecond off the mark. Think of him bursting from behind that famously purple apartment door in “The One With the Jellyfish” to shout, “I knew it!” after Rachel shouts to a departing Ross: “It’s not that common, it doesn’t happen to every guy, and it is a big deal!” Perry always knew exactly when to let a punchline fly. There’s a moment in “The One With Chandler Inside the Box” where Rachel and Ross get into an argument at the Thanksgiving table and Rachel storms out of the room, leaving everyone in an awkward silence. Perry waits five beats before shouting — again, from inside a box — “You can’t tell, but I’m trying to break the tension by mooning you guys!”

Eventually Joey grows sick of Chandler’s outbursts and asks him to get serious about the state of their friendship. Chandler agrees to stay quiet for the remainder of his time in the box, his silence a testament to how much he cares about Joey. Chandler Bing wasn’t a genuinely cynical person; he was a smartass who said the smartass things you wished you could say in the smartassiest way possible. But when a scene called for poignancy or sincerity, Perry brought that to the surface, which made his more derisive remarks so easy to embrace. Underneath the barbs, Chandler was sweet and gentle, which is why he was best friends with Joey; they had that in common. If Chandler had been written solely as the prototypical smart aleck, many actors of his generation could have played that role. Only Matthew Perry was uniquely suited to make Chandler likable. He knew how to make a remark sting and how to project softness. He could make the kind of wise cracks we only accept from our closest friends, the ones we know don’t really mean it.

In “The One With Chandler In a Box,” Kathy, Joey’s ex and Chandler’s current girlfriend, comes to talk to Chandler. Remaining silent inside that wooden crate, the word “Fragile” stamped across it, Chandler listens to Kathy, played by Padget Brewster, explain that they have to break up because she doesn’t want to ruin his friendship with Joey. Perry doesn’t say a word. After Kathy says goodbye, though, he pokes his index finger out of the box’s air hole and raises and lowers it as though he’s waving. There is something so tender and human in the way Perry wiggles that pointer, it brings tears to my eyes. That little gesture is proof that some people do have more talent in a single finger than others have in their whole bodies.

Perry was not afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve — or his finger, when he had to — as an actor. Despite the demons he dealt with off-camera, Perry was consistently great during his ten seasons as Chandler Bing because he so convincingly slid between mockery and genuine warmth. He spoke sarcasm with a cadence that suggested he invented the very concept himself; comedically, he could do dry, he could do broad, and he could do joy. When I think of Chandler on Friends, the first image I see is of Perry in another season-four episode, “The One With the Embryos,” riding triumphantly atop Joey’s weird dog sculpture into Monica’s and Rachel’s apartment, which he and Joey just won in a bet. His arms are spread out, he’s munching on a sandwich, and he’s got a huge grin plastered across his face. He looks free.

He looked that way frequently in subsequent seasons of Friends, after Chandler and Monica became a couple and, eventually, got married. They weren’t necessarily meant to last. As writer and executive producer Scott Silveri told Vulture’s Joe Adalian a few years ago, the Chandler/Monica hook-up at Ross’s wedding in the season-four finale was a trial balloon for a potential long-term relationship. The audience was so enthused by the idea, and Perry and Courteney Cox had such great chemistry, that Chandler and Monica became the healthiest couple on the show, arguably even more beloved than Ross and Rachel. That’s partly because it was so satisfying to see the smartass fall for someone with the kind of hard, Type-A edges Monica possessed. Monica Geller is the kind of person Chandler Bing could have made fun of for days, but instead he loved her for all the things he otherwise would have teased her about. Where Ross and Rachel’s relationship was characterized by fits and starts at couplehood, Chandler’s and Monica’s was smooth and synchronized. When they mutually propose to each other in season six, they both wind up on their knees together, and that feels exactly right. In fact, some of Cox’s best work on Friends — we do not talk enough about her inspired performance playing a horny woman with a cold — happens when she’s acting opposite Perry, as good a scene partner as he is on his own.

As beholden to certain sitcom norms as Friends was, all of its principal cast members gave performances that felt alive and populated with choices that were both hyper-specific to the characters and the sensibilities of the people playing them. As Chandler, Matthew Perry took advantage of this freedom as a performer. Even when he was theoretically absent in a scene, you could fully feel him in it.