Chandler Bing was not your stereotypical cool guy on TV. No one thought he was. But even better, so much better, I don’t think he wanted to be cool. Chandler wanted to be loved. He wanted to be funny. He wanted to be known. And this is what made him the tender-hearted, fallible hero our sons needed. A weekly reminder on our TVs that it was okay to not be the cool guy. Okay to be afraid and weird and silly and awkward. And, perhaps most of all, to be vulnerable. Because that was the precious, unique gift Matthew Perry really gave us as Chandler Bing on Friends. He showed our sons, our sweet awkward boys, that there was another path.
From the very first episode of Friends, “The One Where It All Began,” in 1994, Chandler stood out as a new breed of man on television. The very first scene of Friends introduces us to Chandler sharing an embarrassing dream he had the night before: he’s back in high school, in the school cafeteria, totally naked, and had a phone where his penis should be. “And it starts to ring, and it’s my mother,” he tells his friends. “Which is so weird, because she never calls me.”
And so began the reign of Chandler Bing. Sarcastic, self-deprecating, vulnerable, wounded Chandler Bing. Not too cool but also not ridiculous. Riding that line of being 100% authentically himself while also always sort of questioning himself. Wondering if he was okay, if he would find love, if his new haircut looked good.
Chandler was different from the extreme versions of men we had seen on television. Not as absurd as George Costanza on Seinfeld but not as cool as Sam Malone on Cheers. He was somewhere more human, somewhere in the middle. He was terrified of being hurt by the women he dated and admitted that he was terrified of being hurt. His best friends listened to him detail his many, many romantic woes. That on-again, off-again, okay just one more time relationship with Janice. Or his complicated love story with Kathy, who he dated after she was with Joey and lost after he couldn’t handle his own jealousy. He talked about it all with his friends, who accepted him and tried to help him. They loved him for all of his neurotic, twitchy, could I BE any more awkward glory. This was what boys saw when they watched Chandler, a man whose goofball antics were the norm for him rather than the exception.
Chandler didn’t shy away from being a sensitive guy either. He was never uncomfortable making his love for Joey and Ross known. When Joey moved out of their shared apartment in Season 2 of Friends, Chandler is heartbroken. Deeply lost without his best friend in the next room. This was not something we saw on television — platonic, meaningful love between male friends that leaves a mark when it’s gone. Before Chandler and Joey, guy friends on TV rarely gave the appearance of being emotionally connected to each other or involve themselves in each other’s lives. Chandler was always in Joey’s corner when he was trying to get his acting career off the ground. He was there for Ross through his divorce from Carol, his divorce from Emily, his divorce from Rachel, cracking jokes along the way. To see Chandler staring out his apartment window looking depressed at the thought of losing his friend, even if it was just to a different apartment, changed the game for our boys.
Suddenly they saw friends who were hugging each other, all the time. This was the beginning of the bromance era, paving the way for future iconic TV friendships like Nick and Schmidt on New Girl. Paving the way for our boys to have emotional connections with each other.
In my own household of sons, it wasn’t as though a sea change happened overnight when they were watching Chandler on Friends. I didn’t see them having their a-ha moment or anything, but what I did see was a softening around the edges. A tentative toe dip into a more authentic world for them. I remember them being gentler to themselves. I remember too, especially with my oldest son, a return to a silliness that was slowly leaving him before Friends. When he was at that most peach fuzziest of ages, a preteen with a beautiful face and long limbs, a football player. A kid who was turning himself into a cool guy. A remote guy. An eye roller of the first order. A silent presence in our home. But then he turned back into himself. An eye roller of a different kind. A laugher. A mischief maker. A warm chocolate chip cookie of a silly guy. He is still that guy, he is so firmly that guy that he wouldn’t know how to turn back into the guy he was trying to become if he tried.
Maybe Chandler Bing wasn’t the only reason behind this, but he was enough of a reason. He was, and will always be, the character who gave our boys a road map back to themselves. Who told them it was okay to love your best friend openly, to be silly, to be wrong, to be afraid, to need a hug. To make jokes when you’re uncomfortable.
Matthew Perry was more than just Chandler Bing, of course he was. But for us, he will always be Chandler Bing. Wearing his sweater vests, reluctantly welcoming a chick and a duck into his Manhattan apartment because he didn’t have the heart to return them. Cracking jokes when he shouldn’t. Being exactly himself. Vulnerable and silly. The coolest guy we never knew.