Last Saturday evening, hundreds of people spontaneously gathered in front of an apartment building located at the corner of Grove and Bedford streets in a lower-Manhattan community called the Village. I took this photo myself on a visit to New York several years ago. The restaurant below is called The Little Owl, but it’s much more famous by its make-believe name, Central Perk.
The gathering happened due to news reports of the sudden death of television and movie star Matthew Perry. As most news viewers now know, the actor reached superstardom in a 1994 – 2004 sitcom called Friends, which was fictionally located in this real-life building.
Perry’s post-Friends life was more of a tragedy than a continuation of his celebrity, as he lived in and out of rehab due to alcohol and opioid addiction. But his last major public act was to author an autobiography which he said he hoped would help others struggling with the same issues.
But I want to focus on the program which made Perry famous as he played the quirky Chandler Bing, the show which he in turn helped launch into television’s iconic stratosphere, along with five other characters Ross, Rachel, Phoebe, roommate Joey, and his television wife, Monica.
From a Christian perspective I cannot recommend Friends, which, I suppose is a self-indictment, and I don’t let my teenage children watch the show. But for those years in my mid to late 30s — and I later learned for my future wife as well — along with millions of others like us, that vital aspect of community was exemplified like never before on television through a group of six friends. You watched, and actually felt part of the group, which is why many may mourn when one of them now dies.
For those who never watched, here was the premise:
There were six closely-knit, late twenty-somethings, five of whom lived on the same hallway, fictionally housed in this real apartment building, two being brother and sister. All were either employed, mostly employed, or frustratingly employed, and all constantly looking for love, sometimes in the wrong places. But they were all for one and one for all. Their theme song was even “I’ll be there for you,” and they truly were.
There were morally objectionable aspects to Friends, including the casual acceptance of promiscuity. Those, however, did not deter the masses — including the religious — from watching every Thursday night.
I was 33 and still single when Friends debuted, and if you were of similar age at the time, and especially if you were single, Friends certainly hit a sweet spot; it spoke to you, giving one something to look forward to evenings before that last day in the office for the week.
A married couple who lived in my neighborhood came over to watch the show each Thursday for the first couple of seasons. We also had a favorite coffee house hang-out in our trendy downtown neighborhood, in a community much like, although much smaller than, the Village. Ours was called First Colony, not Central Perk, but the feeling was the same.
We were part of a larger group that included five or six others, along with — like Friends — a brother and sister around whom the gang revolved in many ways, including its weekend social lives. We got together for cookouts, tennis, watching “the game” on TV — whatever that week’s game happened to be — and going to movies at night (before children entered the picture, that is).
What Friends success confirms — and the reaction following Perry’s death highlights — is the need for community in life. Married, single, widowed, or divorced, most humans thrive best when part of community. That might be a church-related group (perhaps a home Bible study), a ladies’ coffee klatch on a weekday afternoon, a men’s barber shop bull session on Saturday mornings, an athletic team seeking a championship, or something far more serious, such as first-responders always at the ready, or a military unit in time of war.
Jesus lived in community with twelve other men along a joint mission, although they failed to understand the true nature of the endeavor. One of His friends eventually betrayed Him, another denied Him, and the rest deserted Him. Let’s all hope we don’t have friends like that. But we know they all — well, all but one — came back around.
Friends went off the air in 2004, but it’s never really gone away, reaching new generations in syndication on cable and pay television, often with as many as six episodes shown back-to-back on weekday afternoons or evenings.
According to a report I once read, today’s viewers see Friends as anachronistic, noticing that there are no smart phones, ubiquitous sweat pants, or Uber rides to and from work. The six actually sat and talked while sipping their coffee, rather than staring at small devices neither they nor we could have imagined in 1994. Perhaps real life was better then, we actually talked and enjoyed one another’s company, sans distracting devices.
We hope actor Matthew Perry found true peace with the Savior before his untimely death last weekend. But we know that thanks to reruns, Chandler Bing will never die. Thank you both for being our friend.
Image credit: Joel Vaughan