Sarcasm as Global Export; Or an Ode to Matthew Perry’s Chandler Bing
Shaan Sachdev on the Best Global Export to Come from Friends
Perhaps the most striking dissonance in the soundscape of horns, hawkers, and rumbling monsoons that (yes, somewhat exotically) staged my summer visits to Bombay, India, in the late 90s and early aughts came from the voices of Friends playing on the television inside my aunt’s apartment. My cousins’ rolling “r’s” screeched to a halt at Rachel’s softer “wr’s,” just like their adverbial intensifiers, which drew on tangy blends of Hindi and English, were superseded by Monica’s soon-to-be-ecumenical “so’s.” But it was Chandler Bing’s nimbly tart quips and punchlines that most alienly, most fatefully, suffused the soundscape.
Indians—and I’m generalizing in the service of extrapolative expediency—are neither awkward nor unsmiling. They joke through anecdotes and parables, observational gags and faux-confrontational fake outs. The pinching zip of sarcasm, however, is not an interlocutory reflex. The knots and hurdles of collective living—of sharing homes with parents and grandparents, uncles and nieces—seem to leave little room for sharp tongues and satiric needling. Grudges and complaints tend to be vented implicitly (or underhandedly) so as not to impinge on the delicate politics of familial negotiation.
There was thus something surprising about hearing my cousins mimic Chandler’s lines:
“So how many cameras are actually on you?”
“What kind of scary ass clowns came to your birthday?”
“Was that place: the sun?”
The jokes’ unliterality was noticeable enough. But it was really their intonations that cut through the air with all the ostentation of the other American imports I saw sprouting up in cities and villages across the subcontinent: Nike sneakers, Titanic posters, WWF action figures, Avril Lavigne t-shirts, Bryan Adams cassette tapes. (To us, Canadian celebrities were as American as American ones.)
Friends was—and is—an impossibly global phenomenon. And since English is the globe’s imperial lingua franca, it might not be surprising that Friends has for decades served as a staple, albeit informal, device in the instruction of conversational English to non-native speakers. A 2012 poll by Kaplan found that 82 percent of English learners said television shows eased their education, and nearly a third of them named Friends as their expedient of choice.
“I was born in Cuba, came to America when I was 26,” actress Ana de Armas said in her SNL monologue earlier this year. “I learned English the way everyone who comes to this country does: by watching Friends. Who would have thought that the best English tutor would be Chandler Bing. I mean, look at me now. Could I be any better at English?”
Friends was—and is—an impossibly global phenomenon.
“My English teacher was the sitcom Friends,” RM of the boy band BTS said in a 2017 interview. “It was quite like a syndrome for all the Korean parents to make their kids watch Friends.” At the 2022 Grammys, RM elaborated: “I’m like a Chandler. When I see him, I feel so sad. I love him.” (More on this paradox later.)
In Dubai, UAE, where I grew up, Friends was similarly omnipresent. A Central Perk replica popped up in 2006, just ten minutes away from my house, and on the cafe’s opening day I posed for a picture with the late James Michael Taylor (who played Gunther on the show). But English is my native language. I attended an American school. For me, Friends was less a means of lexical and grammatical osmosis, though it certainly aided my idiomatic fluidity within American English.
My own friends and I would harness Chandler’s inflections any time we wanted to pad devious pronouncements with sarcasm’s obliqueness. The show also furnished my imagination with a cozy, escapist cocoon. It imparted dreams of moving to New York City—of leaving my (culturally unsarcastic) Indian family behind for the verve of that mythically charming, archaic-yet-still-modern center of the cosmos.
And immigrate I did! Of course, I quickly realized that in the real New York City, apartments were grimy, ill-mannered people were not uncommon, unemployment was untenable, homeostasis was impossible, and life was no longer obliviously analog. Friends wasn’t even filmed in New York City, one of the many aspects of the show that hasn’t aged very well. Today, the show’s politics, or at least its “social politics,” can fall short in an occasionally squirm-inducing fashion.
Still, as many an astute critic has pointed out, decontextualization isn’t a particularly helpful way to appraise artistic totality. Nor is it the point of this essay, though I will take the opportunity to say that I find myself less dispirited by the show’s molding politics than by its periodic tendency to infantilize adults, to lightly mock an enjoyment of reading and intellectual swashbuckling. Some moments, especially those featuring the relentlessly stultified Joey, today feel painfully puerile.
In hastening Chandler’s finitude, Perry’s death somehow makes clear that we’re never returning to the 90s.
And yet, my affection for Chandler has endured.
The death of Matthew Perry was a rare celebrity death able to shock me into dissociative, existential vulnerability. There’s a photograph from what I think was the series’ fifth season that shows the six castmates walking arm-in-arm down a street, roses and lilies and glasses of champagne in tow, dressed in suits and gowns. They’re laughing, brightening the composition’s formality, and Perry is in the center of the group.
Something about this photograph drove home for me the sudden, wrenching nature of his absence and, accordingly, impaled with real-world stakes a character that has sempiternally resided not only in the zeitgeist but in my own inner world of voices and associations, memories and assimilations.
His death forces us to confront the legacy of a historical period that, for many of us, doesn’t feel particularly historical. For children of the 90s, Friends was never fully left behind. In some way, it’s almost as if we were waiting to decisively adjudicate it, waiting to see if life might return to the supposedly quiescent, vanilla-flavored epoch that defined it and that it in turn defined, waiting to see if this new epoch, this inescapable deluge of digitality and macabre politics, macabre everything, was just a phase or here to stay.
In hastening Chandler’s finitude, Perry’s death somehow makes clear that we’re never returning to the 90s—that we must contemplate the legacy of Friends as a show of the past from a world of the past. And its legacy, at least for the purpose of this essay’s hypothesis, is twofold. First is the series’ animation of a rupture in American family life.
The 90s quintessentialized for young adults what today is tiredly truistic: generational upward mobility is uncertain, if not unlikely, in the world’s wealthiest country. Friends found a silver lining in this. In an era where young adults were neither living with their parents nor starting their own families, the show encouraged the idea that young adults could find solace and joy in each other’s company. Together with Seinfeld, and with global oomph, Friends emboldened a new molecular paradigm—one of collectivized individuality, of friends as family.
Linguist John Haiman wrote, “Situations may be ironic, but only people can be sarcastic.”
Second were the reverberations of the series’ locution. “Friends emerges as a harbinger of the vernacular to come,” said Sali Tagliamonte, a Canadian linguist who has studied the show’s conversations, in a 2004 magazine feature about the series finale. There is indeed a fair bit of writing about the circumlocution of the six friends having seeped into broader American parlance. However, aside from testimonials about the show’s utility in English language instruction, there seem to be few formal inquiries into its reach beyond the United States as far as idiom, inflection, and figurative language go.
Most of my own evidence, I’ll confess, is anecdotal and inferential. But I do believe a leitmotif prevails! India’s broadly collectivist disinterest in sarcasm is by no means unique. Recent studies have found sarcasm to be more widely used and appreciated in individualist cultures (such as the United States, United Kingdom, Mexico, and Canada) than in collectivist ones (such as China). The studies, like great swaths of sociological scholarship, are mired in robotic, numerical appraisals of phenomena as airy and diffuse as rhetorical device and usage. Still, they do seem to grasp at grains of truth.
In an interview many years ago, Baratunde Thurston, once the digital editor of satirical news site The Onion, talked about an Onion article that claimed Congress was threatening to leave Washington, DC, unless a retractable dome were to be installed in the Capitol building. The Beijing Evening News, a Chinese tabloid, reprinted the story as factual, Thurston said, entirely missing the article’s comical undercurrent. On the other hand, Thurston said, an Onion article titled, “Mexico Killed in a Drug Deal,” about the country’s entire population being snuffed in a national shootout, was picked up appreciatively (and discerningly) by Mexican news outlets.
The implication is not that humor isn’t universal. It’s that the impulse to cloak mischievous barbs in unliteral if not entirely inverted language seems to more easily luxuriate in cultures with looser social relations. While depictions of atomized young adults were novel in the United States when Friends aired, they were even newer to collectivist cultures. And thus, taken together, young people watching Friends in the likes of India, China, South Korea, and Japan were assimilating not only the broader phraseologies of Friends but also the individualistically sarcastic idiolect of its most distinctly gifted rhetor: Chandler Bing.
In 2011, Smithsonian Magazine touched on a study that compared college students in New York with college students in Tennessee. The study found that young male American northerners were the most spiritedly sarcastic of the lot. Enter that 26-year-old male northerner we met in season one, episode one of Friends: awkward, affable, anxious, loyal, prone to addiction, prone to heartbreak, prone to rejection, gifted with wit—someone who, in his words, “used humor as a defense mechanism” and was “crippled by fear and self-loathing.”
Chandler’s distinct brand of sarcasm seems to respond to the anxieties, ennui, and distractions of our dizzying, confounding internet age.
Sarcasm, Dostoyevsky wrote in Notes from the Underground, “is usually the last refuge of modest and chaste-souled people when the privacy of their soul is coarsely and intrusively invaded.” Chandler was indeed modest and chaste, but he yearned, against all odds and predilections, to relinquish the privacy of his soul to his closest friends. And he consistently snagged the show’s best scenes because of this fusion—whether it was him locked in an ATM vestibule with Jill Goodacre, trying to figure out why his coworkers thought he was gay, or caving in to chain-smoking.
Even his one-on-one pairings with the cast members were the best of the lot: stealing cheesecakes with Rachel, shopping for wedding rings with Phoebe, attending a college reunion with Ross, playing cards with Joey, and, of course, the entirety of his relationship with Monica, one of American television’s finest romantic twists.
In his 1998 book about sarcasm, linguist John Haiman wrote, “Situations may be ironic, but only people can be sarcastic.” If sarcasm hinges as much on pitch, tone, and cadence as it does on the irony of its substance, Perry was a master of delivery. He was like Jim Carrey but not unhinged, Jerry Seinfeld but not nihilistic, David Hyde Pierce but not remote. Revelatory backstage footage shot during the making of season six’s first episode shows an exchange between Chandler, Monica, Joey, and Phoebe falling flat. David Crane, the show’s co-creator, turns to Perry on the spot for a fresh joke. “Why don’t we ask him because it’s so, like, Matthew,” Crane says.
Perry’s comedic genius and peculiar authenticity, which became all the more impressive when his perilous entanglements with addiction (while he was filming, no less) became public, were not lost on him.
“I was talking in a way that no one had talked in sitcoms before, hitting odd emphases, picking a word in a sentence you might not imagine was the beat,” Perry wrote in a particularly revealing passage of his memoir, Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing, released less than a year before his death. The book is far from humble, though he wasn’t really reprimanded for this by the commentariat (nor will he by me), given its subordination to his monstrous struggles with addiction.
“I didn’t know it yet,” Perry wrote, “but my way of speaking would filter into the culture across the next few decades—for now, though, I was just trying to find interesting ways into lines that were already funny, but that I thought I could truly make dance.”
And how they danced! If young audiences around the world stumbled upon the cheer of collective individuality through Friends, it was Chandler who supplied them with the postmodern irony with which to make sense of it. As such, he became—and possibly remains—one of sarcasm’s most effective global exporters.
His relevance hasn’t merely endured. It has intensified. One of the most followed pages on Facebook—48 million and counting—is a meme account dedicated to sarcasm. Its profile (and banner) photograph: Chandler Bing.
“Post-9/11, the show became more popular,” co-creator Marta Kauffman said in an interview in 2016. “And I think part of the reason is because it was optimistic. And certainly, with what’s going on politically right now, this can feel like a darker time.”
Chandler’s distinct brand of sarcasm seems to respond to the anxieties, ennui, and distractions of our dizzying, confounding internet age. And so, we return to BTS’s RM. When he said, “When I see him, I feel so sad. I love him,” RM extemporaneously capsulized the nouveau-emo pathos of our technologically alienated youth. Chandler is the avatar of this pathos. His droll, lovable anxiety isn’t merely a counterpart of our own less droll, less lovable anxiety—it’s a simpler, more capacious one into which we in this century continue to escape.
At the end of the show’s very first episode, Monica says to Rachel, “Welcome to the real world. It sucks. You’re gonna love it.” Friends, of course, is not the real world. It’s not just that the show is “optimistic”—it’s that it’s a chimera of American life. And if it happens to be anchored in an undercurrent of reality—in some sort of subconsciously sobering device—that device is Chandler.
About a week after Perry died, his close friend, the actor Hank Azaria, wrote in The New York Times, “Perry said that he wanted to be remembered as someone who helped people get sober.” In a different way, with a different sort of sobriety, he continues to do exactly this for millions of people.
Chandler speaks the very last word on Friends, ending the group’s decade-long journey together with a gently sarcastic question. Let’s give Perry the last word here. He writes in his memoir, “I had changed how Americans spoke English via the cadences of Chandler Bing.” Ah, dear Matthew. You changed how the world speaks English, too.