This weekend Friends finished filming a reunion episode, slated to appear on HBO Max at some point, which has me thinking about just how close the show came to featuring what could have been the most prominent gay sitcom character in history.
Showrunners came this close to making the Chandler character gay, only pulling back after they cast Matthew Perry.
But despite having straightened Chandler out, creators Marta Kauffman and David Crane gave the cast and crew explicit instructions to retain the gay vibe: “write it gay,” they told everyone, “and play it straight.”
I wonder, looking back now, if they had allowed Chandler to be gay — or bi, or any other flavor of queer — would that have been better? Or would it have been a huge mess?
When Friends premiered, audiences instantly picked up on the gay undertones. I was combing through newspaper archives from the mid-90s, and a surprising amount of the coverage is devoted to slow, patient explanations that Chandler isn’t gay — really, we promise. “We’re not going to tell you again,” fumes one entertainment column.
Viewers were picking up on the vestiges of the original plan, vestiges that are still visible in the pilot episode according to David Crane. One of Chandler’s first lines of dialogue is an offhand remark about wishing he was a lesbian, and Crane says that the pilot-ending line in which he describes his dream of being Liza Minnelli is a holdover from when they were still contemplating the possibilities of the character’s sexuality.
On top of that, Chandler’s coded as queer in a way that would have been familiar to audiences of the time — not only because he’s sassy and sarcastic, but because he also conforms to a gay trope that was observed by his colleague, Jerry Seinfeld: “Single, thin, and neat.”
Throughout the show’s run, Chandler was the constant butt of gay jokes — always assumed to be “that,” as the show tended to say rather than using the word “gay.” He also had a complex relationship with his parent, whose handling is complicated to discuss: Identified on the show as a gay man who performed in drag, the character was described by showrunners in interviews as a transgender woman. (Kathleen Turner has said that she has some regrets about taking the role.)
Ultimately, Chandler wound up being persistently heterosexual. But if he had been gay … would that have been better? It’s hard to say what might’ve been, but to be honest, I think we dodged a bullet.
For one thing, despite the “write it gay, play is straight” directive, the show seems a bit wobbly when it comes to gay humor, returning over and over and over to the same joke: It would be funny if someone was gay. That’s it. That’s the whole gag.
For another, I think it’s best that the first prominent recurring gay character on a US primetime sitcom was played by a queer person. Matthew Perry might’ve been able to handle gay Chandler (or maybe not) but Ellen’s groundbreaking Puppy Episode set a strong tone for gay sitcom characters by depicting a positive coming-out.
Before Ellen’s coming-out, sitcoms tended to treat gay characters as a crisis, with “what do we do about this” Very Special Episodes. But when she came out in 1997, the show showed a warm, supportive, congratulatory response. Gay episodes that followed on other shows seemed to take the cue, and queerness was suddenly a cause for celebration on TV instead of agitation.
The creators of Friends got a sort of second chance at gay Chandler on their next show, Veronica’s Closet. Though it wasn’t quite the hit that Friends was (and, it must be noted, it starred the unpleasantly Trump-supporting, Scientology-defending Kirstie Alley), Veronica’s Closet featured a smart, sarcastic character not unlike Chandler. But this time, Kauffman and Crane created a character who was actually queer, though initially closeted; and when he comes out in season 3, he’s met with support and approval. It’s sweet.
That’s not to say that Friends couldn’t have done the same — if anything, their more sensitive handling of the Josh character on Veronica’s Closet shows that a more nuanced take than “lol he’s gay” was waiting in the wings. So who knows! Maybe it would have been good! Maybe Chandler would have been a triumph of queer representation!
But that is a very vast “maybe.” As it was, Friends seems to struggle with gay comedy, repeatedly dipping into the same “haha someone’s gay” well, whereas other gay comics of the time like Scott Thompson and Bob Smith were doing far more nuanced and funny takes on queer life in the '90s.
Ultimately, I suspect — if I had to guess — that at the end of the day, “write it gay and play it straight” is not, in fact, the most useful of prompts.