Q&A: Matthew Perry talks ‘Go On’, the Ups and Downs of a Career and the Biggest Lesson He’s Learned
Go On, Matthew Perry’s new NBC comedy, is one of the best new shows of the season. If you only caught the pilot, check it out when it airs next, it keeps getting better and better.
In the show, Perry stars as Ryan King, a recent widower and sports talk radio host who is ready to get back to work after the death of his wife. But Ryan’s boss, Stephen (John Cho), has a different plan in store, making him attend grief counseling before returning to the air. Ryan finds himself in a support group for “life change,” where he meets an oddball cast of characters (Laura Benanti, Julie White, Suzy Nakamura, Tyler James Williams and Brett Gelman), all with their own backstories filled with varying degrees of loss.
I talked to Perry in recent conference call where he talked about what drew him to Go On, working with the cast, the ups and down of his career and the biggest lesson he’s learned.
Go On airs on Tuesday nights on NBC.
Matthew Perry: I would say it was just written really well. I was looking to do a drama and had met all the networks and studios about – in the development season – about finding a drama and was sent this. And it’s obviously a comedy and I could tell by, like, the amount of pages that it was a comedy and I called my manager and said why did you send me this and he said just read it. And I realized that it had, you know, all of the elements that I was looking for. It had, you know, it was definitely funny, it had a lot of funny characters in it. And also it posed a big dramatic challenge too. So – plus I had known Scott Silveri for – he was on Friends for eight years and he’d written a really great script so I was in.
After Friends ended there was always the curse that no one could get on a hit show afterwards and while there was still hit and misses there, everyone seems now to be right in the groove. Did it take a while for everybody to find the right vehicle or was people just expecting something different?
Matthew Perry: Yes, I never really, you know, paid any attention to when – I think that was just sort of reporters searching for a story because to suggest that the six of us are like six of the luckiest people on the face of the planet. So to suggest that there’s some curse, I just never really listened to it. But, I guess it’s good now that they’re not saying that anymore. But, you know, it just – Friends was a magical thing. No one’s going to ever have anything like that again and you try to just search for good projects, you know.
For me, I did Studio 60, which everybody thought was going to be amazing and it was pretty good but it didn’t work. And then I took my hand at trying to write something and try to create a show myself, which was Mr. Sunshine, which, you know, worked to a certain degree creatively but audiences didn’t really follow it. And then I learned that there was somebody else that could create a show for me better than me. And that’s what happened with Go On.
It’s interesting to hear you say that you were looking for a drama initially because the base situation here is actually quite sad. How do you guys walk that line between a situation that is very, at its heart, serous and yet you are finding ways to make it funny?
Matthew Perry: Yes, that – well that’s the very tonal challenge of this show and nobody knew whether it was going to work. Nobody knew really whether people were going to laugh at these sad situations. But, you know, that’s Scott in the pilot, you know, just did that tone thing perfectly so there was a lot of funny things but, you know, at the base of it is a very sad story. And then I think it was the third episode when we did a comedic run about – I had said that it’s hard to tell people that my wife has passed away, I should just get vanity plates that say it and then everybody sort of starts pitching on what those vanity plates could say. You know, like dead wife or no mo wife and things like that. And that was, you know, that was a really risky scene and people loved it. So, then, we knew that people – that audiences were going to laugh at this stuff
How do you deal with tough times in your life? Do you pull from that when you’re working on comedy?
Matthew Perry: Oh sure. Yes, you pull from everything. I think, you know, just to be a comedian or somebody who’s trying to be funny, you have to have some darkness behind it. So, I think all comedians are able to draw on that and that’s why some comedians who do dramatic work, like, can do some of the best dramatic work. Like, Robin Williams and, you know, a bunch of other – Michael Keaton and Tom Hanks and all of that stuff. So, you know, in this show I certainly draw on my past and it helps.
You’ve said in the past that you have a tendency to avert a personal thing and to go with the joke whenever you can instead. And that really seems to be Ryan’s characteristic too. I mean, that’s the humor of his putting him into a therapy group when he’s the last guy who wants to talk seriously. Is that still a trait or yours?
Matthew Perry: Well, I don’t that that is a current trait of mine, it certainly used to be. It was a – one of the tenants of, like, of Chandler was that, you know, given any kind of serious situation, he will divert it by trying to make it a joke. And it makes for a very good character in a sitcom because it’s a built in excuses for someone to be funny.
Could you talk a little bit about your co-stars?
Matthew Perry: Yes. We’ve, you know, the – Scott Silveri, like, panicked about a month before we started the show and was like this is a show about a guy who lost his wife. We have to have, like, as many funny people surrounding him as possible and sort of that panic led to the casting of Sarah Baker, who’s hilarious and Brett Gelman, who’s just really, really funny. Laura Benanti is hilarious and so it’s sort of my job if I’m looking to do a TV show to try to surround myself with the funniest people possible and it was Scott’s job to make that happen as well. So, John Cho playing my boss, Alison Miller playing my assistant. I mean, it a really great – everywhere you look is just a funny, smart, talented, driven person, which makes the show even better.
Your dynamic with John Cho on the show is so great and he said before in interviews that you’re kind of his comedic hero, especially with Chandler and Friends. What are your thoughts on that and working with him in general?
Matthew Perry: Well, I love working with John. You know, we were very lucky to get him. I -we – he had been hired in the pilot as a guest star and then we asked him to be a regular and we were very fortunate that he said yes.
As for me being his comedic hero, he has mentioned that to me in the past and all that does is make me feel old.
You have also great comedic timing when it comes to working with Julie White. Can you talk about working with her?
Matthew Perry: Well, Julie White was the first person hired. She was even hired before I was, so she was the first person on board and I knew that they were going for great people because she’s this wonderful Broadway actress and she is just terrific. She plays a role that could be dismissed as being not very likable because she’s very angry and her character sort of can be mean from time to time but you still pull for her because you know that she’s had this loss in her life. So, she is just yet another incredibly talented person in that – in all of those grief therapy scenes. It’s great to have her.
When you were growing up, when did you first realize that you were funny?
Matthew Perry: Oh. well, I would always be the kid that got in trouble in school, that’s for sure, for joking around and I guess it was seventh grade I got hired – not hired – I got put in a play in school in Ottawa, Canada. Greg Simpson was the head theatre guy and he cast me in a role in that and it was funny and I felt so good to get laughs. So it was probably then, seventh grade in Ottawa.
What do you look for in a character in order to play it?
Matthew Perry: Well, you kind of look for people that you can relate to, that you can sort of shake hands with and understand. I have a tendency to try to find characters that are sort of bent or broken and on a path to become better people, and Ryan King certainly has those traits. He’s a guy who I think if this tragic thing had not happened to him, he would’ve lived his life as sort of a rather unexplored life. But, this thing happen to him so he reluctantly gets on this path to be a better person.
You’re also continuing your role in The Good Wife. Is it interesting balancing these two different – very different types of role?
Matthew Perry: Yes, I really love doing The Good Wife, I hope that I get to come back and do more. It’s really fun to play a guy who is just so evil. And, you know, I’ve been looking to do, you know, I like to do both. I like to do comedy and drama and, you know, I got both jobs on the exact same day. I got Go On and The Good Wife both on the same day and it was a great day. So, I’m really happy with how Go On is going and, you know, I hope to get to do some more Good Wife’s in the future too.
At this point in your career you’ve played so many characters in both TV shows and movies, which has been your favorite to play?
Matthew Perry: Oh, I mean, I loved playing Chandler. That was, you know, I grew up sort of playing that part. I would saying probably in all honesty it’s Chandler and this character that I’m playing now, the character of Ryan King. It’s a very sort of deep, enriching character to play because he’s going through so much and he’s also being very funny about it. So, I guess I would say Chandler and Ryan King.
The characters that you’ve played have had such a broad appeal, whether it’s been a good guy or a bad guy. What is it you think is the key to securing that amazing connection with your audience and makes you so identifiable?
Matthew Perry: Oh, I don’t know. I think it’s sort of a wearing his heart on his sleeve kind of people that I’ve played a lot and I think people can sort of relate to that journey, maybe not that openness about it but that journey. I like to play people that say things that normally people don’t say that they’re sort of feeling or thinking but that they wouldn’t say. And I think that Chandler – both Chandler and Ryan King have that aspect.
But I do agree with you, when I read Go On I sort of – it was almost like this is Chandler like 10 years later if something really bad had happened to him. And, you know, hopefully both characters look the same, except one looks a little bit older.
You have some past directorial experience, with Scrubs and some other shows. Would you like to get behind the camera for an episode of Go On?
Matthew Perry: Yes, actually it funny. We just talked about that the other day. You know, if we’re fortunate enough to do a second season I think that I’ll probably end up doing that. I mean, it’s a very, very busy time already and directing is, you know, pretty all encompassing. But, it is certainly something that I think would be interesting to do somewhere down the line.
Who some of your favorite actors are when you were growing up?
Matthew Perry: Sure. My favorite actor was – is Michael Keaton. Certainly growing up he – I think in the movie Nigh Shift, he did something brand new that I hadn’t seen before that we all sort of steal from now. And then, you know, and I think it was in 1987 he did the movie Clean and Sober and Beetlejuice in the same year and that was when I sort of said wow, that’s what I want to do. So I think I’d have to say Michael Keaton.
Can you talk about enjoying the ups and downs in a career that can be so fluctuating?
Matthew Perry: Oh, yes. Yes, that really would be the key would be to enjoy the ups and not have the downs get you down. I think I’ve done a pretty good job about that in my career. But, you know, I’m a really lucky guy so, you know, I had the biggest up, which is being on Friends for 10 years. So all the downs don’t seem as down after that happens to you. So, I’ve just been very, very fortunate. You know, and the key to all of it is to make sure that acting is not, you know, the only thing you’ve got going on in your life, so you don’t identify solely with the ups and downs of that.
How similar are you to your character?
Matthew Perry: Oh, I think what happens on all great shows is the writers end up writing to the actors who are playing the part. So, the charters are becoming more and more like the actors that play them. That’s certainly what happened on Friends and that’s – I think that’s the direction they’re leaning in here. So, you know, I’m pretty similar to my guy. Laura Benanti is pretty similar to her character. I’d like to say that Brett Gelman is similar to Mr. K. but I don’t know if any human being on the face of the planet is similar to Mr. K.
Do you notice a difference from the 90s with Friends to today either in terms of what the audience expects or how you do it from a technological perspective? Is it different at all?
Matthew Perry: Yes. The, you know, when you’re doing a four camera show it’s sort of like doing a different one act play every week so you’re playing to sort of the backseat in the house. So, I think it breeds a slightly bigger performance than when you’re doing one camera. I think you can afford to tone it down a little bit, be a little bit more real when you’re doing a one camera show because, you know, you’re not playing to a live audience.
And in terms of comedy, you know, I still think it’s, you know, whatever’s funny is funny and people are going to laugh at it. But in terms of performance I think, you know, the not so new craze anymore of doing one camera comedies. I think it just breeds a slightly more realistic performance. Like, if you’re angry on a sitcom, you’re sort of saying like – you’re sort of winking and go hey everybody, watch me be angry, you’re going to enjoy this. And on a one camera show, you’re just sort of playing angry. If that makes sense.
You’ve had such a great career. What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned about this whole thing?
Matthew Perry: I think would say that to look at it as it’s fun and an interesting challenge and a job and not something to make your entire life and your entire identity about. I think that’s the thing that I’ve learned the most. But, you know, parcel of that is to just really have fun doing what you’re doing, which I certainly am doing on Go On.
One thing that I kept thinking that’s kind of cool in the new show that you obviously couldn’t do much of in Friends is you’re able to do a certain amount of on location shooting. How do you think that that sort of makes the show more interesting to do?
Matthew Perry: Well, you know, I – it doesn’t seem that different to me. I mean, if you ask, you know, 10 people where Friends was shot, I think five of them would say New York and, you know, of course we shot all of it at Warner Brothers. I guess it makes the show, you know, a little bit more full, a little bit more full canvas of a show and when you can go out and shoot things on location.
So, you know, the fact that, you know, on Go On we can go off and do some of those scenes and show like the exterior of the – of where the rec center is and we shot a little bit of the Staple Center, which was obviously really fun for me because I’m a fan of that place. And I think, you know, just visually it keeps things more interesting.
Do you have a preference between comedy and drama? Which do you find to be more challenging?
Matthew Perry: I don’t really have a preference between the two. I love doing both. I think doing a comedy is potentially more challenging because, you know, you’re sort of forced to do a joke a page and you’re forced to, you know, be funny at a certain rate. And I’m sure that will surprise most people because most people would think that I would say drama is harder because I’ve, you know, have so much experience in comedy. But, they’re both – they both pose their challenges. But I actually think doing a comedy is harder than doing a drama.