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James Michael Tyler's Gunther was Friends' most human character, piercing its fantasy

  • Tyler, who died Sunday at age 59 after battling prostate cancer, was more than a background actor -- he imbued his minor character with a "fourth-wall kind of eloquence" and "a sense of ironized self-awareness," says Megan Garber. Tyler "didn’t play Gunther as a side character," says Garber. "He played Gunther, instead, as a character who was sidelined. That made all the difference. Tyler invested Gunther, who was otherwise the stuff of sitcom cliché, with a biting awareness of his own exclusion from the show’s hermetic main group. Gunther is always in their orbit, but never in their world—and he is keenly aware of that disconnect. In the friends’ lives, though no one told you life was gonna be this way, things work out all the same. Not so for Gunther. Through him, reality pierces Friends’ chipper fantasies." Garber adds: "Sitcoms need both stars and background characters to tell their stories, and most supporting characters do not question their sidelining. But Gunther? Gunther is bitter about it. He is an avatar of the casual arbitrariness of the show, and of the friends’ insularity: These six people are deeply incurious about the people who are not part of their little world. On paper, Gunther is often a sap, a tangle of desire and disappointment. In practice, the way Tyler played him, he is the most human character on the show—and arguably its moral rudder. When Chandler reveals that he doesn’t know the full name of the guy he has seen almost every day for years, the joke doesn’t come at Gunther’s expense. It comes at Chandler’s. Tyler didn’t simply communicate Gunther’s frustrations; he deployed them. His performances convey the simmering indignation of being rendered invisible...Much about Gunther, whether his bleach-bright hair or his fluorescent outfits, suggests a deep desire to be the center of attention. And yet the show, on the whole, keeps him relegated to the spaces behind the scenes. Gunther functions, in Friends, as a consequential stranger: a person you might often encounter as you live your life, but whom you don’t, in any meaningful sense, know. Viewers are exposed to him in roughly the same way they might be exposed to the people they casually interact with in everyday life...Gunther is a background character who knows that, in another show, he would have been the star. And although Tyler did not have many lines, he used the ones he did have to give Gunther a fourth-wall kind of eloquence. Particularly as Friends moved into its later seasons, Tyler imbued the character with a sense of ironized self-awareness. To watch Gunther is to suspect that he is watching the proceedings—these blandly telegenic young people, with their blend of cheerful entitlements—at the same time that we are. He’s a viewer, too. He exists in a liminal space, seemingly hovering between the world of the show and the world its audiences inhabit. Tyler gave Gunther the feel of a Greek chorus, or of a narrator: He sees the hijinks onstage for what they are. He knows that Friends is selling a fantasy. But he also knows that he can have his moments inside the illusion." ALSO: Lego pays tribute to James Michael Tyler.

    TOPICS: James Michael Tyler, Friends, Retro TV