Were you a Monica? A Rachel? A Ross, Joey, Phoebe or a Chandler?
No matter who you most closely identified with in the nineties/noughties – and the many years of Friends being broadcast on TV that followed – chances are that today you’re also a little bit of a Gunther.
Gunther, played by James Michael Tyler, who sadly passed away on Sunday, was the peroxide blond manager of Central Perk. Over 10 seasons he was witness to the highs and lows of all the Friends.
We’ve all been the one on the outside looking in, wishing we were part of the gang, but not accepted. Since the rise of social media, we can spend hours each day following the most intimate details of other people’s lives without them being aware of us.
I for one have found myself lost down the rabbit hole of Instagram, looking at what a friend of a friend was doing at the weekend, then feigning ignorance of this when it comes up in conversation. What Gunther did in a coffee shop, we do every day on our phones.
Tyler apparently got the role because he was the only extra who knew how to use the coffee machine. And there’s something beautiful in that; this character who embodied eagerness and a slight un-coolness was created by fortune.
Perhaps that eagerness and warmth is why I was hit surprisingly hard by Tyler’s passing. After all, I didn’t know him, I hadn’t seen him in anything other than Friends.
He played the sideman in a show where the focus was the charismatic leads; he was the sometimes-creepy, sometimes-sweet guy whose obsession made for amusing plot points and funny one-liners. (Who can forget his angry ‘oh, like you don’t already have everything’ when Ross kisses Rachel, then asks for a napkin in season three?)
I think Tyler’s death impacted me was because, in a very real way, Gunther is all of us. Just like us, he watched events unfold that consumed the main characters. Just like those of us watching on TV, he wanted to be involved in their lives more than was possible. Just like legions of fans, he developed an obsessive love for Rachel Green/Jennifer Aniston. And just like us, the characters existed in a world he couldn’t quite penetrate.
I can’t remember the first time I noticed Gunther in the show – I know that his bright white hair stood out on the screen, and his colourful shirts made it hard to ignore him when he did appear. He didn’t have a line until season two, but I think that added to his appeal; by the time we became aware of him, he was already slightly familiar. You feel like he’s part of the gang because just like them you’re conscious of his presence, but you don’t know him.
Gunther’s unrequited love for Rachel feels like one of the most realistic relationships in the show. His adoration and longing for someone who is completely oblivious to him very much mirrored my own teenage crush on a boy who dated every one of my female friends, but didn’t seem to notice that I was also a girl – we’d talk at length about Stargate and maths, but he seemed oblivious to the fact that he could have dated me.
Watching Gunther in the show sometime around the millennium offered some release; I could feel less foolish about my own crush because I wasn’t being as obvious as Gunther.
It would have been easy to find Gunther a little creepy, but I remember there being a real warmth and gentleness to the character. Undoubtedly that was due to how James Michael Tyler chose to play him. In interviews Tyler said how much of a nice guy Gunther is, how he has a ‘good soul, a good heart deep down’.
In statements released since Tyler’s death, his co-stars have paid testament to the fact that the good soul came from Tyler himself. David Schwimmer, via Instagram, paid tribute to Tyler as a ‘big hearted gentleman’.
It’s not just Gunther’s obsession with Rachel, or his very 21st century way of watching others lives unfold in front of him that I related to then (and now), it was also his eagerness.
I have never felt more second-hand embarrassment or felt more seen, than in season 10 when Ross is celebrating tenure. He asks Gunther for six glasses to celebrate and Gunther mistakenly thinks he’s being invited along to celebrate, only to be told by Ross ‘I thought Joey was here – five is good’.
My insides curdle just thinking about it now – both for Gunther and for myself when I’ve misunderstood a situation and just wanted the ground to swallow me up.
So while his obsessive watching of other peoples lives may strike a chord and make Gunther the friend best suited to life in 2021, it is his eagerness and willingness to jump in, no matter the personal cost that really resonates.
Next time you’re worried about embarrassing yourself or seeming over-eager, I say ‘just go for it’ and give a thought to James Michael Tyler – remember the small piece of Gunther that resides in all of us.
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