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A long time ago, in a far away place, a US sitcom took the world by storm and changed the comedy landscape. Simply titled Friends, no one saw this production doing any damage because the likes of Family Matters and Fresh Prince Of Bel Air were coining it. But when Rachel, Monica, Ross, Phoebe, Joey and Chandler came into our lives, the rest was history.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of Friends’ debut on TV and Sony Entertainment TV (DStv channel 127) is airing the entire series in double bill format from 7.05pm every weekday.
Tonight caught up with one of the Friends’ friends, Gunther (played by James Michael Tyler), to relive the era that shaped his career. We started by talking about how Tyler got the Friends gig, on which he played a coffee shop worker who had a crush on Rachel. It is reported that Tyler got the job because he was the only one who could operate the espresso machine.
“I was very fortunate that my day job and master’s degree in fine arts were able to dovetail at that moment. Lucky timing,” said Tyler.
His character was besotted with Rachel, played by Jennifer Aniston, for the duration of the series yet never dated her. Tyler looked back on the show to air his views on how he would have advised Gunther had he met him in person.
“I would tell him to look elsewhere. Gunther was practically invisible to her, even with the loud clothing and hair brighter than the sun,” said the hilarious Tyler.
Besides the main characters on the show, Tyler starred in more episodes than any other recurring character, with an incredible 93 episodes. This was not something the actor had expected, but he embraced the fact.
“As an actor, I definitely felt like a cast member, but Gunther was for ever destined to be in the ‘Friend Zone’,” he said.
Then there’s the matter of the blond hair, which Gunther always sported. The backstory is that Tyler had a friend dye his hair, by accident, the day before the Friends audition and when he got the part, the production team liked the hair colour so he had to keep it.
“I got used to it, but bleaching my hair every week for 10 years was not exactly ‘fun’. It was itchy,” he said.
Considering he was never quite a real “Friend”, we were curious to know which of the six lead actors he was closest to in real life.
“They are all great people and dedicated actors, and I didn’t have a favourite, per se. I did enjoy play- ing the foil to David Schwimmer’s Ross, and we both had a lot of fun with it,” he pointed out.
Real Friend or not, Tyler could not hide the fact that starring in Friends made other casting dir- ectors take him seriously and in time he was landing work outside the sitcom.
“It opened a lot of doors that probably would have been closed otherwise, but it also made it a bit more difficult to be seen as anyone other than Gunther. Still, I have no regrets and realise how fortunate I was to have been a part of the show for so long,” said a satisfied Tyler.
Looking back at the two decades since Friends first aired, Tyler feels the comedy landscape has changed and some of it is because of the successes of the show.
“Although the format of sitcoms was well-established before Friends, perhaps it did introduce the “twenty- something’s struggling with life and love” genre, in a way. There have been a lot of sitcoms following the formula since, and some have succeeded, some have failed.
“I believe we were lucky to have the right chemistry of creators, producers, writers, actors, crew… everyone. Lightning in a bottle,” he explained.
So what is he busy with now since everyone else has moved on?
“I have been writing. My writing partners and I have completed a script for an animated feature, and are working on a pilot script for TV.
“On the acting front, I recently finished the first season of a comedy web series called Modern Music. There are a couple of other opportunities on the horizon, too,” he said.
• Look out for a double bill of Friends every night from 7.05pm on SET (DStv channel 127).