James Michael Tyler, who died yesterday, played the beloved Friends character with a sense of ironized self-awareness.
In a Season 4 episode of Friends, Ross is about to get married (again). At his bachelor party, Joey and Chandler argue over who will serve as his best man. Their bickering devolves into pettiness, until a fed-up Chandler makes an announcement about one of their guests, the barista at their favorite coffee shop: When he gets married, Chandler says, he’ll just ask Gunther to be his best man.
Gunther, who is accustomed to being the object of the friends’ varied condescensions, considers this alleged honor. “What’s my last name?” he asks Chandler. Chandler is stymied. “… Central Perk?” he replies.
Read: The Friends mythology has come full circle
Through Friends’ 10 seasons, Gunther serves as the consummate supporting character. He is often simply there: working behind the counter at Central Perk, standing around at parties the friends throw, backgrounded even in the moments when he is brought to the fore. But the actor James Michael Tyler, who died yesterday of prostate cancer at the age of 59, didn’t play Gunther as a side character. 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.