Matthew Perry and the Cult of Celebrity

November 6th, 2023 11:33 AM

I never saw an episode of “Friends,” but that is probably because I am from the television era that began with black- and-white pictures and television screens so small you had to draw a chair up to the box to see a flickering image. Back then, celebrity was a byproduct of talent and accomplishment. I did have breakfast once with another “Friends” cast member, David Schwimmer, who was in town to promote a film. The female servers swarmed our table.

One of the stars on “Friends,” Matthew Perry, 54, died last week in a hot tub in Los Angeles. No cause of death has been announced, pending toxicology report s. Perry reportedly had a long history of addiction to alcohol and opioids.

If drugs were the cause of death, he was not alone. So many performers have taken drugs because of their wide availability, some of them thinking they will enhance their performance and others just for the way it makes them feel. Legions of fans don’t seem to be enough to satisfy their emotional needs. One can’t have meaningful relationships with fans.

According to the Daily Mail, Perry “let the world know how lonely he was and how he yearned for children, in his deeply personal memoir” published in October last year.

The outpouring of grief from people who never met Perry was astounding. A Fox News sub-headline said the world mourned for him. The world? Really? When the Middle East is on fire, Russia’s war against Ukraine is ongoing, and antisemitism is a growing worldwide plague, the world has nothing better to do than to mourn an actor who had a troubled personal life?

Once again we have seen the triumph of celebrity over substance. It doesn’t matter why one is famous, it only matters that one is famous. Look at the attention paid to Taylor Swift’s every move. Or Harry and Meghan, Or the Kardashians, who at this point seem to have become caricatures of themselves. Instead of ingesting the intellectual equivalent of what’s good for us, we are now obsessed with the cultural equivalent of sugar rushes. Rather than dwelling on matters of global import, our attention is increasingly focused on pop culture, reality TV, stars and their latest relationships or personal struggles.

Celebrities come and go. The national debt, the next presidential election, tax-and-spend policy, the open border, the loss of faith and so many other things are being ignored or de-prioritized by large numbers of us in favor of who’s dating who in Hollywood.

How did this come to be? The media, including social media, are largely responsible, but they are just tools. We decide how or when to use them. The broken education system also contributes to a lack of seriousness. Our politicians may be the greatest contributors to the undermining of certain foundational principles that built and sustained the nation through many challenges, both foreign and domestic. Politicians in Washington know how to solve problems but won’t because they prefer to keep them unsolved so they can argue about them in their next election campaign. For many, fixing our attention on celebrities provides an escape hatch from the cares of the world.

Matthew Perry, like other celebrities, is only a symbol of a deeper problem. His fellow “Friends” cast members are expressing shock at his death. They knew of his addiction problems and tried to help him. It is always sad when a life is forfeited to addiction.

Since no one has ever escaped death, or will, however, death should not surprise us. It is better to be prepared for it.

No matter what one does in the gym, or what one eats or doesn’t eat, or how many weight loss programs one enters, death comes to us all.