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.
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 cliche, 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.
Gunther is like the friends, until he isn't. He has been, like Joey, a struggling actor. (He played Bryce on All My Children ... until the character was buried in an avalanche.) He is, like Ross, in love with Rachel. His job's a joke; he's broke; his love life's DOA. He is a reminder of how life actually works, for people who are not on sitcoms. Midway through the series, Joey finds the keys to a Porsche left in Central Perk. He asks Gunther whether the keys belong to him. "Yes, that's what I drive," Gunther replies, tersely. "I make four bucks an hour. I saved up for 350 years."
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. In a scene in Friends' third season, Gunther watches as a guy at Central Perk asks Rachel out on a date. He heads back to a storage room, out of view; soon, viewers hear the thunderous sound of shattering glass. Gunther emerges, as the coffeehouse patrons stare at him in shock. "I dropped a cup," he says, wanly.
That interplay--what viewers see of Gunther, and what they are prevented from seeing--brings a remarkable poignancy to his character. 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. Chandler may not be bothered to be curious about him; for viewers, though, he is a tantalizing mix of half-revealed facts. We learn, off-handedly, that he speaks fluent Dutch. And that he's sharply witty. ("Hey buddy, this is a family place," he tartly informs a customer who wears shorts without underwear. "Put the mouse back in the house.") And that he is in love with Rachel. And that he will have to find a way to accept that his love will go unrequited.
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. In Season 4, Joey comes to Central Perk looking for Chandler. Gunther gazes at him, coolly. "I thought you were Chandler?" he says. "But, um, one of you is over there."