Published September 15. 2012 4:00AM
Matthew Perry hasn't fully sat down before he lays out the ground rules.
"Don't be mean," he says before settling into a mid-morning interview at a hotel bar (he drank Red Bull) in Beverly Hills. "Sometimes people are mean."
By "people," he's referring to the media. And there's only a touch of sarcasm that coats his tone. The 43-year-old actor, best known for his wily performance as Chandler Bing on NBC's long-running sitcom "Friends," has grown accustomed to scrutiny. Sure, that includes his personal travails with addiction but also the blessing and curse of the extraordinary success of "Friends."
In "Go On," which formally premiered Tuesday on NBC, Perry makes a comedic return as Ryan King, a snarky sports radio host who is required to attend group therapy sessions to cope with his grief after losing his wife. It's the actor's third crack at a network series since "Friends" went off the air in 2004.
Going from the kind of show whose finale attracted more than 51 million viewers to two that didn't make it past one season certainly adds focus to the performance of his latest venture. More than 16 million people stuck around for a sneak preview after London Olympics coverage to see the network's ad-free unveiling of "Go On."
But as it nestles into its Tuesday time slot, the real question is how many will come back?
"I don't need to be reminded that I was on 'Friends,'" Perry says in discussing the shadow the pop-culture phenom casts over his projects. "I remember - some of it, anyway."
The actor pulls back at poking fun at himself for a moment: "No, it's fine that it follows me. I get it. But I can do other things, and I like the challenge of proving to people that my talent extends beyond putting emphasis on 'be'" - referring to Chandler's affinity for stressing the word.
No one knows that more than "Go On" creator Scott Silveri - who just so happens to be a former "Friends" writer and producer.
"I didn't even know if he was entertaining television again," Silveri, sitting next to Perry, says. "But two hours into writing the pilot, I just kept thinking, 'Matthew Perry, Matthew Perry, Matthew Perry!' No one could deliver this but Matthew Perry. There is a lot of heavy-lifting - it's not easy to find someone who can do comedy and drama at the same time, and do it well. Matthew is the actor that can."
Aaron Sorkin describes Perry's talents in a way his new character might understand: with a sports analogy: "If he was a baseball player, the scouts would say, 'He's a pure hitter,'" Sorkin said in an email. "He was born with a natural swing."
In the last stretch of his "Friends" tenure, Perry had a three-episode arc on Sorkin's White House drama, "The West Wing." In his first post-"Friends" regular role, he starred in Sorkin's behind-the-scenes drama "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" on NBC as Matt Albie, head writer of a fictional sketch-comedy TV show.
When it got canned by the network, Perry spent the next few years - which included playing a grown-up version of Zac Efron in "17 Again" and doing video game voice-over work - trying his hand at creating shows. "I thought I could give myself what I was looking for," he says.
In 2008, he created a comedy pilot for Showtime, "The End of Steve," in which he played a bitter, egomaniacal daytime talk show host. The network passed on the pilot, but Perry would give the multi-hyphenate life another try in 2011 with a little more luck.
He created, starred, wrote and served as executive producer of ABC's midseason replacement "Mr. Sunshine," which got a plum prime-time spot after the network's highest-rated comedy, "Modern Family." After a solid start, viewership began to lag and ABC canceled the series.
"I was worn out," Perry says of the experience. "I learned a valuable lesson doing 'Mr. Sunshine,' which is that I didn't want to be in charge because it's too much. Being in charge and acting in every scene was just too difficult. It's like eating dinner in a moving golf cart every night. It could never be a stagnant golf cart, it had to be moving somewhere at all times."
A breather would come from an unlikely source: a Halloween party. Perry bumped into Julianna Margulies, an old friend and former network peer, at a soiree and made it known he was a fan of the CBS drama "The Good Wife."
"She said, 'Oh, don't tell me that because I will call someone and get you on it right away,'" he recalls. She kept her promise. And the result was a role that had critics praising his performance as a smarmy Chicago attorney.
It was part of a calculated move to switch things up. Perry had wanted to head into the current TV season attached to a drama. Initially, he passed on "Go On." But then reconsidered.
"Much to my chagrin, Scott developed and created a show for me better than I could or did," Perry says.
The show, which deals with serious issues about grieving, relies on doses of comedy to balance the emotional tone.
"It's a comedy about people who talk about their problems in a circle - which is essentially what I've been doing for the last 15 years," he jokes. Perry, following rehab stints in 1997 and 2001, underwent treatment again in May 2011.
After Silveri lists the research he did on support groups in anticipation of putting pen to paper, Perry once more puts the joke on himself: "My research was my 20s, my 30s and a couple of years in my 40s."
Then, more serious.
"I wouldn't say that I'm trying to air any dirty laundry by doing this - I think most of it has been aired, but I certainly relate to characters who are on that path of some sort of recovery."