'Friends' Gunther: Why Is He Funny?
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Ah, Friends: is there any sitcom more iconic? Well, yes. But more popular? Well, yes. But more all-encompassing culturally? Maybe.
This ungodly popular classic of the 90s and early 00s still prints money for Warner Bros., bringing in over 1 billion dollars a year, or approximately far less than 1% of Bezos’ money. Rachel, Ross, Chandler, Monica, Joey, and Phoebe are all staples of American culture, with their hijinks and awful actions and sometimes good actions fondly remembered and annoyingly reenacted by millions of fans. But, we’re not here to talk about the six amigos today, we’re here to talk about the seventh unofficial Friend: Gunther.
Gunther, portrayed by the late James Michael Tyler, is the character in the show with the most appearances outside of the main cast, though only half of those appearances feature him speaking. He is very physically distinct due to his bright, white-blonde hair, “as bright as the sun” according to Rachel.
According to Tyler, the reason Gunther’s hair is that color is because the day before Tyler went in to audition, he had let his hair stylist friend dye his hair as an experiment. The producers loved it, and consequently Tyler dyed his hair weekly for ten years like, like, like… like some sort of guy whose job it is to have blonde hair.
Anyway, outside of his distinctive hair, Gunther is known primarily because he runs (potentially owns?) the coffee shop the main cast spends most of their time in, Central Perk. He’s frequently seen in the background of scenes doing things that someone who actually works in a coffee shop might do. Tyler famously got the part of Gunther because he was the only extra on set that day to know how to work an espresso machine, as he had worked in a number of coffee shops previously.
Gunther’s most notable character trait is his long, unrequited love for Rachel. He is shown over the course of the last seven seasons pining and pining but can never tell her how he feels. This part of the character leads us to the question we want to answer: why is Gunther funny?
Throughout most of his appearances on the show, Gunther’s humor comes from one of two places: either he is the typical bystander serving up sassy answers or confused questions to the shenanigans of the main cast’s actions, or he is being funny in some way related to his crush on Rachel.
Regarding the sassy, that sort of character is a staple of the multicam, laugh track sitcom.
Think about every time the cast of any sitcom, not just Friends, finds themselves in a hospital for example. There is always a snarky nurse. In that hospital episode, the nurse fulfills the role of the extra who mocks a main cast member. Or think about times sitcom characters find themselves on a bus after running 800 miles or something – whoever they sit down next to on that bus is inevitably going to make a sly comment about them being sweaty or smelly.
Gunther most often fills this bill; but, since he is a recurring character, we find him much funnier than the normal, one-off extras that tend to occupy those roles – he is a known quantity, so to speak. We the viewers have a feel for his personality and thus are just a bit more amused by his remarks.
Think about the average sitcom joke: it is often not that funny, and if some stranger said it we wouldn’t find it very amusing, but when the characters in the show say it, after we’ve gotten to know them over however many episodes, it’s just a but funnier and we actually end up laughing at something we otherwise might not.
It’s the same as laughing at your own friends, the things about them that make you laugh do so because you know them so well. The result is that whatever they say is much funnier than it otherwise would be.
The second source of Gunther’s humor is of course his love for Rachel. Normally, Gunther is quiet and fairly reserved, the perfect mixture of background character and recurring jokester. But his reactions to watching Rachel’s love life advance in so many directions other than his provides the best laughs from him.
We see him slink out of scenes to smash dishes when he hears Rachel being asked out, we see him spitefully hamper Ross’s efforts with her, we see him sprint and trip and fall when he overhears her say that she needs a hug.
Sitcoms operate on a thin level of the surreal, dialing up ludicrous aspects of real life just enough to make the mundane a bit wilder. Gunther’s reactions to Rachel’s love life and his lack of involvement in it is that idea within Friends – he is the inner emotions and outer actions of the way all of us might react or feel about a crush, but then cranked up so that from his sadness and unrequited love, we can find some moments of laughter.
On the one hand, we’re laughing at him (“Haha wow look how ridiculous he acts for love!”) while on the other we’re perhaps laughing at ourselves (“Haha wow if I did that whenever I felt that way I’d make a fool of myself!”).
In the end, Gunther is the seventh Friend of the show. Probably. He’s at least a top three contender, and he’s certainly one of the funniest side characters because he is the very human emotions of love and jealousy amped up to where they can be played for laughs on a sitcom.
We all know that blueprint doesn't function the same in real life.
Top image: NBC