Did anyone actually like that monkey on Friends? I was never a huge afficionado, but I’ve seen a lot of the episodes, who hasn’t? And I saw lots of the ones featuring the monkey. I remember that bit where the monkey keeps getting hold of Ross’ hi-fi system and playing his own CDs, that was pretty clever. But clever isn’t funny. We can admire clever, but we never love it. Funny is funny; clever puts us off.
The monkey’s name was Marcel. There were two hundred and thirty-six episodes of Friends, but Marcel only featured in eight of them. The character was written out at the end of the first season, because the producers claimed there was just one too many cast members. Apparently it had been a toss-up between Marcel and Lisa Kudrow.
I’m no expert on the monkey from Friends, okay? I make no claims for that. But there was this one time I met someone who was.
I was at a television convention in Toronto a few years back. I was representing some British sci-fi series you probably haven’t heard of. There were meant to be more members of the production team there, but someone looked on the map and found out it was in Canada. I’m sure the Canadians would rather the BBC had sent an actor, any actor, but they’d been sent a writer instead – and they were very polite, being Canadians and everything, but it was a pretty chilly politeness. I felt quite lonely, and so when I wasn’t doing panels for my own show I would check out some of the others. They had Lost there, they had The Sopranos, they had all the different incarnations of Star Trek, past, present and future. There was one panel that advertised Friends, apparently the cast from Friends were at the same conference as me, and I was intrigued. I went to the Friends panel. When I got in, though, and took my seat among all the Friends fans, I saw that up on stage there was just this one woman I didn’t recognise, sitting next to the monkey.
The audience would ask the monkey questions. The monkey seemed to consider them carefully, and then chittered at the woman, who’d lean into her microphone and offer a translation. Yes, Marcel had loved his brief stint on Friends! Yes, he was still in regular contact with all the other cast members, they hung out sometimes and always exchanged cards at Christmas. Yes, if he could go to Central Perk his favourite coffee would be a monkey macchiato.
The monkey never acknowledged the woman, and when the panel ended and he thanked the audience for coming, he didn’t even look at her, let alone tell us her name. I saw her in the bar that evening, and no one was talking to her, I thought she might very well be the only person there less famous than me. I asked if she’d like a drink. She said she would. She looked grateful. She gave me her name. It was Kathleen Jackson, or maybe it was Johnson, or maybe it was Katherine.
It didn’t take many drinks before Kathleen Jackson was telling me the truth. Marcel had had a miserable time on Friends. The rest of the cast had never made him feel welcome. Jennifer Aniston, Matt LeBlanc, Courteney Cox… as soon as the cameras stopped rolling, they wouldn’t even speak to him. Lisa Kudrow and Matthew Perry actually bullied him; they never laid a finger on him, but it was psychological bullying, that was worse somehow. They’d hide his bananas, they’d call him ‘apebreath’. Only David Schwimmer was nice to him – and that sucked, who’d want David Schwimmer being nice to you? When Marcel was sacked he was almost relieved. Almost – but sometimes, Kathleen told me, he’d drink too much, and then he’d get maudlin, and he’d shout at Kathleen, he’d say he was a washed up chimp and he’d missed the one chance he’d get for superstardom. Sometimes, she said, Marcel couldn’t cope with all the questions on stage about his time on the show, and he’d snap, and come out with stuff that was borderline obscene. Sometimes, she said, she didn’t merely translate, she had to make up his answers altogether.
She was a monkey wrangler, she told me. That was her official job description. She had been a monkey gaffer, but she’d worked her way up.
“Must be nice to work in Hollywood,” I said.
“My parents are ashamed,” said Kathleen. “This is what you do with your life, my father says, you wrangle monkeys? And not even a successful monkey, a failure, a faded star. And what does that make me? If he’s a faded star, and I’m a flea on the back of a faded star, I’m not a has-been, I’m a never-was, I’m a never-gonna-be. And at nights, oh God, he gets so bad, sometimes he gets so very bad.”
“Yeah, I said. “But Hollywood, right? That’s got to be nice!” The BBC filmed most of my stuff in Cardiff.
“And do you know what’s saddest?” she said. “That he’s often quite sweet. When he lays off the booze, and the pills. When he stops trying too hard to look smart, when he stops worrying what everyone thinks of him, he’s actually kinda funny.”
She asked me back to hers. She asked casually enough, but when I said I might as well she looked so delighted and her eyes began to water. Outside her bedroom door she gave me a kiss on the lips, and that was very nice, and she said, “I won’t be long, you’ll wait here, won’t you?” I said, “What about the monkey?” She sort of snapped, “I said I’m dealing with it, aren’t I?” She left me out in the corridor for about ten minutes. Once in a while people would emerge from the lift, and I would pat at my pockets as if trying to find my keys.
The bed looked big and soft, and Kathleen had got undressed and there was a lot of flesh on display. But I couldn’t help it, my attention kept being drawn to that little cot by the television. Inside I could see Marcel the monkey, lying stretched out on his back, and once in a while his paws would start to pedal the air. “Forget about him,” said Kathleen, “what he doesn’t know won’t hurt him.” We began making out. But, I don’t know, whenever I closed my eyes I always pictured the monkey’s face, I thought it was the monkey who was nibbling at me, the monkey who was grunting – and perhaps the grunting was the monkey’s, because, drugged to the eyeballs as he was, he was clearly having vivid dreams of some sort of another. “This is for me, this is for me,” Kathleen kept saying over and over again, as she ground away, and I could understand the sentiment, sure, but it sounded just a little selfish.
At length I just had to push her away. “I can’t,” I said. I told her I just felt sorry for Marcel. He’d been betrayed all his career, and now here he was, and we were betraying him as well. He deserved better than that. He deserved better from us – she, his wrangler and best friend and only confidante – me, a guy who’d quite liked the episode where he played with Ross’ hi-fi. I said I thought I should leave.
“Bullshit,” said Kathleen. “You don’t feel sorry for him, you feel ashamed of me. You wouldn’t leave if it were Lisa Kudrow I’d been wrangling.” And I didn’t say so, but I suppose she had a point.
For all that, we parted on good terms. I told her that if she were ever in Cardiff, for some inexplicable reason, she should look me up. And she said that would come to my panel the next morning, she’d sit on the front row with Marcel the monkey, and they’d both cheer me on. I knew she meant well, and I told her how nice that would be, but when she didn’t show I was relieved.
A few years later I read in the newspaper that Marcel had killed himself. He was doing a stage adaptation of Disney’s Tarzan, it was only a small part. They found him hanging in his dressing room during the interval, and it’s hard for monkeys to hang themselves to death, hangings are pretty comfortable positions to adopt for the average monkey, so Marcel must have really put some effort into it. Right to the very end, he’d been very clever – but not necessarily very funny. Marcel had never got that balance right. I felt sorry for him. I hoped he had found some peace at last. I told people I’d met him once, and it was truly surprising how few of them cared.
Of Kathleen Jackson no mention was made, but that didn’t mean anything. She might have found another job ages ago.