When Aisha Tyler finished recording her first episode of Friends, in which she played Charlie, palaeontology professor and love interest of Joey and Ross, she and the cast lined up backstage to do a curtain call. “They brought out the guest actors first and then they brought out the Friends cast,” she recalls. “I was standing next to Matthew Perry, who leaned in and said to me: ‘Get ready for your life to change’.”
Given Perry’s struggles with drug and alcohol addiction, as detailed in last year’s memoir Friends, Lovers and the Big, Terrible Thing, this might have been construed as a warning. Tyler didn’t take it that way. “It didn’t feel negative at all. It was him saying, ‘Congratulations, this is going to change everything.’ And he was right, it did.”
Tyler, 52, is talking via video call from Los Angeles where she is installed in a hotel for a day of back-to-back interviews. Despite the gruelling schedule, she is warm and cheerful – “Well, if I’m not dead inside now, it’s probably not going to happen,” she laughs.
In Britain, Tyler will probably always be best known as Charlie from Friends, but in America she is the ultimate multihyphenate, having forged parallel careers as a TV host (on the Emmy-winning The Talk and Whose Line is it Anyway?), podcast presenter (on the interview series Girl on Guy), author (in 2013 she published a book of essays called Self-Inflicted Wounds) and director (she directed the 2017 feature film Axis, starring Sam Rockwell, and several episodes of The Walking Dead). All this on top of a steady stream of acting roles in, among other things, 24, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Ghost Whisperer, Criminal Minds and the animated series Archer.
Later this week, Tyler can be seen on both sides of the pond in the Apple TV+ nail-biter The Last Thing He Told Me, an adaptation of the best-selling novel by Laura Dave. It concerns a newly married couple, Hannah (Jennifer Garner) and Owen (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), who, along with Owen’s teenage daughter, Bailey (Angourie Rice), live on a houseboat in Sausalito in San Francisco. When Owen vanishes, leaving a duffel bag full of cash and a note of apology in Bailey’s school locker, stepmother and stepdaughter must put aside their differences to solve the mystery of his disappearance.
Tyler plays Jules, Hannah’s best friend and a journalist at the San Francisco Chronicle. As well as turning up with wine, pizza and a sympathetic ear, she uses her investigative skills to help Hannah and Bailey find out what happened to Owen.
Tyler was instantly drawn to the premise of buried secrets. “I don’t think it’s a pessimistic thing to say you can never truly know someone all the way through. Everybody has parts of their lives they keep hidden, maybe not in a nefarious way, but that they choose not to reveal. And so loving someone is really an act of faith.” After reading for the part, Tyler was desperate to get the job, but did what so many actors have learned to do after an audition.
“You put it out of your mind or else descend into madness. But then I was at Coachella, of all places, and they called” – screenwriter Josh Singer, producer Libby Newman and Laura Dave – “and asked for a meeting. We just connected and I felt it was the right role and the right project. I mean, these things are chemical, right?”
While Tyler’s acting career spans everything from police procedurals and medical dramas to supernatural thrillers, her biggest love is comedy. She studied law at college, but spent as much time watching stand-up as writing essays. At the time, the leap between law and comedy didn’t feel all that strange.
“Isn’t law a kind of farce anyway?” Tyler laughs. “After I got my undergraduate degree, I thought, ‘Well, I can try [comedy] and, if it doesn’t work out, I’ve got something to fall back on.’ And so I did some stand-up and it didn’t even go that well, but I was immediately hooked. I thought, ‘This is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life’.”
Among her mentors were Marc Maron, Tom Rhodes and George Lopez. “A lot of older comedians were genuinely supportive of my work. I mean, there were plenty who were not – at that time, there weren’t many people who looked like me. Comedy can be very gruelling. It’s lots of late nights and pain and misery. But these guys gave me their time and their advice.”
Word soon got around about Tyler’s comic chops, and the acting roles began trickling in. She appeared in an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, and landed bit parts in films including Dancing in September and The Santa Clause 2. In 2001 she became host of Talk Soup, a fast-paced comedy series on E!, previously hosted by Greg Kinnear, which poked fun at daytime talk shows such as The Jerry Springer Show. But – as she says – everything changed in 2003 when she was cast on Friends.
“Typically, when you book a TV show or a film, you are hoping it’s going to be good but really you have no idea,” Tyler reflects. “You do a pilot and maybe it doesn’t even get picked up as a series, or gets cancelled after two episodes. But when I got Friends, it was the number one TV show in the world. It was a juggernaut.”
She was initially booked for four episodes, but they kept her on for nine. When she first walked on set she was petrified. “These people had been working together for nine years and were seen as the best sitcom actors in the world. I know we will analyse Friends for decades to come but, empirically, they knew how to tell a good sitcom joke, so much so that a lot of famous people had gone on there and had meltdowns because they couldn’t keep up.”
Tyler isn’t wrong about the ongoing analysis. Friends came to an end in 2004, since when the conversation about the show’s less admirable aspects – the fatphobia, the gags at the expense of LGBTQ+ people, the overwhelming whiteness of a group of friends living in multicultural New York – has got louder. Just last week, Jennifer Aniston, who played Rachel, carped about the younger generation finding Friends’ humour offensive – “We should have thought it through – but I don’t think there was a sensitivity like there is now,” she said.
Tyler believes there must have been conversations about the show’s lack of diversity at the time.
Obviously, these weren’t conversations I was privy to, but I do know that David Schwimmer [who played Ross] pushed for [my] character to be a woman of colour. But it wasn’t written that way and we didn’t end up with a special episode of Friends where we’re talking about race. She just was a Black woman, she was a PhD, she was a love interest for those two guys and I thought that was a really elegant way to approach it, and made the most sense. But I knew that it was going to be a seminal thing.”
Since then, the opportunities have kept on coming and Tyler has made the most of them. “I like to try new things. I don’t want to just cruise, or be in a state where everything is laid in front of me. I’m keenly aware that if I had been born 20 or 30 years earlier, I wouldn’t be in the same position that I am in now. As a woman and as a person of colour, I would not have the same opportunities available to me. It’s a gift that other people fought for so I don’t take it for granted.”
The Last Thing He Told Me is on Apple TV+ from Friday 14 April