Experience Stacks and Matthew Perry (R.I.P.)

When social media surfaced a clip of the late Friends star on West Wing, it activated crashing contexts that explain how Experience Stacks work, and why they can be powerful.

By Brad Berens

Experience Stacks are the different contexts that a customer, user, or audience brings to a product or story. People improvisationally shift from context to context during experiences, which is one of the key differences between analog (human) thinking and algorithmic (AI) thinking. That’s all you need to know about Experience Stacks to understand this article, but you can dig into all my pieces on this topic if the spirit moves.

I am more aware of Matthew Perry after his premature death last October than I ever was while he was still alive.

In part this is because Perry was among the last big TV celebrities. Friends started in 1994, after the fragmentation of television that started with cable television’s explosion of channels, but before the internet shattered those fragments into pebbles like a windshield after a car crash. The biggest TV stars of tomorrow will never be as big as Perry during 10 seasons of Friends and thereafter.

But Perry was a smaller TV star than those who had come before cable. Ratings for a typical episode of Friends in the 1990s and 2000s are smaller than ratings for a typical episode of M*A*S*H in the 1970s and 1980s. The easiest way to see this is to compare the two series finales. When M*A*S*H went off the air in 1983, 106 million watched. In 2004, when Friends went off the air, 52.5 million watched. That’s an audience decay of more than 50%, all because of cable fragmentation.

Perry’s bestselling memoir, Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing, which returned to the bestseller lists after his death, also kept him salient in my awareness.

Yet another reason, a bigger reason, that I’m more aware of Matthew Perry today is the internet, specifically Meta’s Facebook and Instagram algorithms that started showing me a lot of video clips of Perry in Friends and other shows. In the early days after Perry’s surprising death, I clicked on a few of these videos. The algorithms decided then that I would always and forever want to see short videos featuring Matthew Perry because, as I’ve argued for a long time, Facebook doesn’t understand the concept of enough.

My Experience Stack activates

Then, a few days ago, something surprising happened. I was late-night doomscrolling when the Instagram algorithm served up a short clip from The West Wing featuring Perry and Bradley Whitford. Whitford’s Josh Lyman was interviewing Perry’s character for a White House job. The two actors had obvious chemistry, while the two characters had obvious conflict. (You can see the clip on YouTube or in the episode on MAX at 37:30.)

Matthew Perry, the comic actor, was in West Wing, the drama? How did I miss that?

Some quick searching revealed not only that Perry guest starred as attorney Joe Quincy in three episodes (across the fourth and fifth seasons) but also that he earned two Emmy nominations for the role (in 2003 and 2004).

But how did I miss it back in the day? I loved the first season of West Wing, which premiered in September of 1999. A year later, George W. Bush was elected. The fictional Bartlet administration was too distant from the real Bush administration for me to enjoy it. So, I stopped watching, dropping in from time to time but never again a regular viewer. I don’t watch The Emmys, so I never heard about Perry’s three West Wing appearances.

A few nights after I saw the clip online, I watched the episode (“Evidence of Things Not Seen,” S4.E20, first aired 4/23/03). The Lyman/Quincy interview happened in chunks across the entire plot, ending with the clip I saw online.

While watching, I realized, “Wait a minute! That’s Danny Tripp and Matt Albie from Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip!”

Friends ended after 10 seasons in 2004; West Wing ended after seven seasons in May of 2006. Four months later, Studio 60 premiered. The two main male leads were Whitford and Perry. This was Aaron Sorkin’s followup series to West Wing, a one-hour drama about the cast of an SNL-like sketch comedy show. (30 Rock, a sitcom about the cast of an SNL-like sketch comedy show, also premiered on NBC in 2006.)*

As I was watching “Evidence of Things Not Seen,” a nexus of different contexts—that is, my Matthew Perry Experience Stack—all activated and crashed into each other:

  • Matthew Perry as Chandler Bing (comedy), Joe Quincy, and Matt Albie (both drama)
  • Bradley Whitford as Josh Lyman and Danny Tripp
  • Aaron Sorkin as the creator of both West Wing and Studio 60
  • Friends, West Wing, Studio 60, and 30 Rock (all NBC shows) over 12 years
  • SNL, Studio 60, and 30 Rock all as sketch comedy shows (one real, two fictional).

None of these crashing contexts are in any way necessary to see, understand, and enjoy the Joe Quincy episodes of West Wing. The contexts are all extra, external, supplemental.

That’s a key feature of Experience Stacks and what differentiates them from fandom. When there’s a long-running series or fictional universe (Star Trek, Star Wars, the MCU, Harry Potter), the longer the series goes the harder it is for new audiences to jump on board because getting up to speed is a gigantic homework assignment. (Avengers: Infinity War is a fine example of this.)

Since Experience Stacks amplify experiences in optional ways, they are better than fandoms at acquiring and retaining large audiences, albeit less engaged ones than fandoms. (Like the kids in Galaxy Quest.)

When creators empower their customers, users, or audiences to build their own Experience Stacks, they know some of the materials at hand but not how the recipients organize them. Understanding that people do more with their experiences than you will ever know can help businesses and storytellers succeed and differentiate.

The crashing contexts were also deliberate: the casting folks at NBC knew that Perry was at the height of his Friends/comic popularity when they put him in a drama. Later, Sorkin took two actors who worked well together in West Wing and stuck them into new characters in Studio 60.

The only accidental part was that it took me until 2024 to notice that this had happened.

Two takeaways

First, Experience Stacks don’t have to be deep in order to be delightful.

Although these crashing contexts were deliberate, they were not meaningful. Aside from seeing that Perry had dramatic range, casting him as Joe Quincy wasn’t asking the viewer to compare Joe to Chandler. Quincy wasn’t a commentary on Bing or vice versa.

Later with Studio 60, for those viewers who remembered the chemistry and conflict between Lyman and Quincy when watching Tripp and Albie, it wasn’t a provocation to compare the two so much as to relish the realization. This worked like the Bing Crosby and Bob Hope characters in the “Road to” movies in the mid-twentieth century: the actors played different characters in each movie (even though there were running gags).

Second, Experience Stacks do not suffer from the tyranny of sequence: they can be non-linear. This is another key distinction between Experience Stacks and fandoms; watching or reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows before you read or watch any of the other stories is an inferior experience to reading the Potter stories in order.

That is not true of Experience Stacks. It didn’t matter that I saw Perry on West Wing in 2024, long after all the shows in my stack had concluded their runs.

In an earlier essay, I wrote about how the first season finale of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds (2022), “A Quality of Mercy,”** made extra sense to longtime Star Trek fans because it revised and commented on a 1966 episode from the original series, “Balance of Terror.”)

What I didn’t realize at the time was that the amplifying nature of the Experience Stack could work in either direction. Long time Trek fans would see the sequence as first “Balance of Terror” then “A Quality of Mercy,” but newer fans could reverse the sequence and still get the amplifying effect.

This is rather like kids who grow up watching The Lion King and later read Hamlet in high school: they wonder why Shakespeare is ripping off Disney.

When creators empower their customers, users, or audiences to build their own Experience Stacks, they know some of the materials at hand but not how the recipients organize them. Understanding that people do more with their experiences than you will ever know can help businesses and storytellers succeed and differentiate.

It’s a neat reversal of the Field of Dreams tagline. Instead, “if you build it, they will come,” it’s “if you let them build it, then they’ll stay.”


Brad Berens is the Center’s strategic advisor and a senior research fellow. He is principal at Big Digital Idea Consulting. You can learn more about Brad at www.bradberens.com, follow him on Post and/or LinkedIn, and subscribe to his weekly newsletter (only some of his columns are syndicated here).


* I adored Studio 60 and have watched the whole series several times. It saddens me to this day that it only lasted one season. This was because the plot started to unravel and also because 30 Rock was a big hit…. There just wasn’t enough room in the culture for both shows and the original SNL.

** The title, “A Quality of Mercy” is itself a reference to Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, which in turn is a reference to how several of the episode titles—e.g. “Dagger of the Mind,” “The Conscience of the King,” “All Our Yesterdays,” and “By Any Other Name”—in the original Star Trek series referred to Shakespeare.

See all columns from the Center.

February 7, 2024