If ever an actor were made for a part, it’s surely former “Friends” star Matt LeBlanc, who plays a former “Friends” star called Matt LeBlanc in the inside-Hollywood sitcom “Episodes.”
If that sounds confusingly meta, LeBlanc also wasn’t exactly sure what he was getting into when he was approached by “Friends” co-creator David Crane and partner Jeffrey Klarik in 2010 to star in their ambitious new farce.
“I thought, ‘That’s a show I would watch,'” the 50-year-old recalls of meeting up with the writers over lunch in Santa Barbara to discuss the idea of a comedy series satirizing the US television industry.
“My only question was, ‘What do you mean, I’m playing myself? I don’t understand. That’s a little strange.’ They said, ‘We’re not making a documentary — it’s a character with your name on it.'”
In fact, LeBlanc does play himself — or at least a fictionalized, vainglorious, funhouse mirror image of himself — in the weekly half-hour Showtime comedy.
“Episodes” tells the story of a husband-and-wife writing team — played by Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig — who have a nightmarish experience adapting their award-winning British comedy show for American TV.
LeBlanc amplifies himself as an outrageously unsuitable and untrustworthy choice for the lead part, foist upon the writers by network executives who still remember the money “Friends” made.
“To get my head back into this, to promote the show, it’s like putting on an old leather jacket that fits just right,” LeBlanc told AFP backstage at a Q&A in Beverly Hills to preview the fifth and final season.
– Glorious decade –
LeBlanc — alongside Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Matthew Perry, Lisa Kudrow and David Schwimmer — had the world at his feet in 2004 when “Friends” ended a glorious decade that had earned them $1 million an episode and propelled them to global stardom.
His first major setback came when the spin-off series “Joey” — relocating his beloved “Friends” character Joey Tribbiani to Los Angeles — was canceled after just two seasons.
He is on the record as being very happy with the reported $15 million a season fee, but regretting that he didn’t insist on Crane and Klaric coming on board as writers.
When they came calling for “Episodes,” LeBlanc had been on a six-year break at his ranch in southern California, cut off from showbiz but enjoying the fortune that “Friends” and its spin-off had earned him.
“I had a less than spectacular experience coming off of ‘Joey’ and for me the idea of working with these two guys — who are like family, they really are, we get along great, I really have so much respect for them as writers — that was a big part of it,” he told the audience in Beverly Hills.
To play the part of his puffed-up caricature, often the butt of the joke, LeBlanc was required to leave his ego at the door, and being able to trust Crane and Klaric was essential.
“I knew something that I was uncomfortable with at the outset would be safe in their hands, and that they wouldn’t throw me under the bus,” he said.
– ‘Car nut’ –
“Episodes” has received 10 Emmy nominations since it debuted in 2011, including four for LeBlanc, and the actor won a Golden Globe for the first season in 2012.
A self-confessed “car nut,” he was unveiled last year as the new co-presenter of the BBC’s revamped “Top Gear” motoring show and has just started filming the second season of CBS sitcom “Man with a Plan.”
After 23 years playing Joey — in “Friends,” then solo Joey, then Matt LeBlanc living off the spoils of playing Joey — the actor could be forgiven for wanting to leave the character far behind.
“I think it’s futile to try and do that. That show’s going to follow all six of us forever,” he told AFP.
“And I don’t want to — I’m proud of it. It was a great thing to be a part of.”
He added however that Joey Tribbiani, a character that has brought him stardom, riches, a small measure of opprobrium and a great deal of acclaim, is unlikely to be put back to work any time soon.
“Everyone asks about a ‘Friends’ reunion — is there going to be another show. My opinion is that the book is better than the movie,” he told AFP, speaking figuratively.
“I think it’s best left to everyone’s imagination as to their own opinion of what those characters are doing now.”
“Episodes” began its final season on Showtime on Sunday and will air on BBC2 in Britain in the fall.