‘It could have been the next Frasier, outshining even the hit sitcom which spawned it, but instead Friends spin-off Joey was a flop.
Cancelled midway through it is second series, after audiences plunged from 18.6million in the first episode to just 4million for the last, the show proved a bruising experience for Matt LeBlanc.
In the five years since then, he shunned Hollywood, spending time instead with his young daughter. But now he has been tempted out of his self-imposed sabbatical, to star in the BBC sitcom Episodes – about the trial and tribulations of British comedy writers trying to remake a UK hit for the Americans.
‘I had been burnt out,’ LeBlanc says. ‘Twelve years playing the same guy. But when they told me the idea behind Episodes I thought, “That's probably going to be good – yeah, get off the couch!”
‘In the beginning I was a little afraid of being exposed as the scripts hadn't been written yet – I was pretty nervous about what they might be making fun of.’
Especially as he plays a version of himself, the archetypal Hollywood playboy brought in to replace an erudite Royal Shakespeare Company actor. In the taster trailer put out by co-production partners Showtime before filming began, the real LeBlanc has to audition for the chance to play himself: ‘How could I not get it?’ a bewildered Matt asks his agent. ‘Well, they're seeing some really good people…’
He says his portrayal of Joey still affects the way people respond to him: ‘People will come up to me and speak slowly, or they'll ask me if I'm OK because I'm a lot more low-key and subdued than Joey Tribbiani was. He was very high energy; he talked loudly. But I'm not really like that. I had a lot of coffee when we were shooting Friends.
‘I didn't want the character to be too much like me because frankly it wouldn't be very interesting. He is more Matt LeBlanc than Matt LeBlanc, just as the Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm is some evil twin approximation of the real one.
‘The fictional Matt LeBlanc is a little more damaged emotionally than I am. He has two sons, whom he clearly adores, and is going through a nasty divorce.’
The real LeBlanc is divorced, and has a daughter rather than sons. He adds: ‘In many respects it's not autobiographical at all, although sometimes it seems to get a little close. For example, there's a scene where I talk about my need to sabotage my own happiness, and another where I admit that I have an inability to appreciate the consequences of my actions. In truth I am learning a lot about myself.
‘It's really liberating. When you get pigeonholed as one character, people tend to think, “That's all he can do”. In Episodes the network insists that the character stick to type and play a hockey coach. It's a kind of metaphor about the sacrifices you make, the compromises to your art when the idea of fame and success are introduced.
‘The Matt LeBlanc in the show uses the fact that people assume I'm dumb because I played the dumb guy in Friends to manipulate situations to his advantage. He manipulates the writers so that the show is more the way he wants it to be. Not that he's right, but it exposes his insecurities about his ability.’
Of his own experiences of a high-profile comedy, LeBlanc says: ‘Network television can be a fair-weather friend. If the ratings dip slightly, the phone stops ringing pretty instantly. Obviously a lot of those experiences are exaggerated in the script for the sake of comedy, presented as the worst case scenario, but it's really funny, cleverly executed, a nice balance of heart and funny.
‘There are so many things about Hollywood that I think are taken for granted in America. The way they are seen through fresh eyes in Episodes gives you the chance to see how weird certain things are – the house, the fakeness, the money that's involved when you get to network level, and the wastefulness.’
The clash between the British and American ways of making TV is at the heart of the comedy, something producer Jimmy Mulville has experience of. Although he successfully exported Whose Line Is It Anyway to the States, Game On, the Nineties comedy based around an agoraphobic in a flat-share, proved more problematic.
After showering the show with praise, Mulville said that the Fox network executives who bought it ('Love it, it's so sophisticated!') then questioned its very premise: ‘”Can't he leave the house once, to go down to Foot Locker?” they said. Bit by bit it got eroded from being a distinctive, quirky, Black Comedy into being about three jolly people sharing an apartment and it never got made.
‘American network television is driven by numbers and by panic really. I've learned that 90 per cent of producing is protecting your original idea, playing defence, absorbing the worst notes and trying to ensure they don't damage the show.
"It's a difficult transition from here to the States, and The Office, of course, is one glorious exception. We did Worst Week Of My Life, which lasted for 16 episodes in 2009 and we're also developing Outnumbered with Fox – our original pilot didn't work as it was too cheery and whacky. Outnumbered is painful sometimes and real and gritty, and they don't like that much in America.’
LeBlanc also found working on Episodes a new experience, because of it was a single-camera shoot rather than a multi-camera sitcom in front of an audience. ‘Making Friends was like being in a play,’ he said. ‘The audience is in the scene with you and you have to wait for the laughter to die down before you deliver your next line.
‘Not having a live studio audience took some getting used to. I hadn't worked for four years, so to get back in front of the camera, say a punchline and not have a huge audience react to – that took some getting used to!’
But on occasion he could hear writers David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik laughing next to the monitors, forgetting that they could be heard on set: ‘They had to be reminded not to laugh because absolutely everything gets picked up by the mics – it took them a little time to get used to as well.’
As TV veterans, the writers has plenty of experience to draw on. ‘We've both been very lucky in television,’ says David, "But we've definitely got our war stories. It's a challenging process because the industry is ruled by fear. You have all this money being spent, and you have all these executives who need to justify themselves and their jobs. They're terrified they'll make a mistake. The trouble is, no one really knows the answers. They're not stupid people... for the most part!’
Jeffrey agrees: ‘It doesn't matter who you are or what you've done before, the minute they think that your show's not going to be a hit, they panic. They bury you with notes. Or they decide you're dead before you're even on the air. Yesterday they loved you, and today your call's not being returned. It gets very chilly very fast. It's a punishing process.
‘When you decide you want to become a television writer, you naively assume it's going to be like the writers on the old Dick Van Dyke Show. You'll write something and they'll just put it on TV. But what you quickly discover is that American network television is television by committee.
‘By contrast, working on Episodes was exactly what we'd hoped it would be. Both the BBC and Showtime have been amazing. We couldn't believe that we'd found a place where the network doesn't sit on your head the whole time.
‘Several years ago, I did a pilot about a girls' boarding school and there were two notes from the studio. One was “can't there be boys at the school?” The second was, “Can we get those girls into nighties?” They were 15! I'm not kidding! And these notes were coming in two days before I started filming!
‘But that system also produces shows like Mad About You and Friends, which somehow slip through the cracks. You happen to have one executive who champions it and the best thing they do is to make everyone else leave you alone. It's a fluke, you can't predict it and you never understand why you flew under the radar.’
David agrees: "I'd say that the best thing they did with Friends was just let us make the show we wanted to make.’
They also found the British writing process ‘really refreshing’ compared to the pressure of American team-written shows. ‘We were able to write all the episodes ourselves, which is a luxury you never get back home,’ Jeffrey says. ‘We're used to doing everything with a room full of other writers, which has a way of homogenising everything and limiting a specific writer's voice.’
David agrees: ‘We've also never done a series where we could write all the scripts in advance. It allowed us to really hone the characters' arcs and polish the dialogue before filming started. When you're doing a network show in America, you're writing the episodes at the same time you're shooting them. It's like you're throwing the tracks in front of the train as it's moving.’
They admit to being influenced by British shows like The Office, Extras, and The Mighty Boosh. ‘Sometimes we were pretty intimidated,’ David confesses. ‘When we were writing Episodes, we happened to be watching the second season of Outnumbered. We had to turn it off. It was just too good.’
David and Jeffrey acknowledge that the English couple at the centre of Episodes based on themselves, as they, too, both live and work together.
Much like the couple on their show – played by Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig – David and Jeffrey sometimes found it difficult to leave their work behind. Jeffrey says: ‘There is a scene where Beverly says to Sean, “Can we just not talk about the show this evening?” and there is a long, long, long pause and they just can't find anything else to talk about.’
David laughs: ‘Oh yeah, it consumes our lives!’
Tamsin Grieg says the dynamic between her character, Beverly, her on-screen husband and Matt LeBlanc is what makes the show. She said: ‘When there are two men and a woman, people will say, “Ah, that's interesting – the woman will be torn between the two men.” But what makes this show interesting is that there is a love affair of friendship between Sean and Matt. You know when you are in a couple and your husband gets excited about his new best mate? There's a kind of emotional love affair that goes on which is in many ways more dangerous than a sexual love affair.’
‘Beverly also thinks that Matt is a bit of a twat. In fact there are lots of people she meets in LA who she doesn't really like. I think that if you take somebody out of their comfort zone, they're going to dislike people because they're not liking themselves.’
Mangan agrees: ‘Matt pitomises the glamour, the fame and the money – that's why you go to America, right? Beverly can't stand it, but for Sean it's a total bro-mance. He falls in love with Matt. He can't get enough of LA, of Matt, of the whole thing.
‘It's a Wizard Of Oz phenomenon, isn't it? You want to see behind the curtain, but this is a show that's so completely artificial: it's not the “real” world. That's why people buy magazines like Grazia, to find out the “real” story. But it's just another piece of fiction. Yet people can't get enough of it. We're celebrity obsessed.’
LeBlanc agrees: ‘Celebrity is a funny thing. People want to know what is the magic behind it, what makes it work. You see this polished, finished product and you want to peek behind the façade, to see people's faults, to see the funny in that. There is a lot of upbeat stuff in Episodes but there are also dark moments.’
He admits that he will probably never truly shake off the ghost of Joey Tribianni.Strangers call him Joey more than they call him Matt and seem excited to see him. ‘I look on it as a compliment,’ he says. ‘At the end of the day, it beats digging holes.’
- Episodes starts on BBC Two at 10pm on Monday January 10.