With ‘Episodes,’ LeBlanc is doin’ just fine
PASADENA, Calif. — Several times a day, a stranger will ask Matt LeBlanc how he is.
Generally speaking, these well-meaning folks aren’t really asking after the actor’s well-being. They’re quoting the catch phrase made famous by Joey Tribbiani, the character the Newton native played on “Friends’’ from 1994 to 2004: “How you doin’?’’
The answer, for LeBlanc, is really great.
After several years out of the spotlight, he’s currently enjoying good reviews and solid ratings for his new Showtime series, “Episodes,’’ the third installment of which airs tonight at 9:30. “Episodes’’ — a Showtime/BBC co-production — arrives as a welcome change from LeBlanc’s last foray into primetime with the “Friends’’ spinoff “Joey,’’ which limped through two much-maligned seasons.
Perhaps the sweetest part of the success of “Episodes’’ is the fact that LeBlanc is poking fun at himself and his famous alter ego. The series chronicles the tribulations of British comedy writers Sean and Beverly Lincoln (Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig) as they navigate the treacherous waters of Hollywood while remaking their critically acclaimed and popular UK series “Lyman’s Boys’’ for American television.
Something definitely gets lost in translation when the US network executives transform the series about an aging educator at a British prep school into a show about a lunkheaded hockey coach called “Pucks!’’ starring LeBlanc. Or, as Sean sputters incredulously in the first episode: “For the erudite, verbally dexterous headmaster of an elite boys’ academy, you’re suggesting . . . Joey?’’
Essentially, LeBlanc, playing a bizarro version of himself, is the show’s joke. But this time he’s in on it and he’s loving it.
“Once I got my head around the fact that it was a scripted version of me — not even that, a character that just happened to have the same name as me — then it became really fun to be self-deprecating,’’ says LeBlanc, perched on a chair in a hotel lounge, natty in a suit, disarmingly soft-spoken and easy to laugh. “I’ve never really done that kind of thing before and it was fun to do it about myself. I got a kick out of it and I thought I was in good hands with [“Episodes’’ co-creators] David [Crane] and Jeffrey [Klarik], they’re so talented.’’
His faith in his writers paid off in scripts that LeBlanc is still quoting, and had him laughing about what “Matt LeBlanc’’ might do, be it trying to goad Sean into an affair or trying to dodge paparazzi while drunk. “It’s moving and it’s laugh-out-loud funny, but it has this emotional through line that you care about these people. That’s a nice thing to be a part of.’’
It’s also slightly confusing, as the man in “Episodes’’ truly is a character who is also playing a character on “Pucks!’’ the show within the show. “It’s a bizarre discussion, no matter how you start,’’ says LeBlanc of the many levels at work, admitting it’s weird to play the places where he and his twisted TV version intersect.
“Sometimes we’ll be talking and I’ll tell [the writers] a story and a version of that will show up in the script. I won’t say which ones,’’ he says with a laugh.
“I don’t know how he does that,’’ says LeBlanc’s costar Kathleen Rose Perkins — who plays the comically self-absorbed and conflicted network exec Carol Rance — of his ability to play “himself.’’ “It’s an awful answer but it’s true: He’s the same person and absolutely not that person at all.’’ Of his soft-spokenness she says, “sometimes he is like that and sometimes he’s just the loudest person at the party. He’s all over the map. I like the way that they wrote him because he is both an [expletive] but in the next breath he’s the nicest guy and you cheer for him. He’s not a good guy, he’s not a bad guy, he’s both at different times so I love him in this show.’’ She then adds with a laugh, “I don’t like him as a person.’’
“In a weird way it’s kind of freeing,’’ says LeBlanc of the fun-house mirror portrayal. “Because on ‘Friends’ we were always concerned with protecting the characters and being charming and always doing the right thing for network television. Here it’s OK to sometimes be a bit villainous and it’s OK to be selfish and a little mean and not so compassionate. And then there are times when you do have those things. Like in the fourth episode you can see how troubled this guy is when I go to the bar and lose custody of the kids.’’
Those plural children are a good place to make a few distinctions between the real Matt LeBlanc and the “Episodes’’ character. The real LeBlanc has a daughter, not two sons, is not planning on opening a restaurant, nor does he have — as the show hilariously suggests — a disproportionately prodigious manly endowment.
“When they called me and said ‘we’re going to give you a huge penis. You OK with that?’ I was like ‘Yeah, can’t argue with that,’ ’’ says LeBlanc with a laugh. He also doesn’t own a private jet. But when asked if he could probably afford one thanks to all that “Friends’’ money, LeBlanc chuckles and says with perfect timing “Probably.’’ Beat. “A small one.’’ Beat. “Single engine. Not a very fast one, maybe four seats.’’
But on a more serious note, LeBlanc makes at least one major distinction between himself and the man he plays on TV who shares his name. “He’s a lot more manipulative than I am and he’s not as concerned with people’s feelings as I think I am. I don’t like to hurt people’s feelings.’’ When it’s pointed out that this concern must slow down his day, he admits, only half-joking, “It does, it’s brutal.’’
It is something he happily endures, however.
“As far as the whole Joey thing goes, I’ve got to tell you, nobody’s a bigger fan of Joey Tribbiani than me. I love the guy. It was a great character to play because there were absolutely no rules and that was really fun. And if I’m destined to forever be called that, so be it. I can think of worse problems. Like getting called no one. Or,’’ he adds with a laugh, “not getting called.’’
As for the constant hounding he, and his former castmates, receive about a “Friends’’ reunion, LeBlanc is clear: It’s not happening. “You know that old saying the book is always better than the movie? It’s better to imagine what it would be like when they get together than to see them get together. Because they’re all older and they don’t lean on each other like they did during that period of time. It’s just not the same.’’ LeBlanc then waits a beat and adds, “not to mention the potential damage a failed movie would do to the syndication value. I’m trying to get a six-seater.’’
Sarah Rodman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this story gave the incorrect day for when new episodes of "Episodes" are broadcast. The show airs on Showtime at 9:30 p.m. on Sundays.