This is something that has happened to Matt LeBlanc more than once. Some random person will walk up to him on the street. Maybe they are a millennial or even younger. “Are you Joey’s dad?” they ask.
“I don’t know if they’re messing with me or what,” LeBlanc says. “They’re like, you’re so old.”
Last month, LeBlanc turned 50. We’re sitting on his hotel balcony at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills when I ask him how it feels to hit that milestone. “It sucks,” he says, with a laugh. “There’s no way to sugarcoat it. You kind of go, wow, where does the time go? I feel like I just turned 40.”
Of course, most of the country still sees LeBlanc — whose Showtime series Episodes starts its fifth and final season this Sunday — as the 27-year-old he was when Friends premiered in 1994. Those kids who think he’s Joey Tribbiani’s dad have been obsessively bingeing the show on Netflix, which acquired all 10 seasons for a whopping $500,000 per episode in 2015.
Since that show ended its run on NBC over a decade ago, the six main cast members have each had very different career trajectories. While Jennifer Aniston skyrocketed to rom-com stardom on the big screen, LeBlanc jumped immediately into the doomed Friends spin-off series Joey. The show lasted for just two seasons before NBC canceled it due to a precipitous drop in ratings.
“After Joey ended, the plan was to take a year off,” LeBlanc says. “I ended up taking about five or six years off.” When he tells me that the unexpectedly long break from work was “great,” I can’t tell if he’s being sarcastic or not.
“It was great, yeah,” he insists. “I wasn’t doing anything. I was hanging out, visiting family, spending time with my daughter, playing with cars and motorcycles and just goofing around. It was really nice. I didn’t feel the need to go back to work. I read a bunch of scripts during that time, but nothing really caught my eye. Nothing good enough to get me off the couch.”
Then LeBlanc got a call from Friends co-creator David Crane and his life/work partner Jeffrey Klarik. They weren’t asking the actor to play Joey again. They were asking him to play Matt LeBlanc.
“I really didn’t understand what they meant by that,” the actor says. While he “knew that the material would be great with them writing it,” LeBlanc says he had some “reservations” about how he would be portrayed on screen. “And they said, look, we’re not making a documentary. We’re going to come up with a character that’s loosely based on you,” he recalls.
LeBlanc’s only condition was that since he has a daughter in real life, his character on Episodes would have two sons instead. “It was far enough away from me where we could tell any kind of stories,” he says. Crane and Klarik told him from the start that if they wrote anything he didn’t like, he could veto it.
“I know what their sense of humor is and I really trust them so I was OK with it,” LeBlanc says. “And in their hands I really didn’t mind being the butt of the joke. If it’s a good joke. And they wrote consistently good jokes.”
Plus, he adds, “At the end of the day, I can say that’s just a TV show, that’s not me.”
In person, LeBlanc is far more soft-spoken and introspective than either Joey or the version of himself that he has played for five seasons on Showtime. When I ask if he ever worries that people will conflate the TV version with his real self, he replies, “Well isn’t that the goal, for them to think it’s really me?” He prefers not to lay out the specific differences between himself and the character. “I’m meant to make you believe that’s who I am.”
Who he is as we head into season five is a washed-up ex-sitcom star hosting an outlandish game show called The Box. At the end of this week’s premiere, he does something fairly reprehensible with one of the female contestants that ends up getting live-streamed on the internet for the whole world to see.
“That was pretty out there,” he admits. “That was awkward, to say the least, to shoot. It was not very comfortable.” But, he adds, “I’ve seen it. And I think it was tastefully handled. It’s not gratuitous. There’s enough that you know exactly what’s going on. Nobody’s going to get the wrong idea.”
Earlier this year, in an interview with IndieWire, Crane and Klarik acknowledged that the often-tortured working relationship LeBlanc’s character has with fictional writing partners and married couple Sean and Beverly — played by the hilarious British actors Stephen Mangan and Tasmin Greig — is at least partly based on their own sometimes-tumultuous relationship with the real LeBlanc.
“The irony is that real life kind of mimicked the ideas that we’re presenting in this season,” Klarik said. “As we were finishing up this season, we found out that Matt was going to CBS to do another show, and we hadn’t heard anything about it. We sort of learned about it online. And that’s a storyline you’ll see as subsequent episodes play out: that Sean and Beverly find out that Matt has actually moved on without informing them.”
That CBS show is the far more traditional multi-cam family sitcom Man with a Plan, which premiered last fall to decent ratings, but terrible reviews. “The premise of Man With a Plan is a model of un-imagination,” one critic wrote. “Simply put, Matt LeBlanc is too good to be this irrelevant,” said another.
“They knew. Of course they knew,” LeBlanc says, contradicting the Episodes creators. “I wouldn’t do that to them. I’ve known them for so long, they are literally like family.” He adds that he knew Episodes was ending before he took the new gig. “I wouldn’t have taken another show if I didn’t know.”
“It’s hard when a show ends,” he says. “I went through this with Friends. It’s kind of bittersweet. Because it’s so fun and it’s received so well. So why end? But I guess we’ve told our story there. Nobody wants to jump the shark.”
A few hours later, LeBlanc has already turned these thoughtful reflections into a funny bit for Jimmy Kimmel Live! “Everyone’s afraid of jumping the shark,” he tells the host. “I’m like, jump the shark. Why not? It’s fun! It’s a shark!”
While LeBlanc is currently shooting the second season of Man with a Plan, CBS has decided to hold it for a mid-season winter premiere. “The ratings were good last year and the show works. So it was a little disappointing. But whatever Uncle Les wants,” he says of CBS President Les Moonves.
The return to the multi-cam format has LeBlanc feeling nostalgic about the 10 years he spent performing in front of a live audience on Friends, even though he says he has no interest in the type of reboot or reunion that has come into vogue of late for other ‘90s sitcoms.
Looking back to that first season, which began in 1994, he says “nobody really knew” just how big the show would become. “We were in the top 20 shows, something like that, but it wasn’t until that first summer with reruns that the show moved into the top five and really got discovered,” he says. “And it stayed in the top five forever after that.”
“There was a significant difference coming back to work the second season,” LeBlanc continues. “We were a bona fide hit and you could feel it. You could feel something in the air. It was a great experience.”
For a moment, it seems as if LeBlanc may have actually drifted back to the mid-’90s. But then he snaps back to the present, the one where people see him as “Joey’s dad.”
“I don’t have any regrets, really,” he says. On his birthday, he thought to himself, “I should start slowing down and enjoy life a little more and not work so hard. And I’m busier than I’ve ever been, so something’s got to give at some point.” Even with Episodes ending, he’s shooting Man with a Plan and hosting the new season of the BBC’s Top Gear. “I may have bitten off more than I can chew,” he admits.
“I remember my grandfather saying, ‘Pick something you love to do and you’ll never work a day in your life,’” LeBlanc recalls. “I’m sure he didn’t coin that phrase, because I’ve heard it a lot of places. But it’s very true. Yeah, sometimes you get tired, the hours are long, or whatever, but I love what I do. It’s fun.”
“And no callouses,” he says, showing me the smooth palms of his hands. “It’s not too bad.”