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July 31, 2017

Once and for All

After his once-in-a-lifetime job on Friends and a short-lived spinoff, Matt LeBlanc (“My favorite thing is doing nothing”) retreated to his California ranch. But Episodes — and the chance to mock his own persona — lured him back to work. Now he’s giving his all to Man with a Plan, as star and executive producer.

Margy Rochlin
  • Tony Duran
  • Man with a Plan

    Sonja Flemming/CBS
  • Episodes

    Des Willie/Showtime
  • Tony Duran

One recent spring day on the CBS Radford lot in Studio City, Matt LeBlanc made his entrance before a studio audience for the first time in about a decade.

“To me, it felt like coming home,” he says, referring less to the audience’s cheers and more to the fine-tuning process that is multi-cam television comedy. “It’s pretty simple. If the audience laughs, it’s good. If they don’t laugh, it’s not funny. It’s like theater — it’s rewarding. I’ve never done a play, but I’ve done so many multi-cams — over 300 — that I feel like I have.”

In his latest show, Man with a Plan, LeBlanc plays Adam Burns, a Pittsburgh contractor whose wife, Andi (Liza Snyder), goes back to work, leaving him in charge of their three children. Somehow, the predictability of the premise — a father who’s all but left parenting to his partner is humbled to discover that it’s actually hard work — only highlights LeBlanc’s crack timing and his distinctive, rumpled sort of natural charisma.

During his run on the ratings juggernaut known as Friends, LeBlanc’s Joey Tribbiani was the last character in the ensemble to capture fans’ attention. By the end of the series’ 10-year run, LeBlanc’s charming, slow-thinking womanizer had indelibly imprinted himself on popular culture.

But it’s hard not to think that LeBlanc spent his time in the shadows soaking up from his costars (Jennifer Aniston, Courtney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matthew Perry and David Schwimmer) all the craftsmanship that is in full evidence on Man with a Plan: how to put a fresh spin on a line of dialogue, the best way to ace an exit and how to steal a scene right out from under the rest of the cast — effortlessly.

“There was a very specific moment,” LeBlanc recalls about the day on Friends when he felt the “unlocking” of Joey. In the scene, Cox’s Monica gently asks him if he is going the extra mile to please his new girlfriend sexually. The joke hinges on Joey’s reaction, which suggests that he considers his own needs first.

But LeBlanc didn’t read it as Joey being cruel or doltish — just cheerfully unenlightened. “He’s, like, ‘I’m not following you….’ In that one moment, it was like a [lightbulb] went off. I never looked at Joey as dumb. He’s got all the best intentions. And I remember saying to Matthew, ‘That’s who this guy is.’”

Leblanc’s revelation, and the subsequent blossoming of his character, no doubt assisted him during the Friends troupe’s 1996 landmark contract renegotiation. By way of collective bargaining, the  entire cast ended up receiving equal salaries and equal syndication royalties, a rare financial perk at the time.

The story has always been that, because LeBlanc  came to Friends a relative newcomer (he’d guested on a handful of TV shows and had one series, Vinnie & Bobby, a short-lived spinoff of Married… with Children), he was initially paid far less than most of his more experienced costars. 

LeBlanc says that was only part of the dispute. “We found out at one point that Warner Bros. had sold the show in syndication for record numbers, but with a stipulation that they only needed four of the original six cast members. It put us in the position of being like, ‘Oh, really? Which two are unimportant?’

"It made us stick together. In discussing it as a group, it became clear that if we stuck together, everybody could get more, including David and Jennifer” — the two highest-paid stars.

To this day, LeBlanc calls Friends “the best job I will ever have. That kind of great only comes along once in a lifetime.” Just after the finale, he was invited to extend his character’s life on a spinoff sitcom, Joey. When the series was canceled after two seasons, LeBlanc was more than ready to retreat to his 1,200-acre cattle ranch near Santa Barbara, California.

He’d bought it, during the peak of the Friends frenzy, as a place to escape photo-snappers and autograph-seekers, yet be just a couple of hours from Los Angeles. “I could walk around naked if I wanted to,” LeBlanc says.

He thinks the vast sprawl of his refuge has a lot to do with a working-class childhood in Newton, Massachusetts, where he shared a cramped apartment with his single mother. He has vivid memories of a cranky landlord who, whenever young Matt ventured onto the tiny patch of back lawn, would holler at him, “Stay off the grass.”

LeBlanc attended a vocational high school to become a carpenter. At 19, however, he moved from Newton to Manhattan to pursue a career in modeling, which in turn led to acting.

In 2002, when he decided to buy a second home, he course-corrected his square footage–deprived boyhood by putting wide-open spaces at the top of his wish list. “I always wanted to have a big yard,” LeBlanc says. “And now I own a couple of mountains.” He loves zipping around the property on dirt bikes and off-road motorcycles.

If the year that he intended to take off after Joey somehow stretched into five years, LeBlanc has an uncomplicated explanation: “My favorite thing is doing nothing. I’m great at it. I was having a good time.” Then came the day in 2011 when he received a “can-we-take-you-out-to- lunch-and-run-an-idea-past-you?” phone call from Friends co-creator David Crane and his partner-husband, Jeffrey Klarik.

When the three met for lunch at the luxe Bacara Resort in nearby Goleta, Crane and Klarik verbally sketched out a comedy series about a British husband-and-wife producing team who come to America to adapt their BAFTA– award winning TV show about an exclusive boy’s academy for a broadcast network.

Part of the disastrous retooling involves foisting upon them a recognizable celebrity, who turns out to be a boorish, self-centered and impossible star named... Matt LeBlanc.

According to Klarik, after he and Crane completed their pitch, LeBlanc said: “‘Wait. I’ll be playing myself ?’ And we were like, ‘No, no, no. You’re playing a character named Matt LeBlanc.’ Then he said, ‘So I’m the punchline?’ And we said, ‘Yes!’ And then he said, ‘I love it.’”

True to his word, over the subsequent five seasons of Episodes on Showtime, LeBlanc never balked at a Matt-skewering bit. “He drew no line,” Klarik says. “In fact, sometimes he’d pitch out ideas that made him look even worse. We’d have to say, ‘Um, Matt? We’ve got to protect this character a little.’ He has no boundaries.”

Crane says that playing a larger-than-life version of himself was meant to showcase LeBlanc’s acting range. In 2012, the series won him a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Television Comedy.

“We really looked at it as an opportunity to show a lot of colors: that he can play creepy and at the same time charming — a guy who does some terrible things but you love him,” Crane says. For LeBlanc, Episodes was a dream acting job. Once every 18 months, the cast and crew would reassemble, shoot for three months in London, spend a week in Los Angeles for exteriors, and then scatter to the winds.

While shooting overseas, LeBlanc developed a pet theory about the hyper-efficiency of the British television industry as a function of the country’s decidedly lackluster catering. “I think it’s a big conspiracy to get more work out of the crew,” he says, only half-joking. “If they gave the crews in America shit food, they’d choke it down quickly and get back to work.”

Episodes helped LeBlanc realize he was done with retirement. “It kind of wet my whistle to be working more,” he says. When Showtime announced that Episodes’ fifth season would be its last, LeBlanc gathered his creative posse together and said, “What about developing a show?”

He had his own loose comedy concept in mind when he began meeting with writers. It would be multi-cam and have kids in the cast. He seemed to bond most quickly with the married writing team of Jeff and Jackie Filgo (That ’70s Show). “We had a couple of meetings and told funny stories about parenting,” says LeBlanc, who has a 13-year-old daughter, Marina, with his ex-wife, Melissa McKnight.

Before any formal agreement was reached, though, the Filgos went off and wrote a spec pilot script about a regular guy whose wife rejoins the workforce, leaving him to assume the bulk of the parental responsibilities. It’s easy to see a connection between Adam Burns and LeBlanc — both are funny, unfiltered and handy around the house.

That’s because the Filgos created Burns with LeBlanc in mind. “Like everyone else in the world, after seeing him on all those years of Friends and on Episodes, we had a really good idea of what his voice is,” Jeff Filgo says.

The scribes had to craft a role that would capitalize on LeBlanc’s dramatic gifts but not remind viewers too much of a character he’d already played on a series that’s aired in every corner of the globe. “I don’t think people understand how famous he is. Matt was in Morocco — not in a big city, but way out where [the indigenous tribe] the Berbers are — and one of the Berbers looks at him and goes, ‘Hey, Joey!’”

When LeBlanc filmed the Man with a Plan pilot, it was before Episodes had ended, yet well into his gig as the first American host of the British driving series Top Gear.

“Be careful what you wish for,” LeBlanc says, over lunch at a hilltop Italian restaurant in Los Angeles. Having just flown in the day before from Dubai, where he was filming an episode of Top Gear, his lidded eyes and day-old scruff make it clear that he’s still adjusting to the 12-hour time difference.

But before his Caprese salad arrives, he offers up the confession of a truly busy man. “The thing I like about jet lag is waking up at three in the morning and you go downstairs, sit in the back yard with your cup of coffee and the dog. The phone isn’t ringing, and everyone else in the house is asleep.”

Though LeBlanc refers to Man with a Plan as a freshman series — meaning, it’s still experiencing growing pains — he embraces all the ways that Adam Burns is a reflection of himself.

“I’m 50, I’m a [parent] and I think I have an interesting take on what it’s like to be that sort of bull-in-a-china-shop dad. It’s about those precious moments that you mishandle. You know what I mean? The ones where, God, you wish you had a second shot at it — but you don’t. You just mishandled it.”

The show — which was picked up by CBS for season two — is, for LeBlanc, also a way of saying he’s glad he’s not a 20-something anymore. That period’s been memorialized, he says, and it’s always available for viewing.

“Like Friends, I am that age from 1994 until 2004 forever. You know? That will never change.” He understands that talk of a Friends reunion is popular, but he thinks making it happen would be “a huge mistake.

Friends was about that finite period between school and life, when you had that carefree nature,” he says. “You were out from under your parents’ wing, on your own for the first time, making mistakes, finding your way through, and your friends are your family. That’s what that show was about. To see it later? I think imagining what they’re doing now is better than seeing it.”

Just contemplating his Friends character as middle-aged makes LeBlanc visibly shudder. “Joey at his first colonoscopy? Who wants to see that?” he says. “I don’t.”


This article orignally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 6, 2017

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