What did it take to get "Friends" star Matt LeBlanc back on television after a four years absence? The price of a lunch with "Friends" co-creator David Crane, and the chance to make fun -- of himself.
Riffing on the beloved but dimwitted, skirt-chasing character Joey Tribbiani he played for 12 years on "Friends" and its spin-off "Joey", a gray-haired LeBlanc stars as an outrageous version of himself in the new TV industry satire "Episodes," which debuts this Sunday, January 9.
"We took him for lunch and he totally got on board. He liked the idea of poking fun at his own image, and he liked the idea of not carrying the show, but of being in an ensemble," said Crane, who created "Episodes" with Jeffrey Klarik.
LeBlanc, 43, plays Matt LeBlanc -- an actor who collects fine art, owns a private jet, a flashy car, and whose enormous "package" is the size of a "sea creature".
He is foisted on a pair of successful British comedy writers lured to Hollywood for a U.S. remake of their hit U.K. program about a scholarly English school principal. Under pressure from U.S. network bosses, the role is changed to hockey coach and the TV show renamed "Pucks!"
"Episodes", a co-production with Britain's BBC television, makes it debut on U.S. cable channel Showtime, and on the BBC on Jan 10. It also stars British actors Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig as the writers whose TV show is destroyed.
"I've said no to everything over the last four years. I didn't want to go back to work," LeBlanc said in a statement.
"I went on this rocket ride (of TV fame) starting in 1994 and ending in 2006, and I wanted to let the dust settle from everything that happened in those 12 years. But then the phone rang, and it was Jeffrey and David," he said.
Crane and Klarik told Reuters they had some nervous moments sending LeBlanc "Episodes" scripts and wondering if they had gone too far with the jokes. But it never happened.
Reality and fiction blurred
In many respects the fictional Matt LeBlanc is not that close to the real LeBlanc, but the "Episodes" creators are not saying where they drew the line.
"We use preconceptions of what people think Matt LeBlanc is. But we don't like to be too specific because part of the fun is that you watch it and think, 'Is that really what he's like?'," Klarik said.
Although LeBlanc is inevitably stealing much of the "Episodes" limelight, Crane and Klarik say the show is primarily about the relationship between British couple Sean and Beverly Lincoln, and the wedge that LeBlanc (and Hollywood) drives between them.
It is also a biting satire of the U.S. network TV industry, complete with egotistical and devious studio heads, women using too much Botox and lavish parties.
"We've both been really lucky, but I don't think there is a television writer out there who doesn't have their own horror stories" about Hollywood stars and TV production, said Crane. "I think writers are going to love it."
LeBlanc says he is used to being his own punchline. "People will come up to me and speak slowly, or they'll ask me if I'm okay 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'," LeBlanc said in an interview for the BBC.
As for "Episodes", LeBlanc said he was just glad he got the part because "seeing someone else playing Matt LeBlanc would have been devastating."