More than a decade ago, Matt LeBlanc was able to achieve something few actors had been able to back then – or even since. He, along with his co-stars, held out for a cool US$1 million per episode on Friends – and got it.
This meant that by the time the TV series ended in 2004, LeBlanc – thanks to his role as struggling and somewhat dim-witted actor Joey Tribbiani – never needed to work again. One of the most successful sitcoms in TV history, the show gave him worldwide fame, the ability to pick and choose his projects, and more money than he could conceivably ever need. He went on to star in Episodes, a satirical look at Hollywood in which he plays a lovably inappropriate version of himself. The show has just filmed its fifth and final season.
So LeBlanc, 49, started looking for something else to do. Like most high-profile performers, he no longer has to be in the game for the money or acclaim. He works because he likes it, finding the rhythm and routine of a regular TV series welcome ballast in a field where people can all too often find themselves adrift.
LeBlanc – and, yes, people still call him Joey – is back in the limelight once again with a starring role in the new sitcom, Man with a Plan. He plays Adam Burns, a successful contractor who needs to make his business a lesser priority after his wife (played by Liza Snyder) asks him to be more involved with the parenting of their three children because she’s going back to work. The expected tropes are in place: LeBlanc’s character is more or less clueless about how to handle the more mundane aspects of fatherhood (like giving his kids Listerine strips because he’s out of snacks, or withholding the wifi code).
In real life, LeBlanc has a 12-year-old daughter and stepchildren in their twenties, so is able to relate to the inherent struggles of parenting. But he’s also all about the comedy – and his character in Man is as likeable and endearing as was Joey, with that on-point, million-dollar comedic timing. He sat down with us in Beverly Hills recently to talk about returning to sitcoms, this time around as a beleaguered father.
Is this new show one about role reversal?
It’s not so much like Mr Mom. My character still has a job. I play a contractor. I have three kids and my wife has been a stay-at-home mom. Now that the youngest one is in school, she wants to pick up where she left off with her career. I want to support that, so I can kind of bend my schedule around the kids. It’s us trying to navigate this new dynamic in our relationship.
Was your show Episodes something of a transition for you after 12 years of Joey Tribbiani?
I took about five or six years off and I just spent time being a dad. I was in a real fortunate position. I had enough money that I didn’t have to go to work. I could retire, and David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik (the brains behind Friends) called me and said they had an idea for a show and I said, “OK, I’m in.” And they said, “Do you want to hear the idea?” I said, “I don’t.” I just had so much faith in them as writers. And so we got started on Episodes. It was a tricky process going back to work after such a big break, and going off a multi-camera (set) in front of an audience into a single-camera environment.
What made you decide to get back into another sitcom after Episodes wrapped?
Episodes kind of re-whet my whistle for work, if you will. We would do nine episodes every 18 months. That’s not a giant schedule. It’s not a lot of work. It was great writing and working with great actors and really fun, but I wanted to do more.
You’re a regular host on Top Gear now, going back and forth between here and the UK. What do you like so much about that show?
It came together in a really organic way. I went as a guest to promote Episodes and did a Star in a Reasonably Priced Car segment and it went really good. I set the lap record and had a great time. They got a new car and asked me if I would come back and drive it, to see if I could break my own record. I decided to try the old car instead for a control time, and then the new car and the new car was faster. A year later they were doing this thing, Top Gear: The Races, which was like a greatest-hits collection. I went to London and did two days on that, just knocked them out one after another . . . I love cars and I love anything with an engine. It doesn’t need to be a fast car. My dad was a mechanic and I’ve been tinkering around with stuff like that. I was that kid that used to take stuff apart and my mother would say, “You’ve got to put that back together.”
How did Man with a Plan come about?
I met with [screenwriters] Jackie and Jeff Filgo. I liked them because they’d taken a year off and took their kids and moved to Paris, no nannies, just them and their kids. And they realised their kids were awful people. So they’re like, “OK, there’s a show here somewhere.” They went off and wrote this draft on spec. They handed it to me and I read it and I was like, yeah, let’s make this.
It must have helped, being a dad in real life, making a show about fatherhood.
We have discussions and when things come up that I can draw a parallel to my life I try to use my own experiences to affect how I play those things. So I can use my experiences there.
What’s the hardest part about fatherhood?
Patience. You have to really dig deep to find patience. You find yourself being short with them. Kids are brutally honest. If you hurt their feelings, they don’t hide that. You feel bad. It’s always a test for me, taking the time, because you get busy with work and other stuff. But you need to make the time, and therein lies the challenge, the patience, to find the time, because they’re young for such a small period of time. They grow up so fast. I’m forever buying shoes. Like, “Why won’t your feet stop growing?” I don’t understand it.
Is it more challenging being a parent in this generation?
Parenting has become very PC, it seems. I remember my mother saying things like, “Do as I say and not as I do.” You can’t say that any more. My mother talks about when she was young, there were things like the “belt”, you know? You could be in jail if you do that today. Part of the fun in doing this show is these characters are not very PC in that PC world.
Do you think the show will help parents do things differently?
I don’t know that that’s what we’re setting out to do. But if that happens, sure. People have commented on the fact that [the storyline about] a rolling wifi password got them to taking the wifi away, because everyone is so addicted. The way I’ve approached any of this stuff is I’m not very preachy. If I can just make people laugh for a half hour and lighten the mood and maybe make them forget about their problems for a second, I’ve done my job.
What do you think is the key to longevity in this business?
Just try to focus on the work, and do your best. It’s the way I was raised. You work hard every day. I got a piece of advice from an actor a long time ago who said, “Always look for the truth in every scene and you will never get called out.” So if you always started playing the truth it seems to work, whether it’s comedy or whether it’s drama. Personally I like comedy – it has every bit of challenge that a drama has. It’s a play with relationships and conflict and what are all the stakes and you ask yourself all the same questions. But once you’ve done all that work, it has to be funny.