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Peer pressure?

Others may have a lot riding on 'Joey,' but Matt LeBlanc is feeling fine.

August 27, 2004|Maria Elena Fernandez | Times Staff Writer

Stage 24 on the Warner Bros. lot has been renamed "the Friends Stage," but it now clearly belongs to Matt LeBlanc, who is about to begin his 11th consecutive season playing the lovable but dimwitted Joey Tribbiani. "Friends," in case you hail from another galaxy, ended its highly successful 10-year run on NBC in May. On Sept. 9, the only friend whose life was not neatly wrapped up in the finale starts over in "Joey," a spinoff that sets him in Los Angeles instead of New York, seriously pursuing his acting career and getting reacquainted with his family.

Last week, while rehearsing the fourth episode, LeBlanc was in his element. Joey's new Hollywood bachelor pad is filled with personal relics from "Friends": his toy shark and Rock'Em Sock'Em robots, his Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix poster and American flag, his hard-to-forget Etch-A-Sketch and a photo of Joey and Chandler (Matthew Perry). The only thing missing, well, besides his five best friends, was new sidekick, Drea de Matteo ("The Sopranos"), who plays his sassy sister, Gina, and was out with strep throat for the third day in a row.

If the heat is on -- and there's no denying it with NBC's massive promotional campaign, Warner Bros. Studios' high expectations and widespread media coverage -- LeBlanc isn't showing it, even today with his No. 2 missing in action. In fact, LeBlanc's been so busy helping to establish the show's voice that he says he has missed what is impossible for most of the rest of us to avoid: Joey's "Postcards From L.A." spots, which are saturating NBC's Olympics broadcasts and appear before movie previews in 6,500 theaters. In six commercials, Joey explores the city, offering the kinds of insights only Joey can: informing viewers that the Hollywood Walk of Fame is a burial ground for legendary stars or pointing out the Hollywood Hooters instead of the iconic Grauman's Chinese Theater that he's standing in front of.

"Believe me, I live here and when I leave, I just go straight home," says the 37-year-old LeBlanc, explaining how he has managed to elude himself. "When you're doing a new show, it's good that the actors spend a lot of time together. I've been functioning in a high-pressure environment for 10 years now, so I don't feel that stuff as much. My job is to make the show as funny as I can. I know I'll be as good in it as I was on 'Friends,' and I know it's going to be a good show that is different from 'Friends.' The rest is out of my hands. I don't have anything to do with those Nielsen boxes."

NBC, however, hopes to have something to do with what happens with those Nielsen boxes. There are gigantic billboard ads and bus posters with LeBlanc's smiling face and accompanying slogan, "New Town. Still Lost." And in case all of that does not register enough awareness for "Joey," this weekend brings an onslaught of magazine covers, including Details, TV Guide, Ladies' Home Journal and Entertainment Weekly. The price tag for the ad campaign would be nearly $10 million if it was not produced internally.

"It's to our advantage that we have a character people already know, so it's better for us to go out and shoot new comedy with him that is in keeping with the show than to use the jokes in the pilot and have people be sick of them by the time the show airs," said Vince Manze, president and creative director of the NBC Agency. "The worst thing that can happen is for somebody to wake up on Friday after the show airs and says, 'Oh, no! Was that on last night? I missed it.' Quite honestly, we expect a lot of people to check it out."

Perhaps the ratings juggernaut that propelled him from obscurity into stardom has spoiled LeBlanc. But executive producers Shana Goldberg-Meehan and Scott Silveri, the "Friends" staff writers who created the spinoff, admit they are having a harder time ignoring the heady hype.

"Early on, the studio was great telling us to think of it as a small show that nobody cares about," Silveri said. "And that's what we did when we wrote the script and shot the pilot. But now it's a little harder to pretend that nobody cares about it. We are very aware of the nerves, and we share them."

"If people have low expectations, it might work in our favor," adds Goldberg-Meehan. "We prefer that."

Pressure notwithstanding, beyond the "Friends' " connection, "Joey" has a significant head start. Television critics and advertisers have generally praised the pilot and predicted its success, although few think it will attract as many viewers as its predecessor, which anchored the most lucrative night in television for many years.

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