NBC’s Friends was a television powerhouse, a show centered around six friends, oddly enough, that aired for 10 seasons, beginning with “The Pilot” (aka “The One Where Monica Gets a Roommate,” “The One Where It All Began,” or “The First One”) on September 22, 1994. The series was a perpetual top-ten presence, one that other networks had trouble airing their own series against (ironically, even murdering Murder, She Wrote). So when the two-part series finale, “The Last One,” aired on May 6, 2004, a whopping 65.9 million people tuned in to say goodbye.
It was the end of an era — or so we thought. On September 9, 2004, one of those friends, Joey Tribbiani (Matt LeBlanc), debuted his own spinoff show, Joey. Expectations were high… and unmet. What happened with Joey?
‘Joey’ Brought Joey Tribbiani to Los Angeles
Joey was actually announced prior to the last season of Friends, in July 2003. The president of NBC Entertainment at the time, Jeff Zucker, had this to say: “You probably never would have predicted this when it began, but over the evolution of [Friends], Joey has emerged as the character that America roots for and loves. Viewers want to see what happens to him as his life goes on.” In turn, Zucker also mentioned that LeBlanc was the only Friends star approached for a spinoff (which wasn’t quite correct… read on), and executive producer Kevin Bright said, “Matt loved Joey and he didn’t mind playing Joey.”
The premise saw Joey, shortly after the events of the Friends series finale, move to Los Angeles to further his acting career. He moves in with his nephew Michael (Paulo Costanzo), an extremely intelligent aerospace engineer specializing in applied thermodynamics, who attends Caltech and is, quite simply, the polar opposite of Joey, but turns to his uncle for help with women. The move allows Joey to reunite with his older sister Gina (Drea de Matteo), Michael’s over-protective mother, who is the female equal of Joey: not too bright, sweet, attractive, and promiscuous.
Joey also has a new agent, Roberta “Bobbie” Morganstern (Jennifer Coolidge), befriends fellow actor Zach Miller (Miguel A. Núñez Jr.), and develops an ever-growing relationship with his next-door neighbor/landlord Alexis “Alex” Garrett (Andrea Anders), a somewhat dimwitted (but not Joey-level) lawyer. How could Joey NOT be a success? Mix Joey’s womanizing, Gina’s manizing, a nerd who guffaws at the denseness of his uncle (but longs to learn the ways of women from him), and a will-they-won’t-they relationship with the hot blonde landlord, and the audience could sit back and watch the hilarity ensue.
‘Joey’ Was Doomed From the Start
Joey, however, was not to last, as Bright later confirmed that Joey was not the first, not the second, not even the third of the Friends cast approached about a spinoff, directly contradicting Zucker’s claim. The first actor approached was actually Jennifer Aniston. “At first it was the obvious choices of who they wanted to do a series with and Jennifer was up there first, but she wanted to do movies, and she wasn’t interested in television,” Bright revealed. Attention then turned towards Courteney Cox and Matthew Perry, which Bright added, “We like the idea of a Monica and Chandler series, but everyone at the end, strangely enough, while they were grateful for doing the show, they didn’t want to play those parts anymore.” Although she did take the role of Bobbie, Coolidge was not exactly a willing participant, with the part in Joey “something of a consolation prize” after NBC pulled the plug on a sitcom, developed as a starring vehicle, that was based on her experiences as a struggling actress and cocktail waitress.
The series also didn’t make sense. Throughout the run of Friends, Joey had never made mention of leaving New York, for his career or otherwise. He only ever left NYC once for an acting role, heading to Las Vegas for a starring role that never came to be in Season 5’s “The One with Joey’s Big Break.” Even the series finale made no reference to Joey contemplating a move to Los Angeles, which theoretically would have been the perfect opportunity for a segue into the spinoff. Then there was the issue of his ability to cover those moving costs. One of the more consistent questions levied towards Friends was how they were able to afford rent in New York. Yes, Monica’s apartment was rent-controlled, and both Chandler and Ross (David Schwimmer) held jobs, but for Joey, whose only big successful role was as Dr. Drake Ramoray in Days of Our Lives, it was a big WTF. Actors move to LA all the time, of course, to try and make it big, but let’s just say they don’t all find nice accommodations like Joey was able to — and it’s not like he’s fantastic at the craft.
However, the truth behind Joey‘s demise can be found in two semi-related reasons. The first has to do with characters who were part of an ensemble cast being spun off to become main characters on their own. Frasier — at least the original run — is a rarity, as in most cases these types of spinoffs are dead on arrival. Friends worked because each of the ensemble cast brought something different, but complementary, to their characters: Chandler’s sarcasm, Rachel’s cheerfulness, Phoebe’s (Lisa Kudrow) easygoing attitude, Monica’s perfectionism, and Ross’s impatience. Joey’s stupid comments and general naivety were balanced out by these other personalities. The cast of Joey, as talented as they are, just couldn’t bring that same balance to a Joey that was, arguably, even dumber than he was in the original series.
The second reason is Joey himself. Joey needed to add elements to the character that weren’t necessary when he was surrounded by the Friends cast, and ultimately became a Joey no one recognized. It’s the number one reason that Bright gives for why Joey flopped the way it did. “I think we tried to present to the audience a Joey they didn’t know,” he said. “Trying to develop a relationship and hang out with nerds. Even I don’t know what Joey was doing in that show, but it wasn’t what the fans were familiar with so it was not successful.”
As a result, instead of a sure-fire hit, Joey has become a warning sign to those pushing for spinoffs. If you can’t keep what made the character special in the first place, don’t.