Dan Snierson
September 10, 2004 AT 04:00 AM EDT


Best New Comedy

Matt LeBlanc looks around, takes a few measured steps, and then points at hallowed ground. ”This,” he says with a dash of bittersweet nostalgia, ”was Joey’s apartment.”

It’s a late-summer morning, and he’s taking a visitor on a tour of Stage 24 on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, where one of the most successful sitcoms ever, Friends, filmed for nearly a decade. Now, in place of Casa Chandler and Joey, where ducks and chicks once roamed cutely, stands a bare wood wall and a paint-splattered gray floor. This is the set of Joey, LeBlanc’s Friends spin-off. By tomorrow, this area will be transformed into the sleek office of Joey’s agent. But just a few months ago. . . ”the chair was probably right about here,” says LeBlanc of the famed leather Barcalounger, which now rests in his dressing room. He remembers: ”You could open both doors and see from Joey’s bedroom all the way into the guest room of Monica’s. That was really cool.”

LeBlanc walks a few more feet. What used to be Monica’s apartment has become the kitchen of Joey’s retro-stylish L.A. digs that he’ll share with his nephew. ”This [setup] is a little awkward,” he says, touching a kitchen counter, ”but I’ll get used to it.” Another few steps, another ex-landmark: Central Perk is now Joey’s stone-walled living room. LeBlanc singles out some familiar objects, including the blue Magna Doodle that used to hang on Joey and Chandler’s door, and is now affixed to Joey’s wall. He smiles at a picture of Chandler and Joey sitting on a nearby end table: ”Still around in spirit.”

The tour concludes in a plant-filled courtyard. Here lay the bustling street outside Central Perk. ”Everyone got a little piece of the pavement in a little case,” he says. He points to an elevated hot tub. ”Shot our first scene in the Jacuzzi,” he says proudly. He shakes his head. ”It’s strange. Things you feel in your mind are permanent fixtures are really just wood and nails and paint, and they come right up. You know what I mean?”

If we don’t now, we will on Sept. 9, when Joey and NBC attempt to build a new comedy foundation on top of Friends — metaphorically and literally. Perhaps this season’s most anticipated, scrutinized new series, the spin-off begins with delightful dope Joey Tribbiani leaving New York City to pursue an acting career in Hollywood, where he’s reunited with tough-ass sister Gina (The Sopranos‘ Drea de Matteo) and her geeky rocket-scientist son, Michael (Road Trip‘s Paulo Costanzo). Yet before the series has even earned its first laugh, questions have piled up higher than one of Joey’s sandwiches. Will it be Friends funny, or one sixth as hilarious? Will it sully a beloved character or transcend the ”Spin-offs suck!” stereotype? Will it bolster a weak comedy genre and a hit-hungry network? Will it be such a natural fit for its star that he’ll break the record for the most consecutive seasons playing the same character? Will it, huh? Huh?

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