TV producers often talk about not wanting to sully the legacy of their TV shows with spinoffs, reunions, and revivals, and NBC’s Joey provides a compelling cautionary tale. The Friends spinoff, created by Shana Goldberg-Meehan and Scott Silveri, ended with a whimper 15 years ago as Latin America’s WBTV aired the final eight episodes, which NBC opted not to air stateside, in the summer of 2006.
The story of Joey started three years prior, in July 2003, before the final season of Friends started airing. That’s when Jeff Zucker, then the president of NBC Entertainment, announced that Joey Tribbiani, Matt LeBlanc’s fan-favorite Friends character, would be getting his own spinoff.
“You probably would never have predicted this when it began, but over the evolution of that show, Joey has emerged as the character that America roots for and loves,” Zucker told the Television Critics Association at the time, per the Associated Press. “[Viewers want] to see what happens to him as his life goes on.”
Marta Kauffman and David Crane created Friends in collaboration with executive producer Kevin Bright, but Zucker told reporters that Bright was the only one of the trio who would be an executive producer for Joey—which, looking back, wasn’t a good sign. Still, Zucker said that Kauffman and Crane had given Joey their blessing, likening the situation to Frasier spinning off from Cheers with only some of Cheers’ producers on board.
Zucker also said that LeBlanc was the only Friends star approached for a spinoff—effectively spoiling the yet-to-be-aired breakup between Joey and Rachel (Jennifer Aniston), who had gotten together at the end of the penultimate season.
But behind the scenes, the Powers That Be had actually approached three other Friends stars about the prospect of reprising their parts on a spinoff, according to Bright. “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 told Metro.co.uk in 2018.
“Then we liked the idea of a Monica (Courteney Cox) and Chandler (Matthew Perry) 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,” Bright added.
So the spinoff went to LeBlanc. “Matt loved Joey and he didn’t mind playing Joey,” said Bright.
And so Joey was born, premiering on September 9, 2004, in its predecessor’s old Thursday-night time slot. In the show, Joey moved to Los Angeles to advance his acting career, moving in with his nerdy nephew Michael (Paulo Costanzo). Also on hand were Joey’s older sister and Michael’s mom, Gina (Drea de Matteo); Joey’s landlord and eventual love interest, Alex (Andrea Anders); and his Hollywood agent, Bobbie, played by Jennifer Coolidge. (The New York Times reported in 2004 that Coolidge’s Joey part was “something of a consolation prize” after NBC shelved a starring vehicle for her.)
When the show premiered, many critics were underwhelmed, to put it mildly. Los Angeles Times’ Paul Brownfield said Joey felt “kind of bereft—a subplot cast into the world and left searching for its main story.” The Washington Post’s Tom Shales said that Joey Tribbiani was “still a lovable dummy,” but noted that “the ratio of lovable to dumb appears to have changed for the worse” since the end of Friends.
And as Zucker had done a year prior, The Globe and Mail’s John Doyle compared Joey to Frasier, though far less favorably. “Joey is a lame, hollow and utterly unoriginal show, and it shouldn’t be,” Doyle wrote. “Years ago, when Cheers ended after a long and successful run, NBC took one character, Frasier Crane, and launched a show about him. The first episode of Frasier was beautifully done … The relevant difference is that [the] Frasier Crane character was obviously a grownup. Nobody on Friends actually grew up. Oh, they got married and had kids but they were all adolescents, really. Joey continues the theme.”
Joey aired a full first season, but NBC only gave the show’s second season 13 episodes before pulling it from the schedule. The network brought the show back in March 2006, but that return episode snagged only 4 million viewers, almost a 50-percent drop in viewership since the prior episode and a small fraction of the 18.5 million viewers who turned in for the series premiere. After that one March episode, NBC canceled the show for good.
Now, 15 years later, it seems Joey is disappearing from our cultural consciousness. Fans generally don’t consider Joey to be part of the Friends canon, Vulture observes. The show wasn’t available on Netflix while Friends was streaming there, and it’s not currently available on HBO Max, Friends’ new streaming home.
Following the Friends’ cast recent reunion, however, Bright gave his take on Joey’s failure, indicating to The Hollywood Reporter that NBC and Warner Bros. had overruled his ideas for “the real version of the spinoff” and instead went with a storyline of which he was “not a fan.”
“I’m the producer of the show and that storyline did not do service to the character,” Bright said. “Joey should have come out to Hollywood and had the time of his life. It should have been far more an Entourage than it was this family ‘Joey needs to grow up’ show. Joey would have gotten a pilot, come out to Hollywood and had the time of his life and gotten into all kinds of trouble. And we would have discovered new parts of Joey in the process. It would have been a lot more fun than the nerdy nephew and the barking sister.”
Bright said that everyone would have watched his version of Joey. “But that’s what happens when you finish one show that’s a giant hit: you go back to the back of the line and you don’t know anything and the network and studio get their imprints on it,” he explained. “That’s not the way Friends came together, I can tell you that.”