Why Simon Amstell as Simon Amstell beats Matt LeBlanc as Matt LeBlanc

Matt LeBlanc plays himself in Episodes
Matt LeBlanc plays himself in Episodes
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Even if one day he becomes the first man to set foot on Mars, Matt LeBlanc will always be better known as “former Friends star Matt LeBlanc”.

Just as Henry Winkler will always be synonymous with The Fonz, the likeable LeBlanc will be forever typecast in the public consciousness as sweet, dumb Joey Tribbiani - hence his eagerness to subvert his image by playing a vain, insensitive version of himself in Episodes, the decidedly average meta-sitcom which returns to BBC2 this Friday for a second series.

LeBlanc is merely the latest in a thickly populated galaxy of stars willing to spoof themselves in the service of comedy. But why do they do it?

Simon Amstell is currently pulling off a similar trick to much greater effect in the wonderful Grandma’s House, although unlike Le Blanc you get the impression that the fictional Simon is barely distinguishable from the real thing.

It feels like an hilarious exercise in unflinching self-analysis, and closer in spirit to the work of Steve Coogan – who’s exposed his inner neuroses by playing unsympathetic versions of himself several times, most notably alongside Rob Brydon in The Trip – than the essentially self-serving, back-slapping celebrity cameos employed by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant.

Like Le Blanc in Episodes, the guest appearances by the likes of Kate Winslet in Extras and Johnny Depp in the abominable Life’s Too Short are toothless in that they smack of A-Listers eager to prove that they can laugh at themselves.

“Imagine if I was like this in real life!” they tacitly wink, unlike Amstell and Coogan, who seem to be saying, “This what I’m really like. Ridiculous, aren’t I?”

They belong to a tradition pioneered by that most narcissistic of comedians, Jerry Lewis, who exposed his darker side by playing not only thinly disguised versions of himself in his directorial début The Bellboy and in Martin Scorsese’s magnificent The King Of Comedy, but also as his repellent alter ego, Buddy Love, in the original The Nutty Professor.

He paved the way for the likes of Woody Allen, Garry Shandling and Larry David, all of whom have laid themselves bare in a manner that the egotistical Gervais never could. Unless, that is, one looks back at The Office and realises that David Brent, a desperate, needy, thin-skinned man utterly lacking in self-awareness, was perhaps one of the most honest self-parodies of them all.

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