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Television

Matt LeBlanc joins ‘Top Gear’ -- what is ‘Top Gear’?

Matt LeBlanc

Matt LeBlanc as he arrives at the 69th Annual Golden Globe Awards in Los Angeles. The BBC announced that LeBlanc will be joining the broadcaster’s popular “Top Gear” program, presenting the revamped car show with British TV presenter Chris Evans. 

(Matt Sayles / Associated Press)

Matt LeBlanc, who made his name playing Joey Tribbiani on NBC’s “Friends,” is making history as the first non-British host in “Top Gear” history.

LeBlanc is no stranger to British programming. The actor currently stars as a fictionalized version of himself on “Episodes,” a co-production that airs on both Showtime and BBC Two about a married pair of comedy writers who find themselves saddled with a star they aren’t sure what to make of.

As far as “Top Gear” goes, LeBlanc has been a guest on the show several times in previous years, even hosting a special episode looking back at the best races in the show’s history.

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“As a car nut and a massive fan of Top Gear, I’m honoured and excited to be a part of this iconic show’s new chapter. What a thrill!” LeBlanc said in a press release issued by the BBC on Thursday.

But what is “Top Gear”?

Founded in 1977 as a straightforward car magazine series, the British series was relaunched in 2002 encompassing a much more humorous and cheeky tone, rendering the show more entertainment than educational.

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Part of that shift in tone came from presenter Jeremy Clarkson, who had been on the show since 1988. A journalist who focused primarily on cars and car culture, Clarkson was infamous for his humor, which often skewed controversial, so much that complaints against the presenter were lodged by viewers, car companies and even entire nations.

What happened to Clarkson?

Clarkson was accused of repeatedly using racist and homophobic language on the show, masquerading as humor, including a 2012 controversy in which the presenter was said to have  used the N-word in an unused take for the series. Clarkson denied the accusation but was forced to apologize after footage of the incident surfaced in 2014.

In March 2015, Clarkson punched a “Top Gear” producer after a spat in which Clarkson could not have the steak he requested and had to settle for soup and a cold meat platter. In the wake of the event, the BBC announced that Clarkson’s contract, which expired at the end of the month, would not be renewed, spawning a Change.org protest that garnered over one million signatures.

Co-hosts James May and Richard Hammond, as well as executive producer Andy Wilman, refused to continue on the show without Clarkson. The three men, along with Clarkson,  formed a production company with plans for a new car series on Amazon in late 2016.

Now what?

In June 2015, the BBC announced that Chris Evans (not that Chris Evans), a British radio and television personality, had signed on for three years with “Top Gear” leading to Thursday’s announcement of LeBlanc’s involvement.

“Matt’s a lifelong fellow petrolhead and I’m thrilled he’s joining Top Gear. Acting out our craziest car notions on screen is a dream job and I know we’ll both be debating some epic road trip ideas,” Evans said in Thursday’s statement. “We can’t wait to share what we’ve been up to on screen later this year.”

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The new season of “Top Gear” is scheduled to return to BBC Two and BBC America in May 2016. No word yet on whether LeBlanc will be rocking his Porsche-wear look from the sixth season of “Friends,” however.

libby.hill@latimes.com

Follow me @midwestspitfire

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