LOS ANGELES – Matthew Perry has a perfectly reasonable explanation for why he's returning to sitcomland.
"My attempt at being a movie star failed," said the actor who headlines "The Odd Couple," which premieres Thursday, directly before the series finale of "Two and a Half Men."
Perry was joking — to a certain degree.
The 45-year-old actor hasn't scored a big-screen hit since 2004's "The Whole Ten Yards" and his three attempts for post-"Friends" success on TV — "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," "Mr. Sunshine," "Go On" — all flopped.
But Perry's luck may be about to change.
"Odd Couple," based on the classic Neil Simon play, is an old-fashioned comedy airing on CBS, a network that has had the best success launching new sitcoms recently.
Perry, who plays the slobbish Oscar Madison, appears more relaxed as a performer than he has in years, probably because he isn't forced to carry the burden of the show.
"Reno 911!" veteran Thomas Lennon is an equal partner as the vegan-friendly, cello-playing Felix Unger, who moves in with his old college buddy after his wife kicks him out.
But what really seems to give Perry a winning edge is that he's acting before a live audience, something he hasn't done since "Friends."
"It's really nice," he said. "We do run-throughs throughout the week and my performances are OK. Then the audience comes in and I sort of ham it up. It all gets juiced up a bit."
Perry said he came up with the idea of recycling the series while driving around in his car — completely unaware that CBS was already developing the series and was more than eager to have him come on board.
"It's a magical car," interjected Lennon, who was sitting next to his co-star. "When you make 'Friends' money, you can buy a magical car."
Remaking a 1965 play that became a hit TV show in the 1970s may sound like a lazy idea — but it's one that's continually being used on television.
"The DNA of these characters has seeped into television for the last four decades," said executive producer Bob Daily. "I spent five years writing on 'Frasier,' which was basically 'The Odd Couple' with one Oscar and two Felixes. Bert and Ernie are 'The Odd Couple.' We're just going back to the brilliant original Neil Simon source material."
As a nod to the original TV series, the producers hired that show's creator, Garry Marshall, as a special consultant. Marshall, who called Perry his favorite "Friend," said the biggest difference between the 1970-75 sitcom and the reboot is that the two current stars are much more engaged behind the scenes. In fact, Perry is listed as a writer and a producer.
"You know, Jack Klugman used to come and do his part, but then check the racetrack results, and Tony Randall was busy with opera," said Marshall, referring to the late cast members. "But these guys are here pitching in, and I think it's making the show much funnier."
The new series is also racier, with both men out on the dating scene. And the show won't hesitate to explore the strangeness of two grown men sharing an apartment.
Not that there's anything wrong with that.
"When I was doing it," Marshall said, "the network was afraid that the audience would think there was two gay characters. So I used to shoot little moments where Jack and Tony hugged and kissed, and sent it to the network just to make them crazy. Now they deal with it. They talk about it. It's a much, much more modern show."
Still, this isn't nearly as daring or experimental as Perry's last three series, in which he played a recovering drug addict, a guilt-ridden widower and a manager who can't stand his staff — but it's probably his best chance at a hit.
"What's cool about this show is that it's just trying to be funny," Perry said. "We're just trying to make people laugh."