Welcome to Misleading Men, a regular feature where we look back at the actors who ruled Hollywood for one brief shining moment.
If you’re a celebrity, it must be weird to know there’s an entire show based around the fact that a lot of people can’t stand what you represent. Hey, it’s not personal — it’s just that they hate your comedic archetype and want it gone. It’s not like you invented the archetype, but you’re definitely the most visible version of it in the culture right now. And they think maybe it’s time for it to go away for a while.
In 2018, news broke that AMC was developing a dark comedy series called Kevin Can F**k Himself, which was about a prototypical put-upon sitcom wife (played by Schitt’s Creek’s Annie Murphy) who’s married to a schlub (Eric Petersen) who treats her like shit. When the show debuted in the summer of 2021, it was obvious that its title and concept were inspired by Kevin James’ sitcom reign — specifically, his post-King of Queens series Kevin Can Wait, in which the writers decided at one point to kill off James’ onscreen wife so they could bring back Leah Remini, his sitcom wife from his earlier, far more popular show. Skewering “fat dumb husband/pretty wife” sitcoms, Kevin Can F**k Himself took aim at James without calling him out by name. It was a lazy sitcom trope, and it was probably time for it to die.
“I did watch an episode here and there of Kevin Can Wait,” Murphy told Vanity Fair a few months before her series debuted, “but it just gets to a point where you’re like, FUCK this. Like, getting angry as opposed to getting any source of entertainment out of it. I got the gist of it pretty quickly.”
In some sense, America had gotten the gist of Kevin James far earlier, and had generally liked what they saw. For generations, we’ve embraced the endearingly average everyman — the regular Joe, the blue-collar dude — in our sitcoms and movies. He’s the guy you’d like to have a beer with. He’s just like you and me. And for more than 20 years, James has probably been our most average everyman, the regular-est of regular Joes. And he’s back this week in a new Netflix movie in which he plays Sean Payton, the New Orleans Saints head coach who, during his Bountygate suspension, took the reins of his kid’s football team. It’s called Home Team and it looks exactly like what you’d expect or want from a Kevin James comedy.
It’s easy to mock a guy like James. His mastering of a certain kind of profoundly mediocre man might feel like the height of lowbrow, middle-of-the-road banality. But when done well, the regular Joe can be a deeply enjoyable character type — after all, it’s been popular for years for a reason. And for a while, I thought maybe James would get somewhere interesting with it. That didn’t happen, partly because of the roles he took and also, partly, because I think his persona became one that we as a society had sorta decided we’d had enough of. Kevin Can F**k Himself was the most blatant expression of that collective exhaustion. But the signs were there already.
Born in 1965, he grew up on Long Island, wrestling and playing football in high school. “My dream was to play professional sports,” he said during his 2018 standup special Never Don’t Get Up. “I don’t think I have to tell you people how that turned out, but I still love it.” Instead, he got into comedy, attuned to his environment to tell jokes about everyday concerns and the colorful characters he encountered. “[W]hat I drew on from growing up on the Island was more just attitudes,” he said in 1998. “Stuff that came from the people I hung out with, the more raw and more real people. What it was is, we all had a similar view of life, we looked at what was funny about it and what was real to us. There definitely are people from Long Island who enjoy the same kind of humor and things, and I built off that in my routines.”
He joked about being overweight, hating waterskiing and dealing with annoying answering-machines messages. (Hey, it was the 1990s.) His appeal was his affability, his self-deprecating manner, his everyman schlub-iness. James built that into a career, eventually meeting Ray Romano, a fellow comic who had a somewhat similar persona and turned it into an Emmy-winning sitcom, Everybody Loves Raymond. I still remember in 2003, when Raymond took home the prize for Outstanding Comedy Series, how Phil Rosenthal recalled from the stage that a network executive early in the show’s run asked him impatiently what they were trying to do with this series. “We’re trying to do a traditional, old-fashioned, classic, well-made type of sitcom,” Rosenthal explained. The executive’s response: “All words we should be avoiding.”
Raymond was perhaps the last great three-camera family sitcom, and because James had worked on the show — and even appeared in an episode — he ended up getting his own series, King of Queens. It somewhat followed the Raymond blueprint, but there were notable differences. Doug and Carrie didn’t have kids, and Doug’s job was far more blue-collar. It was decidedly a working-class home, one that was frequently upended by Carrie’s father Arthur (Jerry Stiller). But one thing that Queens shared with Raymond was that their stars were the least-seasoned actors in their respective ensembles.
“I was definitely the weak link for sure as far as acting was concerned on the show.” James once admitted. “Leah and Jerry had done a crazy amount of things. Leah had done so much stuff. It was my first gig. I learned a lot through it.”
King of Queens was an extension of James’ standup self, presenting Doug as basically a good guy who gets annoyed by the daily annoyances of life. That said, the show wasn’t just Doug being a doofus and Carrie being the long-suffering spouse — it wasn’t that simplistic. (In fact, Remini did a good job of showing how flawed and petty Carrie could be, too, with Doug sometimes having to put up with her quirks.) Still, you could easily peg King of Queens as a “fat husband/pretty wife” sitcom — after all, there was no way a delivery-driving oaf like Doug could possibly land a beauty such as Carrie, right? But at its best, the show transcended that impression.
Not that there was much expectation that James would make the jump to movie star. And yet, his first big film role, in 2005’s Hitch, made it seem very possible. Probably very few people went to see that romantic comedy because of him — it was a Will Smith vehicle, after all — but James is darn delightful as Albert, an awkward accountant who hires Smith’s professional date doctor to help him woo a beautiful client (Amber Valletta). Here, James wasn’t the working-class dude but, rather, a polished, slightly nerdy professional, and he was completely charming and believable in the role. Hitch is very dopey, but James was so game that he practically stole the movie. In a film highlighted by glamorous costars like Will Smith and Eva Mendes, James was, once again, the regular guy.
That regular-guy appeal also came in handy in his first leading role, I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, where he and Adam Sandler (a more demented variation of the regular-guy persona) played straight firefighters who pretend to be a married couple so that James’ widowed character can ensure that his kids are covered by his life-insurance policy. There’s a lot of gay panic in that 2007 comedy, alongside some attempts to support same-sex rights, a mildly bold stance from a Sandler comedy at the time. But despite terrible reviews, Chuck & Larry was a hit, and it cemented James’ place in the Happy Madison cinematic universe. He had previously briefly been in Sandler’s 2004 rom-com 50 First Dates, and then showed up in 2008’s You Don’t Mess With the Zohan. But the following year changed people’s impression of Kevin James, Movie Star.
There were few films I liked less in 2009 than Paul Blart: Mall Cop. It’s such a stupid, strained comedy, led by a stunningly unfunny main character, Paul Blart, who, you may have guessed, works as a security guard at a local mall. (He’d dreamed of being a real cop, but he couldn’t pass the physical.) So Paul works at the mall, where he has to square off with some crooks who try to rob the place. Right, it’s Die Hard at a mall.
As much as I hated Paul Blart: Mall Cop, I couldn’t deny it had two things going for it: a funny title and an easy-to-grasp comedic premise. Oh, and I suppose there was a third thing: Kevin James in peak normal-guy mode. Playing a single dad who’s a little dumb but goodhearted, James bumbled and pratfalled his way through the movie, which he also cowrote. But where most Happy Madison productions that don’t star Sandler are usually utter garbage that sink without a trace, Paul Blart: Mall Cop was at least competently made — and it was a massive success, which was especially surprising considering it came out in January, which is usually a commercial graveyard. But James knew his appeal with family audiences.
“I think I try to represent the everyman and have people kind of see themselves in my character and kind of take the journey with me, you know?” he said at the time. “You can watch James Bond or something like that … these are things that most people would never do. … I like to take [the audience] with me and go, ‘I could be that guy’ and then have me do extraordinary things.”
Paul Blart: Mall Cop was like an old Three Stooges routine, the action-comedy hijinks resulting in the sort of genial inoffensiveness that parents are happy to have their kids watch for a couple hours. Again, the movie is terrible but gives James this: He understood how to make an inane kids’ movie better than Dwayne Johnson or John Cena. After all, James came across as a big kid himself. His goofy normalcy was his secret weapon.
A film that does that well at the box office guaranteed we’d be seeing him for a while afterward, and in quick succession he made Grown Ups, The Dilemma, Zookeeper and Here Comes the Boom. All you need to know is that, by a large margin, Grown Ups is the best of those films, with the other three demonstrating the limitations of James as a leading man. The juvenile Zookeeper was a far more expensive attempt to replicate the Paul Blart magic. Here Comes the Boom imagined a world in which James’ character becomes an MMA fighter and woos Salma Hayek’s nurse. His hot streak quickly cooled. Other standups and SNL stars have had trouble transitioning to film — they’re different mediums, that big screen having a tendency to emphasize the smallness of an actor’s charisma — and James’ ordinariness was gradually losing its appeal. More and more, he didn’t seem like a regular guy. He just seemed average.
James didn’t give up on movies — if you want to hate yourself, put on Grown Ups 2 or Pixels — but even his Paul Blart sequel failed to excite audiences the way the original had. He went back to television, where viewers mostly tuned out Kevin Can Wait. He did a Netflix comedy called The Crew, about a NASCAR garage, and he tried his hand at playing a murderous neo-Nazi in the grungy 2020 thriller Becky, a consciously change-of-pace role that he took when the film’s original choice for the bad guy, Simon Pegg, ended up having a scheduling conflict.
“I feel like I relate to a lot of people as the common guy,” James said when Becky came out. “But when you do that a lot, what happens is half of your audience wants to see more of that and the other half is like ‘I’ve seen that. Let’s see him do something different.’ I got this script and it was so out of left field. … I just went for it.”
James still shows up in Sandler’s films, but that brief period where it seemed like he could be a movie star feels like it’s over. I haven’t seen Home Team yet, which is another Happy Madison production, but it feels like… well, a Happy Madison production, the sort of thing that streams on Netflix but nobody really notices. James is a likable guy, it’ll probably be perfectly okay.
Of the stable of actor-buddies who Sandler backed in their own movies, James seemed like he’d have the best chance of breaking through. He was more appealing than Rob Schneider, not nearly as smarmy as David Spade and far more talented than Nick Swardson. In an earlier era, his everyman routine might have taken off. But it wasn’t just Kevin Can F**k Himself that signaled a backlash against personas like James’. At a time when Hollywood is becoming increasingly cognizant of the lack of roles for people of color, both in front of and behind the camera, a career like his no longer feels like a given.
No question James is funny and appealing, and he’s got a fan base that’s been by his side for decades. But what Kevin Can F**k Himself exposed about Kevin James types was that, for so long, it has been taken for granted that they were representative of what the American everyman was: some middle-aged straight white dude who was used to having things his way. The fact that the average American is actually more likely a woman, and that roughly two out of every five Americans isn’t white, should make us rethink that assumption. Many, many people enjoy Kevin James. But there are other audiences out there that might prefer to see someone else in their movies and TV shows, maybe someone who looks more like them.
This isn’t a referendum on James or a criticism of his fans. It’s merely a suggestion that James’ failure to become a bigger star, especially in film, may also be a byproduct of a societal shift in how we view guys like James. They have their place in the entertainment firmament, but maybe it doesn’t need to be as prominent as it once was. Maybe there’s room for other everymen (and women), too.