With rehearsal done for the day, Kevin James--who plays a working-class, shorts-wearing Everyman on the CBS comedy “The King of Queens"--plops down on a comfy couch on the living room set in Culver City. Water bottle in hand, chunky thighs on display in a pair of walking shorts, his Nike-clad feet resting against the coffee table, James seems at ease.
But at 33, with just 10 episodes under his belt and the success or failure of the Monday night series largely resting on his sizable shoulders, James isn’t taking anything for granted.
“I look at the numbers. I got to do this [rating] for next year,” says James, of his first lead role. “There’s a lot of pressure.”
Despite the pressure, the prospect of a next year for “King of Queens” could be in the cards. The comedy is considered a modest success, averaging 12.7 million viewers thus far and retaining more than 95% of the 13.2 million who watch “Cosby” at 8 p.m. It also easily beats competing sitcom “Conrad Bloom” on NBC.
A veteran of stand-up comedy who had a recurring role last season on “Everybody Loves Raymond” as Ray Barone’s (Ray Romano) buddy Kevin, James doesn’t just understand his character, parcel deliveryman Doug Heffernan; in many ways, he is Heffernan. The comic has a certain outer-borough sensibility, having grown up east of Queens on Long Island (in Stony Brook, N.Y.), where Manhattan is “the city.”
“He’s a guy very close to me,” James says. “I didn’t want to do something that was a complete stretch. . . . That’s where a lot of these problems develop. [Network] executives take these successful stand-ups from the road and they bring them to Hollywood and change their character.”
In fact, the television world that Michael J. Weithorn, executive producer and co-creator, explores each week remains close to James’ early life.
“I was from a working-class family,” notes James, who changed his last name in his mid-20s when he began having success as a stand-up. (He won’t reveal what his original family name was.) “My dad was in insurance and my mom, she worked in a chiropractor’s office. We were not upper class by any means.”
Leah Remini, who plays Heffernan’s wife, Carrie, on the show, glimpses an elitist world as a secretary in a top-drawer Manhattan law firm. That window into what many would characterize as a more desirable lifestyle contributes to the tension and humor in the show.
“It’s like everyone goes, ‘Where is Doug Heffernan going. . . . How successful is he because he drives a truck?’ ” James says. “I think he’s very successful. He’s just very happy with the simple things in life.”
The actor pauses. “The conflict, of course, comes when her father [Jerry Stiller] moves in. It’s like we have a kid--but our kid is in his 70s.”
James credits an episode of “Raymond” that he co-wrote with Romano and acted in as cinching the deal with CBS. “That’s the one that Les Moonves [president of CBS Television] saw. It was a small episode about me and Ray tricking his wife into letting us play golf.” But it showcased James’ talent.
“He’s very funny subtly and funny physically,” says Romano. “Kevin’s got a lot of range.”
After the East Coast stand-up circuit took them in different directions, Romano and James reconnected in 1996 while both were doing audition rounds in Los Angeles. James recommended a Burbank hotel that had cheap rates for actors. “We just started hanging out together,” says Romano, “and getting rejected together. Our sense of humor was the same, our failures were the same. . . . Now it’s his first year, so he’s a neurotic mess about the ratings, and he sounds like I did in my first year.”
As it happened, James linked up with show creator Weithorn first at NBC, where James had a development deal as a result of his comedy routine at the 1996 Just for Laughs Festival in Montreal.
“But the network wasn’t tailoring any of the shows toward me,” James says. He passed on several ideas until he saw Weithorn’s project. James was ready to sign on. NBC, however, wasn’t.
When Weithorn took the project to Warren Littlefield, then president of NBC Entertainment, "[NBC executives] started to change it and then eventually passed on it,” Weithorn says. Littlefield looked at the script that had been developed with David Litt, producer and co-creator, and “was troubled by the blue-collar nature of the show,” Weithorn recalls. “In a word, loser.”
What didn’t work for NBC did for CBS. Now even James’ parents have gotten caught up in the weekly ups and downs.
Now, he says, when mom calls, she says: “ ‘It’s OK, we got the numbers last night. The ratings were up. That’s good. You retained through ‘Cosby’ well. You’re building in nice. You got a 14 share.’
“This, coming from my mom? A share? “
While James quickly concedes that success is nice, it was “nicer,” he insists, earlier in his career, because “I never expected the next thing. It was just kind of flowing from one thing to the next, and [there was] this river that was taking me to all these different avenues.”
And he’s seen enough people fail with prime-time series that he remains wary. “I got an apartment, because I don’t know where all this is going,” he says. “Buy a house and all this stuff, and then it crashes down tomorrow.’
Does James ever feel overshadowed by Stiller, who reached a new generation of fans with his portrayal on “Seinfeld” of George’s zany father Frank Costanza?
Nah. “He doesn’t allow that,” James says. “I love watching him--he makes me laugh the most, and he works hard at it. He’s the last guy to leave. I looked at his script and it’s covered with notes. . . . My script has jelly on it.”
* “King of Queens” airs at 8:30 p.m. Mondays on CBS but is being preempted by a holiday special tonight. It returns Dec. 7.