NEW YORK (AP) — With “Kevin Can Wait,” Kevin James has come home.
Home to the tried-and-true sitcom form with which he thrived for nine seasons on “The King of Queens.”
Home to CBS, where “King” enjoyed its long run and where “Kevin Can Wait” arrived this fall (airing Mondays at 8 p.m. EDT).
And home to James’ native Long Island, from where his new show originates.
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Though set in the New York City borough of Queens, “The King of Queens” was filmed 2,500 miles away in Los Angeles. But for his return to series television, James wanted to be true to his roots. Not even a studio in nearby Queens would satisfy him.
“I said, ‘If I can do my show on Long Island, then I’ll do it,'” he explains.
As its robust audience already knows, “Kevin Can Wait” centers on a Long Island husband and father named Kevin who, newly retired from the police force, finds himself to be an unwitting invader on the home front.
“My wife (played by co-star Erinn Hayes) has already established what’s going on at home,” James laughs, “and when you’re retired and back home full-time, you’re disrupting all that. You can say, ‘I’ll set the rules now.’ But the cement is dry!”
James, 51, was raised in the Long Island hamlet of Stony Brook, and now he’s out to capture the feel of working-class Long Island life that, through his own disarming regular-guyness, he embodies both on- and off-camera.
“We want to make Long Island a character in the show, and we’re using it for exterior shots,” he says. And even though the majority of the action is filmed in multi-camera style on a Bethpage, Long Island, soundstage, James loves knowing that local folks who can readily relate to the show’s zany dilemmas comprise each week’s studio audience: “I love that energy.”
Clearly, James has gained a measure of experience in how to be the boss yet still relax. This is in marked contrast to the rising young standup who scored his first sitcom back in 1998.
“On ‘The King of Queens,’ I showed up as this green kid who tried to control things,” he recalls. “You get so panicked, constantly looking over your shoulder, checking if we’re gonna get canceled. This time, my fingerprints are all over it — writing, wardrobe, everything — but I’m also having fun. I want this show to connect, because I love it. But I’ve done it already, and we had a great run.”
Maybe history is repeating itself. In any case, CBS didn’t wait long to give “Kevin Can Wait” a full-season order.
But even with popular acceptance, James knows better than to clear his shelves for Emmys and other shiny hardware. In 2006, James’ portrayal of a parcel delivery guy sharing a Queens household with his wife and her aging father snagged the show its lone Emmy nomination.
James isn’t betting on that to change now in response to this latest twist on the everyman persona he’s also served fans in his hit 2009 film “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” and in “True Memoirs of an International Assassin,” his new Netflix action comedy where he stars as a mild-mannered novelist who gets mistaken for a killer-for-hire. (It premieres Nov. 11.)
“I’m not going to play too far away from myself,” James declares, adding, “On this show, we aren’t breaking ground. I know that. I’m not trying to. But that’s not to say you slack off in the writing. I try to do great stories that we want to connect with an audience.”
Though success has carried James far from a working-class existence, he still relates to the fundamentals: He visits Target, acknowledges he could lose a few pounds and expects no red carpets, especially at home: “With four kids and a wife, I know my place,” he says with a grin.
Knowing his place helps account for James’ appeal, especially in the face of such dismissive reviews for “Kevin Can Wait” as “squarely conventional, comfortably mediocre” (Variety), “a backward-looking relic of a bygone age” (The Hollywood Reporter) and “anemic” (The New York Times).
“When the critical love is not there, how do I feel? I can’t say I’m guided by that,” James insists. “The critics did the same thing when ‘King of Queens’ started, and nine years later I could say, ‘Hey, guys — how’s it goin’?’
“Besides, I like that classic sitcom feel. In a world where everybody’s trying to be edgy, I think WE’RE different!”
EDITOR’S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier. Past stories are available at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/frazier-moore