Many shows throughout the decades have attempted to capture the antagonism and love shared between working class heroes Ralph and Alice Kramden in the seminal 1950s sitcom The Honeymooners. None have come as close as King of Queens. The mistake other shows have made in the past is under-developing the roles of the wives, making many attempts seem like some kind of bizarre hybrid of The Honeymooners and Donna Reed, which would lead many viewers to wonder, “Why would this beautiful and intelligent woman stay with such an ass?”
However, the chemistry between Kevin James and Leah Remini as Doug and Carrie Hefferman is spot on. While James’ Doug is a stubborn slob always plotting for his own agenda, Carrie was often just as stubborn and underhanded as Doug. James is so great at playing a loveable lunkhead that we were never really upset when he pulled the rug out from under Carrie. Likewise, Remini is so great at being a bullying, yet ultimately caring wife that we never find her to be overly shrewish when dressing down Doug (which was often a complaint viewers made about Raymond’s wife Deborah on Everybody Loves Raymond). One of the things that King of Queens got right, and led to its huge success, was that they portrayed the relationship between the two as being equal, though hysterically flawed.
It’s no wonder that they fought so hard to get Jerry Stiller on as Doug’s live-in father-in-law, Arthur Spooner. Not only is Stiller terrifically gonzo in the role, his presence announces the show’s Seinfeld; splitting the difference between Everybody Loves Raymond’s sentimental side with the selfish scheming of George, Jerry, Kramer, and Elaine.
However, one of the amazing things about King of Queens is that it is a show in which the lead character has no qualms about his station in life. Doug Heffernan is a package delivery guy and has no sights set on upward mobility. There is nothing wrong with this. Heck, this situation is more realistic than anything else on television. Not everyone has a dream they want to pursue and ending up in a job that you don’t actively hate is perhaps the best thing anyone can ask for. However, it’s rare for a character in a television show to unquestionably accept this.
In fact, it is Doug’s resistance to anything different or better that often leads to the most compelling storylines throughout the show’s run. In the wake of the recent news that today four out of ten households have women as the breadwinners rather than men, King of Queens, in retrospect acts as a kind of harbinger of this new reality. While Doug was perfectly happy to deliver packages all day, Carrie worked as a legal secretary and eventually went back to school during the show’s run while any promotions that Doug did get throughout the series, he often did everything in his power to shake that responsibility off of his shoulders.
To see someone who is perfectly happy with his or her meager place in the world is not only practically unheard of on television, it’s borderline un-American (perhaps only the other characters in popular imagination to be so utterly content with hum drum life are Homer Simpson and The Dude). However, this may all seem sort of pathetic if the character of Doug was played by anyone other than Kevin James. Kevin James is simply one of the most likeable comedians working today.
Look, Kevin James is funny. While comedy is perhaps the most subjective of all art forms, there are some comics that transcend that. Brian Regan is one. George Carlin is possibly the king of that transcendence as he is rightfully heralded as one of the greatest of all time among comedy nerds and neophytes alike. With Kevin James, it gets tricky, though. King of Queens still has its share of detractors and his film output has been dodgy at best. But then there is this bit from his 2001 Comedy Central special Sweat the Small Stuff.
Within this bit are all of the ingredients to what makes Kevin James a bona fide super star. Superb delivery, a sharp point of view, and the kind of expressive physicality that any comedian would kill to have in his or her bag of tricks. Not to mention that ever-murky X factor of likeability, which he has in spades. James is a guy’s guy in the best way possible in that he shares in our everyday foibles and is inclusive in his act; subtly inviting everyone to jump on board with him.
James has an affable style and his physical presence on stage, even at this point in his career, is undeniable. Like John Belushi and Chris Farley, James’ girth is underscored by his pure athleticism (all three of whom played high school football) that lends his physical comedy an unexpected grace.
He’s green in this clip and seems pretty nervous, however his persona is so sweetly ingratiating, we can’t help but be won over by him. James even gets an applause break for a rather silly act out of someone defending himself against muggers with pepper.
This clip is not to be taken as the best example of Kevin James as a standup. However, it is important in showing exactly how James improved throughout the years. While he’s funny in the previous clip, in the following clip, we see James, much more experienced and sure footed as a comic returning to the subject of women buying greeting cards and expanding on it with a delightfully silly pantomime routine.
As someone who has done some standup in the past, it’s heartening to see the evolution of this bit. Every comic has something that doesn’t quite work they way they would like it, and this serves as a great example at how a little time and creativity can help push the bit from kind of funny, to something sublime. However, it helps to have the kind of silent film era expressiveness of Kevin James.
After watching some of Kevin James’ standup and his empathetic portrayal of Doug on King of Queens, we’re left to wonder why that hasn’t translated well to the big screen. Perhaps there is a little more of Doug Heffernan in Kevin James than he himself would admit. While King of Queens now lives on as a rerun staple and he continues to perform standup comedy throughout the country, his film output has been spotty. There is no denying that Kevin James is a gifted comedian who has some excellent acting chops, but why has that not yet translated into a truly great comedy movie?
However, the question is moot. Every film Kevin James has starred in (with the exception of the bizarre indie he did with Ray Romano, Grilled) has performed well at the box office. While those of us in the comedy nerd world may wish for a vehicle that is as fresh and thrilling as his standup act, perhaps like Doug Heffernan, James is willing to ride out the status quo.