Kevin James is a bonafide Hollywood star. He checks off all the boxes. He has had a hit prime time sitcom “(King of Queens”), a box office smash movie franchise (“Grown Ups”) and consistently sells out theaters whenever he takes his stand-up act on the road. Yet despite all of the fame and success, a conversation with him still feels very much like you are talking to a regular guy. He’s the guy who still feels out of his league when on set with more experienced actors, he’s the guy who you could see yourself hanging out with at the corner bar (where he would neither look nor be out of place in the slightest). This is the charm of Kevin James. There is a safety in familiarity and he exudes a vibe that says “this could be you” to millions of his fans, many of whom will fill the seats at Borgata’s Event Center when he drops in for a performance 7 p.m. Sunday, May 26.
Crafting the funny
For such a “regular guy,” James is uncommonly funny. And his storytelling style onstage makes it all seem effortless, like you are just hanging out with the funny guy at the party who is making everyone laugh. But despite the smooth flow of his show, when it comes to crafting a set, much planning is involved to structure it all together. Coming off of the success from his most recent Netflix special, “Never Don’t Give Up,” James had to start all over with new material in order to tour again. “You don’t know when it’s going to hit you,” James says. “Once I did my Netflix special, that stuff was burned. It’s gone. You can’t be getting up there in the clubs and theaters and doing that show again. Maybe some comedians do, but jokes are not like songs, it’s not like going to see Billy Joel where you want to hear your favorite song again. There is an element of surprise in comedy that, I think, has to be there.”
Even for a natural storyteller, building up enough material to get onstage at a theater and keep crowds laughing for a full hour-long set takes a bit of old-school grunt work. Unlike famous musicians or actors who can perfect their act at home and then present it to a huge crowd, comedy needs to be tested in front of an audience. For James, that meant heading back to his roots.
“It was a matter of finding this material, throwing it up at the local comedy clubs, getting up there again and just submerging myself in that,” he says. “Once you start developing that, you start developing little themes within the material. I don’t want to be restrictive and say ‘I want to write all about this’ or whatever it is. I want the comedy to define itself with whatever makes you laugh and then try to tie it into chunks and pieces. I’m more of a storyteller than a joke teller. I try to work it into sub-themes and themes.”
Telling jokes in modern times
There was once a time when the only requirement for a comedian was to be funny. Stars like Andrew Dice Clay and Sam Kinison could sell out massive venues while saying the most offensive things known to man. But they were just kidding, and audiences accepted that and moved on. In 2019 with political correctness at its zenith, the job of a comedian can be very tricky. Say the wrong thing onstage and you will become the internet’s latest enemy, thanks to smartphones and YouTube. But luckily, James’ comedic style has helped him avoid much of the slings and arrows of modern comedy lynch mobs.
“For me, I have always been relatively universal. I haven’t been too controversial. Even though they say that (to be a good stand up) you have to go through so much pain and stuff, but I had a really good upbringing. So I had to draw from things like Little League. I don’t know what it’s like for comedians now, I know it’s restricting in a lot of ways and a lot of people are having a tough time with that, but I haven’t been affected too much for that reason.”
James even finds the silver lining when he’s being recorded and presented on the internet. Still, he seems relieved to have come to popularity before the age of the internet.
“As far as the cell phones and YouTube, I guess it helps and hurts comedians. It definitely gives everyone a platform. If you are funny you can get your material out there. I remember when I was starting in the business it was tough. To get stage time was a very difficult thing. This kinda gives you a platform, but now there is so much more competition as well, so it’s kinda a weird time. I’m happy to have slipped through a while ago.”
It seems in Hollywood that the thing to do after being out of the limelight for a minute is to grow a beard. David Letterman did it as did Conan O’Brien, Ray Romano and countless others. Whether he was influenced by any of them is unknown, but Kevin James can now be added to the list of hirsute stars. And just in case anyone didn’t immediately notice, he even mentions it in the tagline for his latest stand up tour — New show. New beard. Same I.Q.