Actor Kevin James has made a career out of playing the pudgy blue-collar everyman who proves that an average guy can do great things. Since wrapping up the ninth season of “The King of Queens” in 2007, the CBS sitcom in which he starred as a delivery man, James has taken the lead in major comedy films including “Paul Blart: Mall Cop,” “Zookeeper” and last year’s “Here Comes the Boom,” about a teacher who takes up mixed martial arts fighting to raise money for his school.
A close friend of Adam Sandler’s, and his faux-gay-partner in 2007’s “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry,” James reunites on-screen with his comedy pal in this summer’s “Grown Ups 2,” a sequel to the 2010 film also starring Chris Rock and David Spade.
“There are elements of myself in all of them,” James said of the characters he plays. “I can’t say I’m the ‘Here Comes the Boom’ guy, because I’m not getting into an octagon. I don’t want to fight anybody like that. And with ‘Chuck and Larry,’ I could never sleep with Sandler, so that wouldn’t work. But that’s the idea of it; you try to bring what’s unique about you to every character that you play.”
Despite the release of “Grown Ups 2” this summer and a busy promotion schedule, James said he felt it was time to return to his roots, revisiting his pre-“King of Queens” career as a stand-up comedian.
Although he’s kept up occasional on-stage appearances in Las Vegas over the past decade, this 12-date tour, which visits the North Charleston Performing Arts Center on Friday, is his first formal return to stage in years.
“I’ve been writing like crazy,” said James. “This is the first time I’ve been able to focus on my stand-up and really dedicate time to writing new material and working on developing it, and I’m excited to put it out there and see how it goes.”
If one were to pigeonhole James’ shtick, from “The King of Queens” to “Paul Blart,” it’s the trampled-upon underdog, overcoming obstacles to get the girl and make things right.
That’s a theme that carries over into his stage routine, as well.
“Even my stand-up material is self-deprecating. It’s making fun of myself, and hopefully taking the audience with me,” James explains. “I talk about people who annoy me, but a lot of the time I’m the butt of the joke and the one getting made fun of, even if I’m making fun of other people. I’m the ridiculous one who notices this stuff and lets it bother him.”
Since his days as a full-time comedian, James has become a father of three; he has two daughters ages 5 and 7 and a 2-year-old son. He’s found that the same material he once joked about from his own childhood is being lived out in front of him.
“Basically, the only reason I had them is for the material. I was running out and needed some new stuff,” he quips. “They have proven incredible for material though; they did not let me down.”
Although his routine may not always qualify as 100 percent “family friendly,” it’s also far less offensive than the jokes of other comedians who thrive on shocking their audience with “did he really just say that?” comments.
“I’m not one of those people that goes out and pushes the envelope just for the reaction. It’s not where my humor lies,” said James. “I’ve always just done stuff that’s funny to me, and a lot of that is observational kinds of things in my life. Of course, I exaggerate them a bit, but I don’t think I ever push to make it offensive, just to try to make it funny.”
That’s not always the case in his films, where the exaggerations can border on the ridiculous.
In the upcoming “Grown Ups 2,” he and his co-stars battle it out against a college fraternity led by actor Taylor Lautner of the “Twilight” series. At one point, James’ character is forced to strip and leap from a cliff into a lake.
“I felt bad for my stunt man,” James laughs. “That cliff was huge and he had to jump in naked. I couldn’t believe it. We had to get a body double for me, and my wife complains that I don’t look like that.”
James said he enjoys playing a “buffoon” in the film, a role that counters his slightly more serious turn in “Here Comes the Boom.” For the latter, he shed 80 pounds while building muscle mass to convincingly play the role of a competitive MMA fighter.
Since then, however, he’s happily regained the extra weight.
“I’d like to say that I put it back on for ‘Grown Ups 2,’ because that’s the type of actor I am; I will gain 80 pounds if you need me to,” offers James. “ ‘Here Comes the Boom’ got me into incredible shape. I’d like to get it back down to somewhere in the middle. I’ve always struggled with my weight; I just love food and I can’t get away from it.”
Likewise, the struggles of aging make their way into James’ comedy routines.
At 48, he said it’s far more difficult for him to enjoy past pleasures like taking batting practice.
“It’s weird, my kids jump out of bed and you can see their youth,” said James. “You can wake them up in the middle of the night and they spring out and run like a gazelle. For me, getting up requires a game plan, which is kind of sad. Alright, ‘Swing your legs over. Don’t put too much weight on that knee.’ I’m feeling the pains of getting older.”
On his tour, James will be traveling with Richie Minervini, a fellow comedian who helped give James his start in the business.
“He owned the first comedy club I ever went up at, in 1989, and a lot of comedy club owners back then were not the greatest people,” James explains. “Richie was completely the opposite. ... He was a very generous man who said, ‘Don’t worry about your material right now. Just get up there, work your stage presence and get comfortable in front of an audience.’ On nights when it wasn’t going great, he kept pushing me and let me do what I wanted to do, and it paid off, eventually.”
The support paid off for Minervini, as well, who has landed bit parts in many of James’ movies, including “Grown Ups” and “Paul Blart.”
Minervini opens the show with a 25-minute set, followed by about an hour with James.
Although stand-up is a return to his roots, James recognizes that performing for a theater audience is different from his days in clubs, where hecklers often did their best to derail a performance.
“It’s a part of the game and you’ve got to deal with it, but now, people are paying good money to see you, as opposed to just walking into a club where they fold their arms and there’s that ‘Make me laugh’ moment. There was a challenge to that, when they didn’t know you,” said James, elaborating on how being given the benefit of the doubt also can be difficult.
“I think it was Jerry Seinfeld who said, ‘When you’re famous, they give you the first minute,’ where they’re cheering and happy to see you, but after that, you’ve got to be funny again.”
James said he enjoys playing to crowds who have come to the show knowing what they want, but that it adds to the pressure to offer something new and exciting. Before the tour, he planned to do a couple of surprise club gigs, just to get back into the groove of being on stage.
“You don’t get your rhythm back right away,” he admits, adding that the jokes evolve throughout a tour. “You don’t want to be stuck rehearsing, or spewing out, lines that you’ve said a thousand times. Writing new material gets me reinvigorated. It’s that one new joke that gives you the rush when you throw it out. Then you expand and it builds your confidence and you uncover new stuff. You can even write on stage, which is where I do a lot of it.”
Despite the differences between his stand-up show and his TV and film work, fans who enjoy James’ work on screen will likely also relate to his stage performance.
He said it’s doubtful that he’ll ever take on a serious or dark role, citing serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer as an example, at least not “just for the sake of doing it.”
On the contrary, he’s happy being the funny man anyone can relate to.
“I’m not a character actor where I would just be submerging myself into that person,” James said. “I play characters that are basically more universal. That’s kind of who I am, and I try to bring whatever personality traits I feel can work to the role. There’s a reason why I play a character instead of someone else, and that’s what I try to bring to the table.”