It’s About Time Kevin James Earned Some Respect

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty

From a young age, I’ve found the face of actor-comedian Kevin James to be weirdly comforting. On weeknights, my mother and I would watch reruns of the CBS show King of Queens together as a part of our primetime network lineup. It was one of the few adult sitcoms—besides Reba—that she deemed appropriate for me to watch, outrageous in its humor but not too crude or profane.

A part of me believes that my mother secretly related to main protagonist Doug Heffernan’s (James) more competent and unabashedly cranky spouse Carrie, played to perfection by Leah Remini. My mom was much more vocal, however, about how much she loved James, his affable persona, and knack for physical comedy. Along with Cliff Huxtable (woof) and Laura Ingalls’ hot dad, he was a top-tier television husband in our household, even if he was a downright infuriating spouse on-screen.

It seems that the internet has come to appreciate James’ likeness, too—or maybe they always have. If you look on Twitter (now called X) right now, you can see the Grown Ups actor in a range of Kevin Hart-style reaction memes that have everyone reminiscing about his mass-consumed but generally underrated CBS show, conveniently during the series’ 25th anniversary.

According to Know Your Meme, the phenomenon apparently began on Sept. 21 when user @ChampagneAnyone posted a promotional photo of James, as Doug, with an innocent smirk on his face and giving the camera a shrug. It’s a look that says “I ate one too many Oreos out of the cookie jar” or “I forgot to take the trash out”—both typical behaviors from his deeply irresponsible but somehow still sympathetic sitcom character.

The internet has also dug up ridiculous promotional photos from James’ time as a CBS star, including one where he’s emerging from a sewer and photoshoots featuring his TV wife, Remini. Some have even made fan-cams for Hollywood’s most regular-seeming comedian and, at one time, movie star. All these memes seem to underscore an unspoken appreciation for the Paul Blart: Mall Cop actor who’s gained a reputation as a poor man’s Adam Sandler.

While I can’t defend a movie like Zookeeper or the more regrettable I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, I’ve always believed that James has received an oddly bad rap. His negative reception as a performer has always reminded me of the sort of classist and fatphobic mockery Guy Fieri used to receive in the mid-2000s before becoming a beloved internet icon—and, later, being outed as an apparent right-winger. (Knock on wood a video doesn’t emerge of James cozying up to Donald Trump.)

Most of the recent backlash towards James seems to have spurred from his star-turn on King of Queens. Along with early-aughts programs like According to Jim and Still Standing, the show perpetuated a sitcom trend of schlubby, lazy husbands who had miraculously attained hot wives and made their lives miserable with their ineptitude. (Although, there’s a lot of fatphobia embedded in this critique.) This trope has been lampooned on shows like Inside Amy Schumer, Louie, and, most notably, the AMC meta series Kevin Can F*** Himself, whose premise is a direct reference to James’ supposed problematic-ness.

Kevin James and Leah Remini sit on a couch in a still from ‘The King of Queens’
CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

As a Kevin James defender, I still have not been able to bring myself to binge the Annie Murphy-led show out of spite. (It also just looked like a white feminist thinkpiece!) The two-season series was famously inspired by an infamous casting decision on James’ 2016 CBS show Kevin Can Wait while satirizing the sitcom stereotype he embodied on King of Queens.

Quite controversially, James and the rest of the series’ producers, killed off his character’s wife Donna (Erinn Hayes) and recruited Remini as the show’s female lead in the second season before Kevin Can Wait was cancelled. This not-great but largely inconsequential story caught wind in the midst of the Hollywood’s #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, painting James in a misogynistic light. However, I’d argue that the comedian casting Remini in a big acting role amid her crusade against the Church of Scientology was actually a feminist act.

Will Smith and Kevin James stand next to each other in a still from ‘Hitch’
Columbia Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

Additionally, the casual misreading of King of Queens’ central relationship is a bit tiring. Anyone who’s watched the show knows that Doug and Carrie’s marriage was more complicated than the annoying-husband-passive-wife dynamic, as they were both comically flawed people—and Carrie was hardly tolerant of Doug’s immaturity.

Yes, Carrie becomes increasingly bitchy as the series goes on. A shallow reading of her arc would deem this as a sexist choice by the writers, which included James. However, you could just as easily interpret her behavior as the result of an unrewarding marriage and the couple’s financial immobility as a working-class household. Her anger never appeared to be unjustified. At the very least, it was all very realistic!

Kevin Smith as Paul Blart running through a mall in a still from ‘Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2’
Sony Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

In 2023, everyone seems a lot more comfortable expressing their fondness for the show and the doofus at its center. Is a meme enough to start a Kevin James renaissance? Who knows? I definitely thought his series of dramatic short films on his YouTube channel a few years ago would earn him the level of virality he’s receiving now. However, if a casual photo of James shrugging in a flannel is enough to win social media over, I’ll take it.

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