Comedian Kevin James is probably best known for his role as Doug Heffernan in the long-running sitcom, "The King of Queens." For James, who celebrated his 51st birthday on April 25, his story began on Long Island, where he grew up in Stony Brook as Kevin Knipfing. In this Newsday interview, James recalls how growing up on Long Island informed his comedy and his attitude.
This interview was originally published in Newsday on Dec. 28, 1998.
You did a lot of stand-up comedy in Long Island and Manhattan clubs before landing your TV series. Did growing up on the Island give you a lot of material to use in your club act?
"I definitely built my jokes on where I grew up. That Long Island family and lifestyle kind of thing is something I built on. But other than a couple of local jokes about the Long Island Rail Road, which you can't take on the road because out-of-towners wouldn't get it, what I drew on from growing up on the Island was more just attitudes. Stuff that came from the people I hung out with, the more raw and more real people. What it was is, we all had a similar view of life, we looked at what was funny about it and what was real to us. There definitely are people from Long Island who enjoy the same kind of humor and things, and I built off that in my routines."
What was your favorite place to hang out -- to make out, fish, play basketball, any of that?
"The fishing place and the making out place were the same place. We used to hang out at the Sand Street Beach in Stony Brook and West Meadow Beach. At West Meadow, I used to hang out with a bunch of guys, one of them had a house on the beach. We'd party with the girls from school. And Smith's Point Beach. But we did a lot more talking about getting sex than actually getting it, talked more about making out than actually making out. I played football in Melville and I used to play right around the block from my old house on Nicolls Road, pickup games and Little League. I was really into sports. In fact, I went to Cortland State as a sports-management major. Can you believe they offered such a thing? At that point stand-up comedy was not something I wanted to get into. I was more interested in sports."
But sports is a teamwork effort. In stand-up comedy, you're on your own. Do you have a split personality or something?
"You sound like you're angling for a punch line. The truth is, I hated having a boss. A comic has to make decisions on his own. He writes his material without someone else going, "No, no, do this, do that," he edits on his own, he wins or loses on his own. I wanted to make my own decisions. That's why this field is so perfect for me. But at the same time, I had a bunch of guys when I first got into stand-up, buddies. They were also into stand-up. We would critique each other, cheer each other on, come up with ideas for each other, and write bits for each other."
I recently heard Billy Joel tell an NYU master's class that it's very useful for an artist to be manic-depressive. "I don't like happy," he said. For a comedian, of course, there's the whole Pagliacci syndrome, the clown crying on the inside. Is inner anguish at least part of what fuels your comedy?
"A lot of comedy does come from tragedy. You need conflict. If on "The King of Queens" everything is fine with my wife and with my father-in-law, and I just watch TV, that's boring. But, personally, I had a basically good Long Island upbringing, a good Long Island family life. Where other people growing up are burdened by parents who split, maybe this one was touched by an uncle, all this crazy stuff when they were growing up, I didn't have that. I didn't need to suffer. People who had a tough time growing up do have personal stuff to draw on for their material, but even though I didn't have that I can still find comical things about my family and friends. I think what really draws performers to the business is not the inner anguish but that they need attention. When I did my first community theater play at Shoreham-Wading River Community Theater, the reaction from the audience is what drew me into the business. I think that's all that drives you."
What do you think of the other comedians and actors from Long Island, and did they inspire you or give you the guts to get out there and do it?
"They are amazing. Guys like Jerry Seinfeld, Eddie Murphy, Billy Crystal. So many of these brilliant guys kept popping up. You walk into these comedy clubs on Long Island when you start out performing, you know they all came out of there. Sure, it was inspiring. I don't knew if I'd have had the same feelings if I grew up in Peoria. Every club I'd walk into, the owners knew these guys. That's where they started and, man, they were horrible at first. They had to grow, and they did grow. They definitely were an inspiration. They had been in the same position I was in, they were open-mikers, amateurs. Then they built and refined their acts and built their audiences. That's how it started happening with me."
Were any of them a role model for you, or did you have a mentor?
"All those Long Island comedians were role models, in a way. But the most important guy in my career was Richie Minervini, the owner of the East Side Comedy Club in Huntington. The most valuable thing for a young comic was getting stage time. When comedy was hot, you had to sign up a month in advance for a five-minute spot. Very early in my career, Richie took me under his wing and gave me all the time I wanted. I was horrible. He gave me time to develop and made me stretch. More important than getting funnier was developing a stage presence. Richie helped a lot by giving me the stage time."
In the last decade or so there's been a tremendous surge in comedy, in clubs, TV, the movies. Why is that? Is it perhaps something to do with all the negativity around us, empty lives maybe, that makes it necessary to seek out comedy?
"I think it's that laughter is still the best medicine, you get such a great feeling when you can laugh at something. It's an endless search for a lot of people, almost like a high. Right now stand-up is in decline, I think, because it's become so saturated. I mean, every pizza parlor and laundromat had Friday night comics for a while. It became like the thing to do, get out there and make people laugh. So stand-up just took off. It was almost like a fad. It's sad, now, that people like Robert Klein, comics who were so hot in the '80s, are no longer in demand. Still, even if there's been a decline, the core group of genius comics and genius TV shows goes strong. "The Honeymooners," Bill Cosby, shows and comics of that caliber, they'll last. I'm not quite sure why stand-up got so big, but I'm personally grateful for it.""
What do you think about another kind of joke, Jerry Springer?
"To be honest, I don't even watch his show. Well, I have to admit that every once in a while I'll flip on the show and I'll go, "Man, can you believe this garbage?" Then I get sucked in for a half-hour looking at those freaks. Saying all the time, "Man, look at these ridiculous people." It's a sad thing, these people who go on his show to air their laundry. They're like they're on parade. I don't know who I feel more sorry for, the people who go on his show or the people who say they have to watch every day."
How does Los Angeles compare with Long Island and New York City?
"I've been in L.A. for two years and I still don't feel like I'm home here. It's nice and the weather is beautiful, but the ground shakes every once in a while, which frightens me. The whole place is like a movie set. Long Island has so much more character. I love the different towns, I love the Long Island beaches and the water, I miss driving on the parkways. I miss driving on the Northern State, the trees, the leaves. And I miss the change of seasons. Out here everybody goes to bed so early. In New York, I don't think people ever sleep. You can do anything at any time in New York. I remember doing sets at two in the morning, then we'd all go to a diner and I'd pass out at four or five. I miss that electricity. There are some great places in L.A. and I do like it, don't get me wrong, but there's nothing like Long Island and the city."
What do you want to be when you grow up?
"I don't wanna grow up. I love doing what I'm doing and if I get settled I'm not going to go for the big one any more. My goal is to make it big enough so I can take batting practice in Shea Stadium. Then I'll know I've made it."