The king has returned from Queens and he wants his throne back. Comedian Kevin James, who grew up in Stony Brook, is taking a break from his film career to extend his TV legacy. After nine successful seasons on “The King of Queens” (1998 to 2007), James has once again partnered with his old network CBS to deliver a new sitcom, “Kevin Can Wait,” airing on Mondays at 8:30 p.m. starting Sept. 19.
James, who also serves as executive producer and writer, plays Kevin Gable, a retired police officer whose activities with his fellow cop buddies Mott, Goody and Duffy are constantly interrupted by his wife and three children.
“I’ve never done a sitcom where I had kids,” says James, 51, who is married with four kids in real life. “I get my comedy at home and it wasn’t something I could write about on ‘The King of Queens.’ This opens up a whole new floodgate of ideas and funny little places to go.”
ON AND ABOUT LI
Not only is the new show closer to his real life, but James has set it in Massapequa. He even brought the entire production to Gold Coast Studios in Bethpage, making it the first episodic sitcom to be filmed on Long Island.
“I want Long Island to be a character in the show,” says James. “We mention businesses like All-American Burger and La Scala pizza, which is fun to do. It makes it exciting for me and it feels legit.”
James loves Long Island so much he relocated his own family to Nassau County where he had a home built.
“I lived in Los Angeles for like 17 years and it was great, but it just never felt like home,” says James. “I missed the rhythm of the East Coast, the seasons, the food especially. I couldn’t wait to get back.”
In fact, James has even developed a friendship with the ultimate Long Islander, the Piano Man himself, Billy Joel.
“It’s definitely surreal for me because he is this legend who I grew up listening to. Every song he has is a distinct memory from my childhood,” says James. “I’m begging him to be on the show. We will get him in somehow.”
For many, having James on TV is like sitting in your favorite easy chair — cozy and familiar.
“Kevin has a warmth and huge amount of likability,” says executive producer-manager Jeff Sussman, who is originally from Melville. “People feel as if they know him.”
Executive producer-writer Bruce Helford adds, “People realize they are getting the real deal with Kevin. You believe he’s honest about what he says because he’s very natural. It’s a rare quality.”
Despite all the zany characters on TV, James is very aware of who he is and how his brand works.
“When you see a Tom Cruise movie, you are watching something you would never do with crazy stunts in a world of espionage. When you watch me, you are usually watching because you identify with me,” says James. “It’s a nice thing to be able to connect with people like that.”
After watching James film a scene during a recent taping with no dialogue and just a bread bowl, it’s clear that he can deliver laughs based on body movements alone.
“It’s his sweet spot,” says executive producer-writer Rock Reuben, who grew up in Stony Brook with James. “We will write, ‘What if he made a bread bowl dip and went too deep?’ That’s all we put down and it becomes a two-minute set piece that Kevin just does.”
Being in front of a live audience of Long Islanders seems to give James some extra spring in his step.
“I feed off an audience,” he says. “It really drives you because you can see when jokes work and when they don’t. It’s a great test.”
KEVIN VS. DOUG
When asked how he would compare his new character Kevin Gable with Doug Heffernan from “The King of Queens,” James says: “Kevin is more on top of things, being a police officer for 20 years. Plus, I think he is about four pounds lighter. Doug got pretty big at the end.”
One of the biggest differences in the new show is the chemistry with his wife, Donna, played by Erinn Hayes.
“Leah [Remini, who played his wife Carrie on the old show] was fantastic and one of the greatest. But, it’s fun to play with a new energy,” says James. “Erinn is so funny on her own, as Leah was. She does crazy physical comedy and really makes me laugh.”
At age 24, James made his comedy debut on July 26, 1989 at Richie Minervini’s Eastside Comedy Club in Huntington.
“I did great at my first show and had a crazy high afterwards. I was so excited to get back on stage. My next time on I bombed so bad you could hear ice melt,” he recalls. “But there was nothing more exciting than writing material during the day and trying it out on stage that night.”
James made the decision early on to eliminate all blue material from his act, which helped shape his family-friendly style of humor.
“I used to curse a bit when I started, then I was like, ‘I don’t need this,’ ” he said. “I want people to feel comfortable watching me.”
Other LI funny men
When it came time to build a team, Kevin James looked no further than the pool of Long Island comedians.
“It’s great because the pressure is not just on me to be funny,” says James. “I can bounce the ball to somebody else and they can drive it home.”
Here are some familiar standups who are on staff:
Roach, who plays Mott, has been in the stand-up game for 14 years in local comedy clubs.
One Wednesday night James and Rock Reuben came into McGuire’s in Bohemia and caught Roach doing a 10-minute set.
“After I auditioned, two months later they contacted me and said I got the role,” says Roach, 48, of Ronkonkoma. “I hung up with them, called my wife and cried like a baby.”
Hot off his Showtime special, “Let Me Tell Ya,” Correale cracked up James who was listening to him do a rant about a ceramic coffee mug on his podcast, “The Pete and Sebastian Show” and brought him on as a writer
“You never know who is listening,” says Correale, 45, who was raised in Oakdale. “Sometimes it’s the craziest thing that somebody latches on to.”
You may recognize Valentine from “The King of Queens,” as Danny Heffernan, Doug’s annoying cousin. In the new show, he plays Kevin’s firefighter brother Kyle Gable. He’s also James’ actual brother in real life.
“We always worked well together,” says Valentine, 54, who grew up in Stony Brook. “He trusts my instincts and I trust his.”
Starr, who plays Enzo the pizza guy, came up in the comedy ranks with James at the Eastside Comedy Club, therefore the two have instant chemistry.
“There’s a subtle shorthand amongst comics. I can tell from a look if Kevin wants it faster or whether to tone it down or turn it up,” says Starr, 46, of Brentwood. “We are all rowing the boat in the same direction.” — DAVID J. CRIBLEZ