Kevin James became a star thanks to “The King of Queens,” a television sitcom about a blue-collar guy who drives a delivery truck. On the big screen, he’s specialized in similarly modest characters, the most popular of which is probably Paul Blart, a mall cop.
That guy-next-door quality gives James a shortcut when performing stand-up comedy. People feel they know him, James said, and he doesn’t have to waste time with introductions or establishing a persona.
It helps that James isn’t that far removed from his characters, many of which he created. On his current stand-up tour, which stops Tuesday at the Louisville Palace, James normally travels by bus instead of plane.
“I prefer to do it that way,” he said. “I just like it. I like seeing the people and eating in local greasy spoons.”
James got his start as a touring comedian in the late 1980s, and rarely stopped even during nine seasons of “The King of Queens.” It’s his first love.
“I’ve never stopped, and that’s the truth, although I maybe haven’t been able to do it as much as I’d like to,” he said. “It generally was the tool that helped me get to other avenues of my career, such as sitcoms and movies, and I’ve always done it and always loved it.
“I don’t need to do it for the money, thank God, although it’s certainly a nice part of it, no doubt about it, but if it was something I didn’t want to do, I could do more movies. I do stand-up because I honestly do love it. I really love every aspect of it.”
James, 48, got into observational comedy through his older brother, Gary Valentine, who is still in the business and appears frequently in James’ movies. A native of small-town Mineloa, N.Y., James realized before graduating from college that he wanted to perform for a living.
After grinding in the clubs for a few years, he worked his way up to an appearance on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” in 1992. After doing well at the prestigious “Just for Laughs” Montreal Comedy Festival in 1996, James was offered a small part on “Everybody Loves Raymond,” which starred fellow comedian Ray Romano.
James played the truck-driving Doug Heffernan on a few episodes of “Everybody Loves Raymond,” making an impression. His character was spun off into a series, “The King of Queens,” which pulled steady, if unspectacular, ratings until ending in 2007. The show has thrived in syndication.
James’ film work includes “Hitch,” “Grown Ups,” “Grown Ups 2,” “I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry,” “Zookeeper,” “Paul Blart, Mall Cop” and “Here Comes the Boom,” the most well-received of his star vehicles. He co-wrote the latter three.
James, who was No. 89 on Comedy Central’s list of the 100 Greatest Stand-Up Comedians, rarely goes long without at least doing a set somewhere. It’s easier now, of course, with his bills paid many times over and his fame ensuring a crowd. As much as James enjoyed his early days in comedy, there’s less pressure now.
“They’re there to see you, which is nice,” he said. “When you’re first doing stand-up, it’s more of an arms folded, there to see what you’ve got kind of thing. You know, make me laugh. And now they’re fans. But, and I think it was Seinfeld who said this, they’ll give you the first few minutes because they’re excited about seeing you, but you’ve got to make them laugh after that. It’ll wear off really quick if you don’t.
“What I try to grab onto is the fact that I think most people can identify with me, and not talk about being in movies. I’d lose them that way. I try to talk about everyday life stuff, and that’s where I try to connect with them the most.”
Contact Jeffrey Lee Puckett at (502) 582-4160, email@example.com and on Twitter @JLeePuckett.