Before he was an MMA fighter, before he was a Zookeeper, a Grown Up, a Mall Cop or a King of Queens, Kevin James was a stand-up comedian.
The Long Island native whose films have grossed nearly $1 billion at the box office is returning to those roots with a spring mini-comedy tour that launches at Ovens Auditorium Tuesday, even as the release of major movie sequel Grown Ups 2 looms in July.
James, 48, spoke to the Observer recently about his stand-up comedy career, his film career, and how his kids (daughters Sienna-Marie, 7, and Shea, 5, and son Kannon, 2) have changed the way he approaches those jobs.
Q. Youve been immensely successful as an actor. So what drove you to get back on stage to do more stand-up?
Its like nothing else. A movie can be a two-year process basically, from writing it to shooting it to editing it to finally seeing it when it comes out. Its certainly rewarding, but theres nothing like the immediate reaction you get from stand-up. I say something and immediately you get a reaction, whether good or bad. Its nice to have that. I miss that. Its such a rush for me.
Q. What do you remember about your first time you ever did stand-up?
It was in 1989. I was nervous, but I went up and I didnt do what a lot of comics at the time, open mic-ers, would do. I didnt fill the room with family and friends because I knew I wouldnt get a true reading of how I was doing. I didnt tell anybody, really. And I did great. It was unbelievable. I thought, This is gonna be easy. Then I went up a couple nights later and bombed with the same material, ate it so hard. I remember hearing the ice melt in the back room. It was horrible. It was actually good for me, though. You need that. It toughens you up, the more you do it.
Q. What are your thoughts on how the standup game has changed since you came up?
I remember when I first started, you could go up on a Wednesday night, thered be a line around the block at the comedy club. Every night was packed. And then it got saturated because every pizza place and laundromat opened up a comedy night, and then they put it on TV and it was on TV every 10 seconds. It was dying because of oversaturation. ... I dont have my finger on the pulse of the stand-up world now, but I was actually talking to a guy, and he says especially where Im from, in Long Island he says its really rebounding. I was excited to hear that, because for a while it ate itself. But hopefully itll get stronger again.
Q. Have the Internet and YouTube made it easier or harder for a young comic to break out?
I think both. Its certainly a way to get your stuff out there, to be seen, but now every person in the world goes and thinks, Oh, I can do this, and throws something up there. So it also dilutes it. We never had that, obviously, coming up, so at least its a cool way to get (noticed). You can go out and video yourself doing anything get up anywhere, have a good performance, put it on YouTube, and have people see it through Facebook. I mean, I sound like an old grandfather, saying, Well, we didnt have that when we ... But we didnt have that, so it was hard. You had to hustle and get to the clubs and get your name known.
Q. Looking back on what youve accomplished on film, how would you describe your feelings about the body of work youve amassed?
Some are better than others. You miss on some, and your intentions for some are to do better, but its changing into trying to put a good message out there. Not trying to be too goody two-shoes, Im not saying that; Im saying to put something positive out there, in any way, and that could be a rated-R movie, it could be a dark movie, it doesnt matter. As long as it makes people think, and in a positive way. The bases are covered on the other side. The crazier and the nuttier and dirtier stuff theyve got that handled. ... My lifes changed. Ive got my kids and I want to be able to sit down with them and watch whatever Im a part of now.
Q. Your oldest child, which of your movies does she like most?
Believe me, my movies arent (my kids) favorites. Its Despicable Me, its all these other animated movies. They havent locked into one of mine. Right now Steve Carells winning in my house.
Q. It seems like often the path for guys who conquer comedy on film eventually start branching out into drama. Will we eventually see you in something more serious?
If it appeals to me. Im certainly not gonna go do it to do it. I have nothing to prove as far as saying, Oh, now Ive got to show everybody that I can do drama. But if its important to me, then Ill do it. I certainly dont want to be locked in a box where this is the only thing I can do. But I also understand what my wheelhouse is, and I enjoy that wheelhouse.
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