Burning Down the House with Kevin James

Burning Down the Patriarchy with Valerie Armstrong’s Kevin Can F**k Himself.” PopMatters (March 7, 2023).

Kevin James by Kristofferson San Pablo

Actor and comedian Kevin James is an easy target — he’s large, he’s slow, and his particular brand of comedy doesn’t set the bar very high. The characters James typically plays are of the working-class, “average Joe” variety. The King of Queens (1998-2007), a show in which James stars as Doug Heffernan, a UPS-like worker, was successful in its nine-season run. In the New York Times, Virginia Heffernan — no relation to the fictional character — wrote that “like pizza or the Doors, the show just hits the spot — the simple, happy sitcom spot.”1 Riding on the success of The King of Queens, James plays essentially the same character in Kevin Can Wait (2016–18) as Kevin Gable, a recently retired police officer who is immature, self-serving, and inept. In both shows, Kevin’s characters display patriarchal privilege and engage in behaviour that is controlling, manipulative, and outright sexist.

Indeed, America loves a working-class buffoon; consider the success of The Simpsons (1989-present), King of the Hill (1997-2009), and Married… with Children (1987-97), shows that follow the stereotype of the working-class schlub — the immature and bungling buffoon who is far surpassed in intelligence and competence by his beautiful wife. The roots of this breed of uneducated working-class clown can be seen in All in the Family (1971-79) with its iconic star Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor), who, like Heffernan, also lived in Queens, is immature, self-serving, and engages in malapropisms and imprudent scheming. A major difference between All in the Family and The King of Queens is that Bunker was created to be disliked for his bigoted stances on race, sex, marriage, and religion, whereas Doug Heffernan’s shortcomings are intended to be seen as charming.

As Alyssa Rosenberg argues in her article “All in the Family and the limits of satire,” Bunker was intended by creator Norman Lear to be a satirical character; however, those who shared his bigoted worldview never saw him in that light. It was Lear’s hope that the audience would embrace Bunker as a person while rejecting his offensive beliefs and ideologies; however, Rosenberg argues that just the opposite happened.2 Bunker offered a voice for those who shared his beliefs, and he was treated as a hero. Bunker – a fictional character – even got a vote toward being Vice-President at the 1972 Republican Convention.

Despite the comedy format, All in the Family attempted to deal with serious subject matters, a tradition that would continue in sitcoms like Roseanne (1988-1997, 2018) and Everybody Hates Chris (2005-2009). In contrast, when The King of Queens and Kevin Can Wait address serious subject matters, they are treated as jokes. For instance, consider the death of Kevin’s wife, Donna Gable (Erinn Hayes), in Kevin Can Wait. She is mysteriously killed off between the first and second seasons, but the show doesn’t explain her death, and her death is treated as a punchline to a lame and unfunny joke. 

Donna Gable’s death is first mentioned in “Civil Ceremony” (season 2, episode 1). While sorting his mail, Kevin finds a postcard from Donna’s gym that reads: “Haven’t seen you. We miss you.” Kevin responds aloud, “You know what? So do I.” Kendra Gable (Taylor Spreitler), one of Kevin and Donna’s three children, is outraged by the gym’s careless oversight: “It’s been over a year since she died. They shouldn’t still be sending this.” This completes the set-up for a classic dead wife joke. Kevin responds: “Thanks, but don’t throw that out. On the bottom, there’s a coupon for a Kung-Fu lesson.” Classic Kevin…cue the laugh track.

Valerie Armstrong’s Kevin Can F**k Himself (2021–22) is a genre-bending dark comedy/satire/drama that can be read as a response to patriarchal privilege displayed in sitcoms like The King of Queens and Kevin Can Wait. The show explores some of the consequences of normalizing the toxic behaviour on display in many American sitcoms – in particular, those of the intelligent-beauty-and-working-class-beast variety.  The Kevin in the title directly references Kevin James and the character he plays in Kevin Can Wait.  Moreover, the character of Kevin McRoberts (Eric Peterson) only slightly exaggerates the misogyny found in Kevin James’ sitcoms.      

Kevin Can F**k Himself seamlessly switches between two genres — the sitcom and the crime drama — one from the point of view shown from Kevin McRoberts’ (Eric Peterson) perspective, where everything revolves around him, and everyone enables his self-serving behaviour. The other shows the aftermath of his destructive behaviour.

For most of Kevin Can F**k Himself, the situations featuring Kevin exist within the sitcom aesthetic. The sitcom aesthetic is heavily sanitized, filled with canned laughter, and has the traditional sitcom,  multi-cam set-up. Through this lens, Kevin and the other characters are reduced to caricatures. We often watch as Kevin’s wife, Allison McRoberts (Annie Murphy), is verbally abused and treated poorly by Kevin and the other characters under the pretense of humour. For Kevin, Allison (and everyone else) exist to serve his needs and often find themselves as the butt of his jokes. 

In contrast, the lived reality, in particular, the lives of the “supporting” cast surrounding Kevin (including his wife Allison), is dark, gritty, and has a crime drama aesthetic in the same vein as Breaking Bad (2008-2013). Using this strategy, the show attempts to reveal the underlying ideology found within working-class sitcoms of the Kevin James variety. 

In their 2010 essay “Beauty and the Patriarchal Beast“, media scholars Kimberly Walsh, Elfriede Fürsich, and Bonnie Jefferson analyze The King Of Queens, argue that while Carrie Heffernan (Leah Remini) demonstrates her superiority by making many jokes at Doug’s expense (the humour often revolves around Doug’s weight or ignorance/lack of education), yet the plot itself subtly reinforces patriarchal ideology, leaving male dominance unquestioned. Walsh, Fürsich, and Jefferson suggest that “the stories resolve in such a way that even if the men admit their failings, they never have to change: their understanding of masculinity and their family roles is never called into question, just their quirky and maddening behaviours, which get reproduced every week.”3

Kevin Can F**k Himself explicitly reveals this underlying ideology. In “The Machine” (season 2, episode 6), Allison has an epiphany: “If you make your problems Kevin’s problems, he just fixes all of them.” This is a meta-narrative moment with Allison realizing that despite Kevin being incompetent, everything inevitably works out in his favour. The patriarchy is consistently reinforced. 

Returning to Donna’s sudden disappearance in Kevin Can Wait, the show’s lack of explanation naturally left unanswered questions, the biggest and most obvious: How did she die, and why was she killed off from the show? The callous nature of the character’s disappearance led many to speculate about her death. There was an obvious lack of chemistry between Kevin and Donna, which perhaps leads to the most obvious explanation for her disappearance: She was killed off to reunite Kevin with his ex-costar from The King Of Queens, Leah Remini, who makes a guest appearance as Veronica Cellucci, Kevin’s former partner from the police force who later becomes his business partner. James corroborates this stating, “When she [Remini] came on [for her guest appearance] … it was just the greatest, fans loved it, everybody on the crew loved it.” He continues, “We just knew right away, so we thought, ‘How can we get her here full-time to be on the show?”4 While this provides a satisfactory answer as to “why” the character was “killed” from the show, it doesn’t explain how she died.

Some viewers find Kevin’s reluctance to discuss the cause of his wife’s death rather suspicious, leading to some humorous speculations by Esquire’s Matt Miller. Two of his theories include: 

Remini’s character Veronica [Cellucci] had Donna murdered to get Kevin to save her failing security business. It’s also possible that Donna and Kevin were forced to split up the family when Kevin was forced into a witness protection program after a case went bad during his time as a cop.5

Miller’s speculation seemed to hit a nerve with Remini. In “Slip ‘n’ Fall” (season 2, episode 8), the following dialogue occurs between Veronica and Kevin:

Veronica: Roger Dently, Esq.  
Kevin: Esquire, it’s a men’s magazine. 
Veronica: Seriously? “Esquire” means lawyer. 
Kevin: Yes, but Esquire is also a men’s magazine.

It doesn’t take much imagination to read between the lines…this is a thinly veiled legal threat from Remini to Esquire. An intertextual reading of Kevin Can F**k Himself presents an alternative theory: Donna, in an attempt to escape Kevin’s possessive and emotionally abusive behaviour, faked her own death in a hiking accident. In Kevin Can F**k Himself, Kevin’s wife Allison hits her breaking point when she realizes that her husband has been secretly spending their life savings on himself. She attempts to murder him but fails and decides to fake her own death. 

Why did Allison decide to kill Kevin rather than leave him, which seems like a much more straightforward and obvious solution to her problem? In a 2021 interview with Christine Radish for Collider, Annie Murphy explains:

As Annie Murphy, I believe murdering her [Allison’s] husband is a metaphor for saving her own life. What she needs is to be rid of him and the only way that her very fried and very angry brain can picture a life where she’s rid of him is where he cannot find her anymore. It’s not a matter of leaving, in her head. It’s that he can’t exist anymore, for her to grow and be happy. This whole thing is not based in logic. It’s based in a very intense reaction to anger and pain and frustration that has been just shoved down for many, many years.6

The desire to murder Kevin seems like a cathartic wish fulfillment that goes beyond Murphy’s character’s desire to reclaim her life. It can be read as a way to kill off this form of representation; after all, Kevin’s character is an extension of those played by Kevin James, which is an archetype.

In the end, Allison doesn’t succeed in killing Kevin. After a failed attempt, resulting in complications, she finally decides to escape Kevin’s grasp by faking her death in a hiking accident. Six months after Allison’s disappearance, Kevin (now donning a full-on grief beard) assumes his wife is dead and decides it is time to move on. In a form of cathartic intertextually, Molly, Kevin’s new girlfriend — whom he has been dating for four months at this point — is played by former Kevin Can Wait co-star Erinn Hayes. Around this time, Allison decides to confront her problems (or, more accurately, problem) by returning to her previous life. In an act of feminist solidarity, Allison warns Molly about Kevin’s controlling behaviour. 

When Molly next meets up with Kevin, he has already decided (for her) that she will move in with him. She leaves to buy cigarettes and never returns. If only Donna had recognized the warning signs, it might have led to her own spin-off sitcom. 

While Kevin Can F**k Himself successfully depicts Kevin as self-serving and abusive, it also suggests that if he is ignored and left to his own devices, he will eventually destroy himself. This he does in the final episode, “Allison’s House” (season 2, episode 8). When Allison confronts Kevin, we see him for the first time outside the sitcom aesthetic. Although Kevin was emotionally abusive and controlling, following sitcom genre conventions, the presentation of Kevin is a sugar-coated and sanitized version of reality.  When the audience is finally shown Kevin through the crime drama lens, which is closer to reality, we see the depth of Kevin’s physical and emotional abuse directed at Allison.  

It is during this altercation that Allison finally stands up to Kevin and tells him that she is going to leave him, despite his threat that, if she does, he will “fucking destroy her.” Allison responds, “Do your worst,” and leaves his life forever.  We watch Kevin process the altercation through excessive drinking and setting Allison’s belonging (including her passport) on fire in a trash can in the middle of their living room. The house catches fire, and we can only assume that he dies in the fire.

Although the cause of Donna’s death is never explained in Kevin Can Wait, James explains why her character was killed off. He states that Armstrong and the crew were “literally just running out of ideas.”7 While this might be unsurprising for anyone who has seen a Kevin James comedy special, it also is emblematic of another issue, namely, that the characters played by James no longer represent the “average” working-class employee. As writer and labour organizer Kim Kelly declares, “The working-class wants and deserves representation, but focusing on one shrinking section [white ‘traditional’ families] and ignoring the real, nitty-gritty struggles of the modern working-class, in all of its intersectional diversity [multi-racial, multi-gendered, queer, disabled, first generation, undocumented, etc.], is a good way to lose us all.”8 The representation of working-class America that Kevin James embodies seems to have burnt itself out.

  1. Virginia Heffernen, “Hey! Never Underestimate the Average Joe,” The New York Times (January 3, 2017). []
  2. Alyssa Rosenberg, “All in the Family and the limits of satire,” The Washington Post (April 1, 2014). []
  3. Kimberly Walsh, Elfriede Fürsich, and Bonnie Jefferson. “Beauty and the Patriarchal Beast: Gender Role Portrayals in Sitcoms Featuring Mismatched Couples,” Journal of Popular Film and Television 36 no. 3 (2008): 131 []
  4. Chris Jancelewicz, “Kevin James explains why Kevin Can Wait star killed off, replaced with Leah Remini,” Global News (October 17, 2017). []
  5. Matt Miller, “Kevin James Explains Why He Killed Donna on Kevin Can Wait: But we still deserve answers,” Esquire (October 16, 2017). []
  6. Christine Radisch, “Annie Murphy on How Kevin Can F**k Himself Reflects Real Life Tragedies, and the Legacy of Schitt’s Creek.” Collider (July 11, 2021). []
  7. Laura, Bradley, “Why Kevin Can Wait Really Killed Off Kevin’s Wife,” Vanity Fair (October 16, 2017). []
  8. Kim Kelly, “Channel Surfing: Roseanne Meets Archie.” New Labour Forum 29 no. 2 (2020): 84. []