Film & TV

The Return of Kevin James

Kevin James in The Crew. (Netflix/Trailer image via YouTube)
The broadly appealing comedian follows pal Adam Sandler to Netflix with his NASCAR comedy The Crew.

In 2014, Adam Sandler made what looked like a highly dubious choice — to turn his back on the major Hollywood studios and go to work for Netflix. Just a few years earlier, Sandler had been one of the studios’ most reliable moneymakers. His production company, Happy Madison, had enjoyed a long and fruitful partnership with Sony Pictures, making high-concept movies that brought in big bucks — Mr. Deeds, Anger Management, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, and Grown Ups.

But the relationship had begun fraying as some of Sandler’s recent films (notably, Jack and Jill, in which Sandler put on a dress, and That’s My Boy, in which he played Andy Samberg’s dad) hadn’t panned out. A hack of Sony emails later revealed that the suits were saying things like, “He isn’t the guy he once was and nobody can make that better for him.” Sony apparently rejected Sandler’s next movie, Blended, in which he reunited with his frequent costar Drew Barrymore. So Sandler took it to Warner Bros., where it, too, underperformed. Warner execs blamed good weather for the film’s box-office failure, but Hollywood thought Sandler’s brand of comedy had grown stale.

Four months later, Sandler and Netflix announced a startling deal — he would make his next four pictures for the streaming service. Sandler would turn his attention to . . . TV movies? It sounded like he was washed up. But Sandler turned out to have excellent foresight: It wasn’t just his comedies that were dying out in theaters, it was comedy movies in general, except for the kind wrapped up in animated movies or superhero-style spectacles. Sandler’s movies turned out to be perfect for Netflix — his comedy with Jennifer Aniston, Murder Mystery, was the streamer’s No. 1 title for 2019 in the U.S. Major filmmakers such as Alfonso Cuarón and Martin Scorsese followed Sandler’s lead with Oscar-caliber projects. Now nobody thinks of Netflix as a demotion.

This month, Sandler’s pal and colleague Kevin James, who starred in several Happy Madison films that made big money, is joining him on Netflix, which in the past few years has become the most important entertainment company in Hollywood except for Disney. Netflix’s world-domination strategy of entertaining every conceivable niche has had a few gaps: Not many of their efforts are standard four-camera family sitcoms of the kind that used to be a staple on CBS.

James is here to take care of that. His broad, middle-of-the-road style is on display in The Crew, in which he plays the canny chief of a NASCAR team built around a hotshot but brainless young driver (Freddie Stroma) amid squabbles with another team member, the James character’s daughter (Jillian Mueller). James is after comedy that “inspires and uplifts,” he says on a Zoom call with journalists to promote the series, which debuts Monday (on the racing calendar, that’s the first weekday after the Daytona 500).

In the new show, James is sticking to his brand of genial, harmless comedy (the first scene sets the pace when fighting crew members drop everything to participate in the one undertaking everybody can agree on — saluting the flag for the National Anthem). But he notes that The Crew is something of a change of pace for him because it’s a workplace comedy as opposed to a domestic one like his earlier efforts The King of Queens and Kevin Can Wait (whose showrunner was our National Review colleague Rob Long).

Under showrunner Jeff Lowell, The Crew is being made with the enthusiastic participation of NASCAR, and promises to be drenched with insider detail. James says he’s learned a lot of fascinating stuff about the racing game, which he has been following since he was a kid and his favorite driver was Richard Petty. As a kid, James even dressed up like Petty once for Halloween: “with the cowboy hat and the mustache and the glasses.” Still, other sports were more important to him growing up. A decade ago, however, he was asked to be grand marshal at a NASCAR event and was gobsmacked by the energy level, which can only be hinted at by the televised coverage: “It’s insane when you go there,” he says. “You don’t know how much goes into this sport. And I recommend it for anybody who hasn’t done it. A live event is . . . a whole different world, from the RVs that move in, it’s the tailgating in the center . . . the athletes, the sponsors, the pit crew, the teams, the competitiveness, the fans . . . it’s a crazy event.”

He feels liberated by the Netflix management style, which amounts to: We trust you. “It’s much different and much better for me, for sure,” he says. With network sitcoms, James bemoans “what you have to go through to get notes from everybody and all the way down the line and everybody’s gotta weigh and in you gotta please everybody.” It’s not uncommon for the suits to flag a joke in advance for potentially scaring the advertisers. But “Netflix just does their thing, they give you the reins and they let you go,” he says. “When you worry about, ‘Hey, can we do this or do that,’ they’re like, ‘Just do it,’ ‘Absolutely.’”

The Crew is designed to be an easy watch that doesn’t demand too much of the audience — it’s essentially Netflix’s Monday night CBS sitcom — and James’s comedy won’t alienate anybody. I asked him about the dark clouds raining down the sleet of political correctness over Comedyland and he said he was a little worried about it, but only as an observer. “My comedy isn’t affected [because] I don’t cross too many lines,” he said. But “it can be tough when you’re trying to do comedy and you’re censored so much. So it’s a difficult area. It really is. But I see things opening up a little bit and getting better and people able to do what they do . . . the goal is to laugh and nod and have a good time and we need to do that. And if we dissect everything too much there’s nothing we can do.” James will let others handle the touchy stuff, but he proves there’s still a place for uncontroversial comedy too.

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