May 23--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. You've been immensely successful as an actor. So what drove you to get back on stage to do more stand-up?
It's 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. It's certainly rewarding, but there's nothing like the immediate reaction you get from stand-up. I say something and immediately you get a reaction, whether good or bad. It's nice to have that. I miss that. It's 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 didn't do what a lot of comics at the time, open mic-ers, would do. I didn't fill the room with family and friends because I knew I wouldn't get a true reading of how I was doing. I didn't 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, there'd 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 don't 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 I'm from, in Long Island -- he says it's really rebounding. I was excited to hear that, because for a while it ate itself. But hopefully it'll get stronger again.
Q. Have the Internet and YouTube made it easier or harder for a young comic to break out?
I think both. It's 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 it's 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 didn't have that when we ..." But we didn't 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 you've accomplished on film, how would you describe your feelings about the body of work you've amassed?
Some are better than others. You miss on some, and your intentions for some are to do better, but it's changing into trying to put a good message out there. Not trying to be too goody two-shoes, I'm not saying that; I'm 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 doesn't 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 -- they've got that handled. ... My life's changed. I've got my kids and I want to be able to sit down with them and watch whatever I'm a part of now.
Q. Your oldest child, which of your movies does she like most?
Believe me, my movies aren't (my kids') favorites. It's "Despicable Me," it's all these other animated movies. They haven't locked into one of mine. Right now Steve Carell's 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. I'm certainly not gonna go do it to do it. I have nothing to prove as far as saying, "Oh, now I've got to show everybody that I can do drama." But if it's important to me, then I'll do it. I certainly don't 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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