Annie Murphy stars in a comedy that spoofs corny family sitcoms while revealing the darkness behind the bright lights and bad jokes.
Shortly after the 2016 presidential election, Valerie Armstrong experienced what she described as “a feminist fit of rage.” So she put that rage into a comedy pilot, a pussy hat in script form.
“Writing is never fun,” she said. “But this one was fun. It hurt less.”
Armstrong (“Lodge 49”) grew up on reruns of classic multicamera sitcoms — the Nick at Nite catalog, “The Cosby Show,” “Frasier” — watching them obsessively. “I joke that it was my after school activity,” she said. “It must have been a nightmare to my mother.” But as an adult, she started to see them differently. Especially “The King of Queens”-style sitcoms, which paired a schlubby husband with a knockout wife.
While writing her pilot, she began to wonder about those wives, women who seemed to exist to set up their husbands’ jokes and tote identical plastic laundry baskets around the house. What would it be like to play that woman? What would it be like to be that woman?
The resulting show, “Kevin Can F**k Himself,” which debuts on the AMC+ streaming service on Sunday and on AMC a week later, offers one answer. Created by Armstrong, it stars Annie Murphy (“Schitt’s Creek”) as Allison, a Worcester, Mass., housewife and part-time package store employee. For about a decade, Allison has been married to Eric Petersen’s Kevin and treated his man-child antics with some degree of amused tolerance. But during the first episode, she snaps. (Her secondhand Pottery Barn coffee table snaps, too. Kevin!)
During Allison’s scenes with Kevin, the show is shot in the overbright style of a multicam. But as soon as Allison steps away from him, the style switches to that of a gritty single-camera drama. “King of Queens”? Meet “Breaking Bad.” An indictment of white male entitlement, it is both a tribute to and a reassessment of the traditional multicam.
Shot live, more or less continuously and typically in front of an invited audience, multicams emerged in the early 1950s and dominated network schedules for decades. They have cycled in and out of fashion over the years — “The Big Bang Theory” was still one of TV’s most popular shows when it signed off in 2019, and “One Day At a Time” remained a critical darling until it ended last year — but they are mostly out of favor now. Which means that “Kevin” deconstructs a form that has already done a pretty good job of deconstructing itself. (The title is an apparent riff on “Kevin Can Wait,” a Kevin James sitcom that sought to recapture the ratings magic of “The King of Queens” and failed.)
Some multicams have skewed surprisingly progressive, taking on subjects like abortion and the AIDS crisis sometimes years before dramas feel ready. (Think Norman Lear’s oeuvre and “Designing Women” and “Murphy Brown” — or a recent example like “The Carmichael Show.”) But the marital sitcoms that inspire “Kevin” were never especially enlightened. They worked to perpetuate certain social norms while using women, people of color and queer people as fodder for hacky jokes.
According to Alfred Martin, a communication studies professor at the University of Iowa and the author of “The Generic Closet: Black Gayness and the Black-Cast Sitcom,” clichés like the spousal attractiveness gap reinforce the cultural capital of white masculinity.
“Like, my white masculinity provides me access to these particular kinds of women,” he said. (Martin added that in sitcoms that center families of color, husbands and wives are generally more evenly matched.)
In making “Kevin,” Armstrong and Craig DiGregorio, the showrunner, wanted to bare this deep structure without belittling or parodying the form of the multicam itself. The multicam portions of each episode of “Kevin” are meant to constitute a complete story, and they are written and played pretty much straight.
“In our show, we never have a joke that couldn’t be on any CBS sitcom,” Armstrong said.
“Somebody would say, ‘That’s too mean’ or ‘That’s too dark,’” she added. “You would be shocked at what has been laughed at on network sitcoms for years — we don’t reinvent the wheel here.”
Instead, the single-camera segments give that wheel and those laugh-tracked gags a different spin. They encourage viewers to ask who gets to make the jokes and who is the butt of them.
“All we’re trying to do is to get people to reconsider what they’re watching and how they’re watching it,” DiGregorio said.
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Casting began early in 2020. The creators knew they needed a dynamic performer to play Allison so that audiences would root for the character, even as Kevin pushed her to some dark places. (Let’s just say that Allison begins to see “till death do us part” as a relationship goal.)
“We needed to cast someone who could play frustrated as funny, who can make you laugh even when they are having a terrible time,” Armstrong said. She thought immediately of Murphy.
Luckily, Murphy wanted a role kilometers away from the sparkling socialite she played on “Schitt’s Creek.” Allison provided it. “Working class, very angry, not fashionable at all and with a thick Worcester accent — it really was night and day,” Murphy said, with obvious enthusiasm, during a recent video call.
Had Covid-19 not intruded, “Kevin” would have begun shooting in March 2020, with Lynn Shelton directing. Instead production halted. Then something much worse happened. Shelton, a beloved television and indie film director, died suddenly that May. The pandemic, Armstrong said, gave everyone time to grieve and to ensure that the tone Shelton had already set — one of commitment and kindness — would continue. (Sharp-eyed viewers will notice that Kevin and Allison live on Shelton Street, a tribute.)
Production began last fall, on location in Massachusetts. Some days the crew shot multicam scenes, whipping through 20-some pages of dialogue. In an effort to create a pandemic-compliant studio audience, production hired 10 or so people to sit — masked and socially distanced — watching a live feed and laughing along. At least in theory.
“It’s Boston,” Armstrong said. “Just because we paid them to laugh does not mean they always laughed.”
On single-camera days, when completing five pages was cause for celebration, the professional laughers stayed home. The acting became subtler, more naturalistic. “If you were doing the same thing with your face and body in single cam it would look certifiably insane,” Murphy said.
The costumes didn’t change between formats, and neither, for the most part, did the sets. But the world looks different seen through a single lens, and the people look different, too. At first Murphy and Mary Hollis Inboden, who plays Allison’s neighbor Patty, enjoyed the down-market jeans and the utter lack of glam. Then they saw how the single-camera shots found every rip and pore and wrinkle, revealing what the bright lights of the multicam hide.
“When you step outside in the harsh sunlight, you can see all of those mistakes,” Inboden said.
She used to cheer Murphy up by telling her that they were being very brave. “She was like, ‘You know what, bravery gets you? Awards,’” Murphy recalled.
In most multicam scenes, the actresses had little to do. “We had a line here and a line there and an arm cross here and a disapproving look there,” Murphy said. She described a day spent mostly flinching as Petersen spat gobs of steak at her. At the end of that day, the crew gave Petersen a standing ovation. Murphy took it a little hard.
“Why can’t I do the funny stuff?” she recalled thinking. “Let me spit steak at somebody — I can do that, too.” She and Inboden channeled that frustration into the single-camera scenes. Feeling overlooked and ignored mirrored their characters’ emotional lives.
It also helped them develop feelings of solidarity. If the show begins as a story of a woman’s awakening to a murderous anger, it continues as a celebration of female friendship. “Kevin” initially posits Allison and Patty as antagonists, mostly because Patty lives to down brews with the boys and Allison exists to recycle the cans. But over the course of a few episodes, the women develop a deep bond.
“They’re the only people who truly understand what it’s like to revolve around this group of men who don’t need to have any real consideration for them,” Inboden said.
Not that it was easy for the male actors. Petersen, a veteran of multicams like TV Land’s “Kirstie,” knew he had to play the character without judgment. But he quailed at certain lines, like this one from the pilot, delivered when Allison cuts her hand: “Is that blood? It doesn’t mean you get to be moody. You already used that excuse once this month.” The studio audience had been laughing along with him all day, but when he said that line, he heard them moan.
“It was like, yeah, I feel the same,” Petersen said.
Not every viewer will absorb the show’s meta-commentary; not every viewer will want to. “There are people who are going to be willing to dig a little deeper and really think about what we’re getting at,” Murphy said. “Then there are going to be the people who just [expletive] love a sitcom.”
And no one on “Kevin” wants to see multicams disappear — they just want to nudge creators to make smarter ones. “I just want the jokes to be better,” Inboden said.
Petersen has watched a few episodes of old sitcoms since the show wrapped and found he no longer enjoys them as much. “There’s been moments where I’m like, ‘Oh, gosh, that is just so wrong,’” he said.
Will “Kevin” change the way we see multicams and the norms they maintain? That’s a lot of cultural work for any one show to undo. Recently Armstrong found herself watching a “King of Queens” compilation, which included a scene in which James’s character hires a dog walker to walk his father-in-law around the neighborhood.
“Yes, he did,” Armstrong said. “He hired a dog walker to walk a human. Like he’s a dog. And I was laughing.”