A Sitcom Wife Gets the Final Laugh in a New AMC Satire
Annie Murphy stars in a black comedy that parodies corny family sitcoms while exposing the darkness that lurks beneath the bright lights and bad jokes.
Valerie Armstrong had what she described as a "feminist fit of rage" shortly after the 2016 presidential election. Thus, she channeled her rage into a comedy pilot, a scripted pussyhat.
“Writing is never enjoyable,” she explained. “However, this one was enjoyable. It's less painful.”
Armstrong ("Lodge 49") grew up obsessively watching reruns of classic multicamera sitcoms — the Nick at Nite catalog, "The Cosby Show," and "Frasier." “I make light of the fact that it was my after-school activity,” she joked. “I'm sure it was a nightmare for my mother.” However, as an adult, she began to view them differently. Especially sitcoms a la "The King of Queens," which paired a schlubby husband with a stunning wife.
While she was writing her pilot, she began to wonder about those wives, those women who appeared to exist solely to set up their husbands' jokes and lug identical plastic laundry baskets around the house. What would it be like to take on the role of that woman? How would you feel if you were that woman?
The resulting show, "Kevin Can F**k Himself," which premieres on Sunday on AMC+ and on AMC a week later, provides one answer. Annie Murphy (“Schitt's Creek”) stars as Allison, a Worcester, Massachusetts, housewife and part-time package store employee. Allison has been married to Eric Petersen's Kevin for about a decade and has tolerated his man-child antics with some amusement. However, she snaps in the first episode. (Her repurposed Pottery Barn coffee table also snaps. Kevin!)
The show is shot in the overbright style of a multicam during Allison's scenes with Kevin. However, once Allison leaves him, the tone shifts to that of a gritty single-camera drama. What is a "King of Queens"? Introducing "Breaking Bad." It is both a tribute to and a reassessment of the traditional multicamera.
Multicams were introduced in the early 1950s and dominated network schedules for decades. They were shot live, more or less continuously, and typically in front of an invited audience. They have cycled in and out of fashion over the years — “The Big Bang Theory” remained one of the most popular shows on television when it concluded in 2019, and “One Day At a Time” remained a critical darling until its conclusion last year — but they are largely out of favor now. Which means that "Kevin" deconstructs a form that has already deconstructed itself quite well. (The title appears to be a play on "Kevin Can Wait," a Kevin James sitcom that attempted but failed to recapture the ratings magic of "The King of Queens.")
Certain multicams have a surprising progressive bent, tackling issues such as abortion and the AIDS crisis years before dramas feel ready. (Consider Norman Lear's oeuvre, particularly "Designing Women" and "Murphy Brown" — or, more recently, "The Carmichael Show.") However, the marital sitcoms that inspired "Kevin" were never particularly progressive. They worked to maintain certain social norms by exploiting women, people of color, and queer people for crude jokes.
According to Alfred Martin, a communication studies professor at the University of Iowa and author of "The Generic Closet: Black Gayness and the Black-Cast Sitcom," clichés such as the spousal attractiveness gap serve to reinforce white masculinity's cultural capital.
“For example, my white masculinity gives me access to these specific types of women,” he explained. (Martin added that husbands and wives are generally more evenly matched in sitcoms centered on families of color.)
Armstrong and showrunner Craig DiGregorio wanted to expose this deep structure in "Kevin" without mocking or parodying the multicam's form. The multicamera segments of each episode of "Kevin" are intended to tell a complete story and are written and performed fairly straightforwardly.
“There is never a joke on our show that could not be found on any CBS sitcom,” Armstrong explained.
"Someone would say, 'That's too cruel' or 'That's too dark,'" she continued. “You'd be surprised at what has been mocked for years on network sitcoms — we don't reinvent the wheel here.”
Rather than that, the single-camera segments give a new spin to the wheel and those laugh-tracked gags. They compel viewers to inquire as to who gets to make the jokes and who gets to be the punch line.
“All we're trying to do is get people to rethink what and how they watch,” DiGregorio explained.
The casting process began in early 2020. The creators recognized the importance of casting a dynamic performer as Allison in order for audiences to root for her even as Kevin pushed her to some dark places. (Let us simply say Allison begins to view "till death do us part" as a relationship objective.)
“We needed someone who could play frustrated as amusing, who could make you laugh even when they were going through a rough patch,” Armstrong explained. She immediately thought of Murphy.
Fortunately, Murphy desired a role that differed significantly from the sparkling socialite she portrayed on "Schitt's Creek." Allison made it available. “Working class, extremely angry, completely unfashionable, and with a thick Worcester accent — it was truly night and day,” Murphy exclaimed enthusiastically during a recent video call.
If not for Covid-19, production on "Kevin" would have begun in March 2020, with Lynn Shelton directing. Rather than that, production was halted. Then something far more heinous occurred. Shelton, a well-known television and independent film director, died unexpectedly in May. The pandemic, Armstrong explained, provided an opportunity for everyone to grieve and to ensure that the tone set by Shelton — one of commitment and kindness — would be maintained. (Observant viewers will note Kevin and Allison's residence on Shelton Street as a tribute.)
Last fall, production began on location in Massachusetts. On some days, the crew shot scenes with multiple cameras, whizzing through twenty-some pages of dialogue. To create a pandemic-ready studio audience, production hired about ten people to sit — masked and socially isolated — and watch a live feed while laughing along. At least theoretically.
Armstrong stated, "It's Boston." “Just because we compensated them for their laughter does not mean they always did.”
Professional comedians stayed at home on single-camera days, when completing five pages was cause for celebration. The acting became more nuanced and naturalistic. “If you did the same thing in single cam with your face and body, it would look certifiably insane,” Murphy explained.
The costumes remained consistent across formats, as did the sets, for the most part. However, the world appears different when viewed through a single lens, as do the people. At first, Murphy and Mary Hollis Inboden, who portrays Allison's neighbor Patty, took pleasure in the low-end jeans and complete lack of glam. Then they saw how the single-camera shots revealed every rip, pore, and wrinkle that the multicam conceals.
“When you step outside into the harsh sunlight, all of those errors become visible,” Inboden explained.
She used to cheer Murphy up by telling her how brave they were. “She was like, 'You know what, bravery doesn't get you anywhere? Murphy recalled.
The actresses had little to do in the majority of multicam scenes. “We had a line here and a line there, an arm cross here and a look of disapproval there,” Murphy explained. She recalled spending the majority of the day flinching as Petersen spat gobs of steak at her. At the end of the day, Petersen received a standing ovation from the crew. Murphy took it a little too seriously.
“Why am I unable to do the amusing things?” she recalled thinking. “Allow me to spit steak at someone — I am capable of that as well.” She and Inboden channeled their annoyance into the single-camera sequences. Feeling overlooked and ignored mirrored the emotional lives of their characters.
Additionally, it aided in their development of feelings of solidarity. If the show begins as a story about a woman coming to terms with her murderous anger, it ends as a celebration of female friendship. Allison and Patty are initially pitted against one another, primarily because Patty exists to down brews with the boys and Allison exists to recycle the cans. However, after a few episodes, the women form a strong bond.
“They are the only ones who truly understand what it is to revolve around this group of men who do not deserve any consideration,” Inboden explained.
Not that the male actors had it easy. Petersen, a veteran of multicamera productions such as TV Land's "Kirstie," was well aware that he needed to play the character without judgment. However, he trembled at certain lines, such as this one delivered by the pilot when Allison cuts her hand: "Is that blood?" This does not imply that you are permitted to be moody. This month, you've already used that excuse once.” He'd been laughing along with the studio audience all day, but when he said that line, he heard them moan.
“It was as if I was saying, yeah, I feel the same way,” Petersen explained.
Not every viewer will absorb the meta-commentary in the show; not every viewer will want to. “There are some who will dig a little deeper and really consider what we're saying,” Murphy said. “Then there are those who simply [expletive] adore a sitcom.”
And no one on "Kevin" wants to see multicameras vanish; they simply want to encourage creators to make them smarter. “All I want is for the jokes to be better,” Inboden explained.
Since the show's conclusion, Petersen has watched a few episodes of old sitcoms and discovered he no longer enjoys them as much. “There have been times when I've thought, 'Oh my gosh, that is just so wrong,'" he explained.
Will "Kevin" alter our perception of multicameras and the standards they uphold? That is a tremendous amount of cultural work for a single show to undo. Armstrong was recently watching a compilation of "King of Queens" episodes and came across a scene in which James's character hires a dog walker to walk his father-in-law around the neighborhood.
“Indeed, he did,” Armstrong confirmed. “He hired a dog walker to assist him in walking a human. As if he were a dog. And I was amused.”