'King of Queens' concludes nine-year reign

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Nine seasons and 207 episodes is the kind of run an actor or producer gets once in a lifetime -- if he or she is insanely lucky. So, it really goes without saying that no one involved with CBS' "King of Queens," which airs its final one-hour episode tonight, dared even dream the comedy would make it this far. Yet, what seemed to stack even greater odds against "King" was the critical bath it endured when it launched in 1998.

There wasn't a lot of enthusiasm for the show among reviewers, most of whom had trouble seeing the originality in a sitcom about a portly blue-collar dude and his way-too-hot-for-him wife living the good life in Queens, New York.

But to say that the Sony Pictures Television series is having the last, ahem, laugh on its way out the door is to put it far too mildly.

Begin with the fact that it is the longest-running comedy currently on the air in network primetime, an achievement in itself. Sony also has sold the show extraordinarily well in syndication -- so well, in fact, that it's the third-highest-rated syndie comedy behind "Everybody Loves Raymond" and "Seinfeld" and boasts station renewals clear through 2015.

"King" likewise has proved a reliably solid performer for CBS, landing in first place in households and adults 18-49 and 25-54 during the four years between 1999 and 2003, according to Nielsen Media Research. It also attracted healthy double-digit rating shares in households and the key demographics every year until the current campaign -- when it dipped to a 9 share in homes and adults 18-49. Of course, the show also has been on hiatus since early January during this truncated 13-episode farewell season. Throughout its run, the show has consistently averaged 8.7 million viewers each week.

"It's been really steady for us all the way through," says CBS' executive vp comedy development Wendi Trilling, who has been at the network throughout "King's" run. "I loved the show from the beginning, I have to say. And I have to say, every time I watched an episode, I found myself laughing out loud. I never saw it as a utility player but a classic television comedy."

That brings up another, perhaps even more surprising point: With age has come a belated respect. Star Kevin James landed an Emmy nomination (both his and the show's first) in 2006. And in January, no less than the New York Times began to look at the show through new eyes. In a piece praising "King," critic Virginia Heffernan noted that the show "just hits the spot." She added, "It's brisk, perceptive and unpretentious. It works." Of James, she said, "He writes and acts with easy athleticism."

You would think this might cause "King" creator and executive producer Michael J. Weithorn -- a former writer and producer on "Family Ties" -- to gloat with impunity. But he claims to feel neither smug nor vindicated but merely grateful at having had such an amazing run.

"I still remember having someone call me with congratulations at just getting the show on the air," Weithorn recalls, "and my thinking, 'That's sort of like congratulating someone for making it the first two steps across the mine field without getting his legs blown off.'

"Would we have liked to be more recognized along the way for what we did, right? Absolutely," Weithorn continues. "We're as petty and self-involved as anybody else. It especially bothered me that our stars weren't being recognized for their brilliance. That really stunned me. But by the same token, I think it's the fact that our pieces came together so well and felt so comfortable to watch from the outset that maybe kept us from getting our due that way. I think it felt maybe almost a little too real."

"King" stars James as Doug Heffernan, a delivery man for a UPS-type company, with a paunch, a taste for suds and sports and a thin, attractive wife named Carrie (Leah Remini), who works as a secretary, wears too much makeup and does too much shopping. They have no kids. Living in their basement is her dad, Arthur Spooner (the brilliant Jerry Stiller, formerly of "Seinfeld"), a crotchety sort just barely staving off senility. Stand-up comic Patton Oswalt has a key supporting role as Doug's best friend, Spence.

If the show has proven a modern-day version of "The Honeymooners," then it's surely James who has proven the key ingredient as an Average Joe offshoot of Ralph Kramden.
"Our show is -- and I'm proud to say it -- a nice rip-off of 'The Honeymooners,'" James says straightforwardly. "I just love that show. I love sitcoms. I like the simplicity; I like that we were just a normal show. It wasn't crazy, crazy circumstances -- it was just a basic family."

Perhaps his love of the genre is what has led to continued praise for James and his work on "King."

"That this show worked as well as it did and stuck around as long as it has is one part understanding of what works in primetime and one part dumb luck," Weithorn admits. "The chemistry our stars had was unbelievably fortunate."

Stiller calls James and Remini "two of the most talented people I've ever worked with. I put them in the same category as Michael Richards, Jason Alexander, Jerry Seinfeld and Julia Louis-Dreyfus in the sitcom world. They're very gifted. And Kevin, well ... he's one of the most talented physical comedians ever. I'd rank him with Red Skelton and Jerry Lewis -- in that league."

Oswalt adds that James is often taken for granted "because he's such a natural and makes it all look so easy. It's seemingly effortless, but the truth is that he brings it every week and really busts his ass. It's a blessing, but it can also help you get overlooked. That's why everyone on our set was so thrilled when he finally got that Emmy nomination."

But James aside, what was it about this show that captured the audience's imagination? Oswalt believes it comes down simply to being comfortably entertaining without demanding too much from viewers, which is perhaps one reason "King" enjoyed its most successful season in 2001-02 in the wake of Sept. 11.

"I honestly would compare us to 'Newhart' in the 1980s in being so normal and everyday and popular with a solid, core group of fans," Oswalt says. "If something goes down easy, there is the presumption with critics that it then cannot be too deep or good. But sometimes, you're just not fully appreciated in your own time. Look at how long it took (Alfred) Hitchcock's movies to be embraced as true art."

Did Oswalt just compare "King" to Hitchcock? Weithorn won't go that far, but he does concur that the show succeeded because of its very simplicity "and because when these characters said something -- no matter how outrageous -- you believed it."

To be sure, if there was angst between Doug and Carrie, it was sometimes matched by conflict between the actors who portrayed them, Weithorn confirms. "It was a hard show to do in the early years because there was some tension and clashing on the set," he says. "But I always felt that helped the show."

While Remini maintains that for the most part, she and James "got along great," she also recalls, "There were times where I had to be on top of him, kissing him, and we wouldn't be talking to each other. We had some fights. We had real passion. That's what it was about. The important thing is, he and I had an open, honest dialogue from Day 1 -- and trust me, that makes all the difference."

Of all of the people connected with the show, Remini figures she's the saddest to see it end.

"I'm unemployed now for the first time in 10 years," she says wistfully. "I so grew to love being Carrie that in a way, it's hard to imagine not being her anymore."

SPT president Steve Mosko also feels melancholy about the show's leaving the CBS air, calling it "one of the great sitcoms in television history, and certainly one of the most underappreciated. History will be much kinder to it, I'm sure. But I'm also grateful to Michael Weithorn for giving us such a great series and to CBS for granting us this victory lap of the final episodes. I'm sad we're leaving the air, but I have a smile on my face knowing what a great run it's been."

Indeed, with multicamera comedies considered all but dead a year ago (though starting to hint at a comeback in this spring's pilots), Weithorn feels that with "King," he was able to "slip through the door as it was slamming shut" on this genre.

"I just hope our success will prove to others that this comedy form is as viable as ever," he says, "particularly if you have the right players."

MORE 'KING OF QUEENS' COVERAGE
'King of Queens' concludes nine-year reign
The 'King of Queens': Dialogue with Kevin James
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