Welcome to Thanks, I Love It, our series highlighting something onscreen we’re obsessed with this week.
Kevin Can F—k Himself knows you feel a little ambivalent about Kevin.
Not in the sense that it’s unclear if he’s supposed to be the villain. He definitely is, and not even the actor who plays him, Eric Petersen, expresses any ambiguity about that when I ask him over the phone. Indeed, the whole series centers around all the ways that Kevin has been a shitty husband to Allison (Annie Murphy) over the years, and what she decides to do as a result.
It’s just that even so, it’s hard not to be tickled by him when he’s scheming to avoid his boss or escalate a feud with his neighbors. In large part, that’s thanks to Petersen’s irresistibly goofy, relentlessly energetic performance: “He makes you laugh in spite of yourself,” showrunner Craig DeGregorio says over Zoom.
But it’s also that the rhythms of his character feel familiar, and by now we know exactly how we’re supposed to respond to guys like him. After all, we’ve been doing it for decades.
Though Kevin is specific in his quirks (creator Valerie Armstrong, in the same Zoom call as DeGregorio, describes him as the kind of “Masshole” she grew up around), he belongs to a longer lineage of terrible sitcom husbands.
“The two main influences I had were probably Jackie Gleason as Ralph Kramden in The Honeymooners and Peter Griffin in Family Guy, voiced by Seth MacFarlane,” Petersen tells me. ” I think that both of those guys have that Kevin definitely has, and is definitely one of the points that we’re trying to make is, so many of these classic sitcom husbands are blindly confident in their own ideas, and they’re so full of bravado and gusto with no backing for it.”
The difference is that while Ralph, Peter, and other sitcom leads like them got to enjoy pride of place on their shows, Kevin is actually a supporting character in Allison’s story. And hers is a gritty drama about a fed-up wife who’ll do anything to free herself from her husband’s greedy, manipulative clutches.
Not that Kevin ever seems to notice. Throughout the show, Kevin is presented as the star of multi-cam comedy a la King of Queens, and it’s only when his character leaves the frame that Kevin Can F—k Himself switches into the darker, quieter, single-camera mode that represents Allison’s point of view. There’s only a single scene in the pilot when Kevin appears in Allison’s crime drama, and it’s quickly revealed to be a fantasy of hers.
“People have asked, What is Kevin like in single camera, and the answer is he doesn’t have to be in single-camera.”
It’s a pointed choice. “People have asked, What is Kevin like in single camera, and the answer is he doesn’t have to be in single-camera,” says Armstrong. “He gets to live his life as the lead of his own little sitcom within a cheering audience laughing at everything he does, making it all okay, putting a nice shimmer on all of his terrible, terrible behavior.”
Kevin’s misdeeds against Allison range from the seemingly minor (a condescending crack here, a roll of the eyes there) to the more obviously abusive (in an upcoming episode, it’s revealed he once sabotaged Allison’s career after accusing her of infidelity). On Kevin’s sitcom, from his perspective, all of it is glossed over as the ridiculous but harmless antics of an oblivious man-child.
But Allison’s side of the story casts his actions in a much harsher light, and it’s one Petersen can see even if his character can’t. “I think it would be very interesting to see how Kevin would look without the bright lights, without the people laughing, and being in a more dramatic scene,” he says of the possibility of Kevin entering single-cam mode. “I think he would look pretty ugly and pretty nasty and also I think he’d look pretty sad.”
Whether Kevin will ever be forced to reckon with his behavior is one of the driving questions of the show, as Allison plots her revenge for the years of torment he’s put her through. Whether we will, on the other hand, is up to us. Because by making Kevin so exhausting yet endearing — by creating that ambivalence I mentioned earlier — the show’s also taking to task everyone who’s ever laughed with the Kevins of the world at the expense of the Allisons.
“It could have been really easy to play him as a really over-the-top, terrible guy who’s just like, Ugh, God, I’m with my wife, she drives me nuts, who really just seems annoyed by his wife and is not happy,” says Petersen. Instead, he explains, his Kevin is designed to feel familiar and funny enough to provoke self-reflection — especially in men. “I think that a lot of men will have moments of like, Oh, shit, maybe I’m seeing some of my own behavior portrayed here.”
“My biggest dream for how people perceive Kevin would be conflicted, if I had to say one word.”
For that matter, so might any sitcom fan. “I hope we trick you into it by making you laugh sometimes, but you always know that Allison is being affected by it, and everything is a little bit tainted,” says Armstrong. “That has happened with almost every show that I watch now, where I think, What is she feeling? That horrible plot point that just happened, why is this supposed to be funny?“
Which is not to say Kevin Can F—k Himself wants to destroy the multi-cam sitcom — to the contrary. Armstrong and DeGregorio both profess to being fans of the genre, and Petersen’s such a devotee that he was actually teaching a class on multi-cam acting when he was called in to audition for Kevin Can F—k Himself.
Rather, Petersen tells me, he wants to see the format evolve: “I hope that our show will push people into making multi-cams that can still be funny and still have silly, outrageous characters and farce-like sets and set pieces, and that we can make things that are a bit more woke but also are still honoring the art form of the multi-camera sitcom.”
And if that means making you laugh at Kevin and then feel weird about it in the meantime? Good. “I remember saying to Annie while we were filming, my biggest dream for how people perceive Kevin would be conflicted, if I had to say one word,” he says. “If it gives you that conflicted, tension-filled feelings, that to me is mission accomplished.”