The sitcom wife gets her long-overdue revenge in the innovative new AMC dramedy Kevin Can F*** Himself, which combines a multi-camera network-style comedy with a gritty cable drama. In the multi-cam comedy, Annie Murphy‘s Allison is the adoring, long-suffering, implausibly gorgeous housewife to Eric Peterson’s schlubby sitcom hero, Kevin. In the drama, she’s an actual human being who’s about to snap after years of being downtrodden and neglected by her husband (and the adoring studio audience that applauds his every move).
The show’s title is a play on Kevin Can Wait, the short-lived CBS sitcom that unceremoniously killed off Kevin James’s on-screen wife midway through its run—a fitting ending for a character who was always treated as either a punchline or an afterthought. But though Erinn Hayes’s Donna had a particularly brutal ending, the sitcom wife has a long history that goes back decades, and is ripe for an upbraiding. As Allison transitions between the fluffy sitcom world and the grim reality of her life, she begins to realize just how untenable her situation is. And after her dreams of a middle-class life are dashed by the revelation that Kevin has blown their life savings behind her back, she decides there’s only one option: She has to kill Kevin.
“It was just the image of that first transition,” creator Valerie Armstrong says of her idea for the show. “This woman who seems so happy in a sitcom, and you go through a swinging door and you see just how miserable she is. To me, that was the most realistic representation of a sitcom wife I’ve ever heard.” Below, Armstrong talks about deconstructing toxic masculinity and female rage, why the sitcom-within-a-show had to be genuinely funny, and securing the very-much-in-demand Annie Murphy for her first post-Schitt’s Creek role.
One thing that really surprised me about the show is how much the sitcom isn’t just an afterthought, or a throwaway joke. It actually works as a show within a show.
That was one of the first notes that I got. I was a writer’s assistant when I wrote the first draft, and I gave the script to one of the writers who I was working with, Beth Schacter. And the note she gave me was, “You’re winking at it. You’re winking at that sitcom, and you can’t do that. If you are asking people to read or watch almost half of your show, you can’t just say, ‘Isn’t this stupid?’ You have to make it just as entertaining [as the other side of the show]. And that was one of the most challenging things about the show.
I can imagine.
But you know how on Broadway, they always have the main character sing one of the first songs because, inherently, just by virtue of their talent, and showcasing it in that first song, the audience gets on their side? Just because they are so talented, something happens where they follow that character. And I think that works with Kevin. He has to actually be funny. Because once you realize that these things that he does have actual consequences, it would be so easy to write him off. But by making him funny, he buys back this weird goodwill that you can’t get rid of. And I want people to laugh in spite of themselves when they watch that sitcom, and I think Eric Peterson is the person to do that.
That brings up an interesting question, because by the end of the pilot, Allison is already fantasizing about killing Kevin. Do you want the audience to be rooting for her in that effort, or to be a little conflicted?
I want the viewer to understand why she thinks she has to do it. I’m not asking anybody to say, “This is what women should do when they’re upset.” I’m not condoning that behavior. I’ll be thrilled if people root for her, and I think people will, because it’s Annie and she is incredible. She has such a natural humanity about her in any role that she does, and she also has that comedic thing that Eric does, that just makes you sort of fall in love with her. So I think it’ll be great if people root for her, because it’s complicated and weird, but I’m never asking you to, because she makes some bad choices! I want [viewers] to understand that woman, and why that sitcom wife—maybe every sitcom wife you’ve seen before—has tried to kill her husband, and nobody knew.
Even within the sitcom world, there are a few lines that feel very dark. One that stood out to me in the pilot is when Kevin says “Oh, I always forget mental illness runs in your family.” It’s a laugh line, but it takes on a different meaning in light of what’s happening in the other half of the show.
Absolutely. I think that if you were just watching a sitcom, that is a joke that would be on a sitcom, and it would blow by. But the minute you know that this is a real person, and that the crap Kevin does that looks so funny in a sitcom actually affects [Allison], you see that he is destructive. The minute that you see her go into that single camera world, everything he says has a different shade. It makes you think, “Oh, does she have mental illness in her family? Why is that a joke? Why are we laughing at that? What have we been laughing at?” But also, that line is true, and definitely a part of her makeup.
I like how there’s an escalation of violence on Allison’s part in the pilot. First, she accidentally hits the real estate guy, then deliberately hits the drug dealer, and then fantasy-stabs Kevin.
Yeah, we talked so much about her rage, and how she has all of these things about her that are repressed in that multi-cam reality. I mean, I hesitate to say “reality,” because both shows are real. Nothing is in her head, nothing is made up; it’s not a show within a show. It’s just the way you see the world.
We talked so much about what that split means, and one of the things that I really latched onto early on is that it’s a metaphor for what we as women feel we need to hide. That’s rage, and that’s the grime on your ceiling, and your bad makeup choices, and anything that doesn’t fit into a perfect Instagram profile. Those are the things that she saves for her single-camera life, and hates about herself.
The roaches in her house only show up in the single-camera life.
Right, and she stomps way too hard on that roach in the beginning! There’s such a pent-up rage, and first when she accidentally hits the guy at the real estate office she feels horrible about it. And then she purposely hits that drug dealer, because he’s being a dick, but then she feels bad about it and says, “No, I’m sorry. I am sorry.” But then to get to this place at the end where she says, “Fuck it, this is what I want to do, and I’m not going to apologize for it,” that felt like a progression to me.
The sitcom wife really is such a perfect metaphor for being a people-pleaser. Diminishing your needs all the time.
Absolutely. And a metaphor for the benefit of the doubt we give Kevin, and have forever. Sometimes people ask me, “What is Kevin like in single-camera?” And it’s like, he doesn’t have to find out! He’s never in single-camera, he never has to deal with life in that way. He gets this multi-cam audience cheering him on, calling him a boy until he’s 60 years old, and just allowing him to do his destructive bullshit without ever calling him out on it.
Classic white male privilege.
Yep, and toxic masculinity. And it’s not every man in the show that does this to the world. We see Allison’s ex-boyfriend at the diner, and that’s not a multi-cam. He’s not perfect. He’s a human who’s flawed and has his own stuff. We’re not saying the problem is men. We’re saying the problem is this kind of person, this kind of man, this kind of toxic masculinity. The problem are the Kevins of the world!
It’s interesting that economic anxiety is such a huge part of Allison’s character. It puts her in a similar category with the protagonists of other gritty AMC dramas like Breaking Bad, and meanwhile Kevin gets to play it off as a blue-collar joke on his sitcom.
Right, to him, it’s the butt of a joke. In the second episode, she asks how much something costs, and he sort of shrugs and says, “More than our wedding, less than our car.” If you do the math for a second, that is both a very sad wedding, and probably a sad car! But in that world it’s funny; it’s a joke. And then you see her, and how hard life is, and the roaches in their house, and how she just wants so desperately to find a way out.
I wanted to make sure, in the show, that we’re not saying she wants money. She wants the nice coffee table, but not because she’s materialistic—it’s because she’s been told that’s what will satisfy you. This gnawing feeling that you have in your gut? It’ll go away if you move to the right place, if you buy the right stuff, if you look the right way. And of course we know that’s not the case, but that’s something Allison only finds out in the pilot. She stops her dream scenario; it’s no longer her in this nice dress, and Kevin in a suit, her pouring him beer. Her dream scenario turns into her stabbing him in the neck.
Annie is such perfect casting in this role that it’s hard to imagine anyone else. Did you have her in mind from the beginning?
Oh God, we got so lucky. We just got so lucky, and I’m almost afraid to talk about it, for fear that it will screw this up somehow! I mentioned her on our very first casting call, once we got the green light, but she was really unavailable. I think she was finishing Schitt’s Creek, or on that giant press tour, and so she was on that unavailable list. So we read a bunch of people. We went down the road with a few, but it’s just such a hard part. It is not only comedy and drama, but it’s two types of comedy and drama. It’s a multi-cam presentational hard joke ability, and a subtle single-camera thing that’s just…frustrated as funny, is what we kept saying we needed for that. We never wanted it to be dour, that single-camera life of hers. We never wanted it to be depressing. We wanted it to be fun, while also sort of laughing at this woman’s sadness. And Annie makes everything funny. She made my job easier, and I thank her every day, because she can just make anything funny. But more than that, she can do that drama. Oh my God, she can do that drama. She is an incredible dramatic actress.
So initially you thought you wouldn’t be able to get her?
Yeah, we were kind of up against it. We were a little nervous. And Annie suddenly became available and interested. We met her, and I could just tell, first of all, she is our people. She is kind, she is considerate, and smart, and had the exact right questions. In the course of writing the show over the last four years, and talking about it with people, there are just people who get it. There are some who don’t. There are some who need a little bit of handholding to get them there. And then there are just some people who say, “Yeah. Right?” And Annie was that.
I think we were maybe her third meeting that she took, which must’ve been terrifying to sign onto the way she did —it was her first thing after Schitt’s Creek; it came up so quickly. And I am so grateful that she said yes. I couldn’t believe how lucky we got. I still can’t.
Do you picture the show running for more than one season?
I would love a season two. My plan for the show is definitely beyond this season. Absolutely, yes.
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