Annie Murphy straddles two worlds in first look at AMC's Kevin Can F**k Himself
Over the past four years, the reason the striking title Kevin Can F**k Himself has persisted "is not because it was a reaction to some now-defunct sitcom," series creator Valerie Armstrong says. "It's still the title because it's actually, in my head, a very good encapsulation of the format of the show itself. It starts out sounding very familiar, and then the rug gets pulled out from under you."
In 2017, amid serious global discussions about gender politics and how entertainment fails women both on screen and off (like on Kevin Can Wait, the now-canceled CBS series the show's title plays off), Armstrong heard two actresses on a podcast explain how the sitcom roles they'd go out for ended up being wives that only served as "setup machines." The vision of Kevin Can F**k Himself came to her all at once, with her thinking, "The job of the show is making that wife, that beautiful, put-upon, supposedly naggy wife, a real person. How did that woman actually get stuck in this situation? And how does she get out?"
A general meeting at AMC became a pitch meeting once the network read the script, and all of the sudden Armstrong got the green light to make her first TV series, a show "about a woman who we all grew up thinking that we knew, the sitcom wife, and she is surrounded by these people who prop up her husband. She is the butt of most of the jokes and seemingly fine with it… But on our show, we follow her out of that sitcom world where there is no laugh track. Her dramatic life is full of grit and emotion that she's not afforded in that sitcom."
"It's not a show within a show," Armstrong stresses. "She's not an actor. It's just the way this world is presented. It's like a lens. It's a metaphor for the benefit of the doubt we've given men like Kevin forever. Men who get to like walk through life with a sitcom audience cheering them on all the time."
The hunt for her lead Allison was arduous, but it just so happened that as they were developing the show, Annie Murphy was finishing up Schitt's Creek and becoming more and more open to taking on a new project. When they finally got Murphy in, she was a perfect fit. "She's so different from Allison, but the thing we always said when breaking the show is that the woman who we need to play Allison has to play frustrated as funny, because that dramatic part of her life, we don't want it ever to be dour or a bummer," Armstrong says. "It needs to have its own humor without having hard and fast jokes like the multicam. Whoever we found needed to make these small moments funny, and Annie can make anything funny."
Filling out the rest of the cast is Mary Hollis Inboden as Patty, "the only other character in the cast at first who straddles both worlds." Armstrong describes her as one of the guys, so "she and Allison have shared the same space for 10 years, seemingly not liking each other one bit, but they've failed to realize because they share this space dominated by these men, that they were sort of each other's saviors this entire time and never knew it, which I find sort of heartbreaking."
For Kevin, the aforementioned husband who can f— himself, the show cast Eric Petersen, who was literally teaching a class on sitcom acting when they found him. "He has a real Jackie Gleason vibe about him, and the goal this whole time of writing the show is really how do you write Kevin so that he is still watchable?"
Armstrong notes, "Once you know that that typical kind of sitcom behavior has consequences for Allison, everything [Kevin] does takes on a different shade. And by the way, we don't have him do anything in the show that a typical sitcom husband wouldn't do. We didn't reinvent the wheel. We're just asking people to look at that behavior differently, and what [Petersen] does that I'm so grateful for is he makes you laugh in spite of yourself."
Armstrong describes Neil, the character played by Alex Bonifer, as more than Kevin's best friend: He's his ultimate fan. "When coming up with Neil, a phrase that just sort of stuck with me is the idea that there are people who will jump off a bridge because all their friends are doing it. Neil's the one who offered to jump first to see if the water is too cold for Kevin," Armstrong quips. As her explanation for Bonifer holding blown-up photos of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck's heads in one of the exclusive photos EW has of the show, Armstrong jokes, "The show was set in Worcester, so certain Boston-isms are everywhere throughout the show."
Rounding out the cast is Brian Howe as Kevin's dad, Pete. According to Armstrong, "The point of having him there is to say, 'This is how this guy was created. This was the line of these men, and one begets another.'"
Slated to finally debut this summer, the show has had to shoot entirely during the coronavirus pandemic, which thankfully didn't compromise Armstrong's creative vision. "We ended up building a ton more sets and that could have looked terrible, but everybody on our team is so good at their jobs," she says. "We have this warehouse in Randolph, Mass.; our production designer, who's named Tony Fanning, I call it Tony Town. It's just like a weird little Downtown Disney thing in the middle of this warehouse."
The Kevin Can F**k Himself pilot was originally supposed to be directed by the late Lynn Shelton, who Armstrong describes as light personified: "She was just a dream collaborator and really loved this show in a way that, you know, I will sort of have forever. And we have little nods to her throughout the show — the main characters all live on Shelton Street. Our first episode is dedicated to her."
When the show was finally able to begin production, it was Oz Rodríguez who took the reins. "It was such a unique job because it wasn't starting from scratch," he says. "We had a cast, we had locations, we had a lot done and we wanted someone who would come in and take ownership of it and love it, but also not undo everything, all of the work that Lynn had done because we had done it too, and we thought it was right."
While Rodriguez was originally slated to direct the finale, Armstrong says he "came in with such perspective and respect for what [Shelton] had done and created a really beautiful world, in a way that it still feels like Lynn is a huge part of it."
Looking to the future of the show, and specifically whether Armstrong would ever have any Kevin Can Wait alums guest-star, she is cautiously optimistic. "I remember that article with Erinn Hayes saying she would absolutely be a part of this show, but that she would understand that it would almost be its own story casting her, which I would want to stay away from," Armstrong explains. "I just want to make sure that the message of this show isn't lost in trying to be meta or confusing things with kind of mixing the worlds of the show."
"I want the sitcom to feel a little timeless," she adds. "That's never to say that with the right, I mean, with the right role that I would turn that down. I would not say that at all."
As for her reaction to Kevin James himself telling EW he'd be down to appear on the AMC series, "First of all, I love that anyone named Kevin isn't completely turned off by this title," cracks Armstrong. "I am absolutely open to anything."
See exclusive first-look photos of AMC's Kevin Can F**k Himself above.