Kevin James on tackling NASCAR and office comedy with The Crew
Just about 10 years ago, Kevin James — along with his Grown Ups costar Adam Sandler — shocked and delighted NASCAR fans at Michigan International Speedway with a truly memorable/horrifying "Gentleman, start your engines" command. So perhaps it was destiny that James, last seen on TV in CBS' Kevin Can Wait, would wind up starring as a NASCAR crew chief in Netflix's new comedy The Crew.
Created by Jeff Lowell (The Ranch) and premiering Feb. 15, the show follows Kevin (James), the head of the team at Bobby Spencer Racing. When his longtime boss (Bruce McGill) decides to retire and put his millennial daughter Catherine (Jillian Mueller) in charge, Kevin and his co-workers — including office manager Beth (Sarah Stiles), anxiety-ridden engineer Amir (Cobra Kai's Dan Ahdoot), and the team's talented but dimwitted driver Jake (Bridgerton's Freddie Stroma) — face some very unwelcome changes to their jobs. But is there a role for Leah Remini? James answered that burning question... and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You're a NASCAR fan. What interested you about setting a show in this universe?
KEVIN JAMES: Well, to be honest, I was a fan, but I didn't know too much about it. I didn't know enough. What was interesting to me was that it was different, it's different for me, and it's a workplace comedy. [That format] is the same anywhere — in The Office, they sell paper supplies, and this just happens to be NASCAR [as the setting]. It's about relationships. Here it happens to be highly competitive and there's life and death on the line, and it's just nuts. There are endless avenues to go with this place, but it's also a funny, funny place to perform.
And the fact that NASCAR was in on it and they wanted to help us out, it made the difference completely… They just got excited to do it and it was the right story, and being in business with Netflix — they felt protected in a good way. It's just a funny show, whether it is NASCAR or not, it's funny.
You've only really done family comedies before on TV — what do you like about the workplace setting?
It opens up a lot more for me creatively. We can go anywhere with this show with NASCAR, whether it's starting up a truck team, or going against different teams, or losing a driver [on our team]. There are so many aspects that are new to me that I love. It doesn't feel claustrophobic. It's a workplace comedy, but the world is also as big as you want it to be when you go outside — and we do that too. That's another thing that's awesome about Netflix, is they let you go outside and [shoot]. So it's kind of like a hybrid of a traditional four-camera sitcom, and you're also outside doing stuff like a movie.
Some well-known NASCAR drivers make cameos in the show, including Ryan Blaney and Austin Dillon. Ryan Blaney is kind of your character's nemesis — how did you come up with that dynamic?
I don't think it was me. I think it was probably our creator, Jeff Lowell, who came up with it, and he just thought it would be great. Once I met Ryan and knew what his personality was, he's fantastic for it. He's crazy funny, which kind of pisses me off a little bit — like, you're so good at one thing, I didn't think he would be able to transition [to comedy]. I would have had fun shooting with him and exposing that, making them feel nervous in front of the crowd and stuff. But he was really funny.
Your past sitcoms have been on broadcast TV, which is definitely more restrictive than being on a streaming service. How did you adapt your style of comedy for Netflix?
The goal was just be funny and have real relationship stuff. That's what's so great about Netflix, is they let you do your thing. Just being able to do that is freeing, and you can kinda be creative and not feel the harness of like, "We can't say this or do this or that." It can still be a family comedy and be for everybody, but it's like, the freedom of doing it creatively is amazing.
You shot some footage at actual NASCAR races, right?
Yes. We actually had a car wrapped, you know, with our Fake Steak logo, and it competed, which was amazing. So that's the benefit of having NASCAR helping you out, too.
Okay, so let's talk about Fake Steak. One of the first things Catherine does is sign this company, the maker of "America's hottest new mushroom-based beef substitute," as a sponsor. Your character has to try it in front of everybody — I've gotta know, what were those little brown cubes you were eating?
Believe me, it was good. It was like a Charleston Chew, like a Tootsie Roll thing, a chocolate little thing they've made for me on a stick. It wasn't that great, because they didn't want me to enjoy it too much. They know that I'm not that good an actor, and if I eat a Tootsie Roll, I'm just going to enjoy it. So it had to have a little bad taste to it.
If Netflix gives The Crew a second season, have you thought about how you might incorporate Leah Remini into the show?
She's got so much going on right now. She's doing everything now. She's got that game show with People magazine. I always love to work with her. She's always the best, so I'm always open to anything with her.
Last year you launched a YouTube channel for the short comedy films you make with the Kinnane Brothers — including "Nature Planet," narrated by Adam Sandler. Do you plan to make more films in the future?
Yeah, we just made a couple more. It's hard, because we're doing a lot of stuff and we're working on some film stuff. But I want to keep that going; I just enjoy doing them. We have so much fun.
Do you have a favorite of the shorts you've made so far?
We were talking about it the other day. I don't know. The "Sound Guy" ones make me laugh so hard. [My character] Terry Flatts is just so ridiculously stupid, too. He makes me laugh. They're my babies, you can't make me choose.