I don’t know when Kevin James wrote the jokes that make up Never Don’t Give Up, his first stand-up special in seventeen years. I certainly don’t think you shouldn’t make a special just because it’s been seventeen years since you’ve done that. But if it feels like your special could have been released during any one of those interim years (a feeling shared by Netflix, who accidentally listed it as a 2017 release), that might be an issue.
“Where are the men?” says the actor who has played Paul Blart twice. “Where have they gone?” The only really strong conviction James seems to hold here is that there’s some kind of lost ideal of American manhood, but, somehow, this isn’t quite toxic. It just elicits a shrug. “If you’re a man, and you’re lactose intolerant, why would you ever bring that up to another man?!” has to be the most boring “toughen up, America” take I’ve ever heard. But that’s what he goes with, before bringing up his comedy example of the paragon of masculinity…Spartacus?
Standing in front of the stark, Brechtian towers of lights that cover the stage, James, at the very least, seems like he’s having a good time. It’s a sense of fun that’s missing from many of his other projects, but it’s also the bare minimum we should be asking from a comedian. He’s kind of just up to his thing here. Plenty of stories slide neatly into territory occupied by Grown Ups or I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry. When a cop gifts James a cigar on the set of Kevin Can Wait and asks him to think of him, the cop, while he smokes it, an essentially funny experience quickly devolves into a gay panic-y obsession with not doing that. We are also, for what it’s worth, treated to some extremely abrupt editing, including a jarring skip to an applause break that clearly followed a completely different and hopefully more rousing punchline than “okay nut allergy guy, you win the food allergy competition.”
Look, James is basically a genial guy. There’s a reason Paul Blart grossed $183 million against a $26 million budget. The dude wrestled with Mick Foley in high school. I get why his largely conservative fanbase digs material that manages not to offend while still casually, quietly affirming their own status quo. The boring man man man stuff is probably as regressive as the special gets (though “Chinese-y” gets thrown around a little thanks to an audience member during the perfunctory crowd work section, and he does mention wanting to Here Comes the Boom a woman taking a video of him and “watching [her] head bounce” off the floor). Like I said, James is having more fun here than I expected—he does a great impression of Nick Nolte/his own colon, using Nolte’s voice for both, and he conjures shrieks of laughter when he suddenly moves superfast, which he does a lot. But unfortunately what I was reminded of most was James’ former cast mate Patton Oswalt’s story about performing for a casino crowd that was content to just sit there chanting “KING. OF. QUEENS. KING. OF. QUEENS.”
Kevin James: Never Don’t Give Up is now streaming on Netflix.
Graham Techler is a New York-based writer and comedian. You’d be doing him a real solid by following him on Twitter @grahamtechler or on Instagram @obvious_new_yorker. A real solid.