By SEAN DALY
Times Staff Writer
A couple of years ago, while covering the Super Bowl in Miami, I spotted Kevin James on Radio Row, the annual madhouse of media and celebrities.
Athletes mingled with movie stars, and all the pretty people preened and posed as if they were the hottest star there. Barrel-chested and youthfully handsome, James really was the hottest star there. He was riding the box-office boom of slapstick hit Paul Blart: Mall Cop and his sitcom fame as the King of Queens.
And yet, he acted like a sheepish, wide-eyed kid in a candy store, whether spotting footballer Deion Sanders or cruising past rapper Snoop Dogg or even sitting down with sports-radio loudmouth Mike Francesa.
"It's always cool to meet people who can do things that you have no capacity to do," says James about that day, still very much the Long Island regular Joe.
The 46-year-old hasn't changed much since then. He'll discuss his rise to stardom, how he's the heir to the plus-size comedy throne, a regal list including John Belushi, John Candy and Chris Farley. But he's more comfortable talking about sports or his three young children ("They'll watch my stuff, but there are also times when they're not huge fans of Daddy's work and they ask for Despicable Me again.")
So when James dialed me up to hype his standup gig Thursday at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts, I decided to open our conversation with a question that was that was right in his, and our, wheelhouse:
Seeing as how I'm in Florida and you're a New York Jets fan, we're legally obligated to start the interview with Tim Tebow chatter. You happy with the acquisition?
I think it's a good thing. I really do. The Jets are so bad, I'm pretty sure they're already mathematically eliminated next season. Tebow's going to be a great inspiration in the clubhouse, and we need that. The Jets got a little cocky, and they need to focus. I think it'll be good for [starting quarterback Mark] Sanchez, too.
Do you own an official Tebow jersey?
Not yet. I don't think they make one in XXXL.
Are you still getting starstruck by certain athletes?
The UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship), for me, has the sickest athletes. I'm definitely intimidated by them. For my new movie (Here Comes the Boom, in which he plays a schlub who moonlights as a UFC fighter), I worked out really hard with those guys. I also realized that fighting is something I DO NOT want to do. Working out with those animals was pretty intense. I'm glad it's over.
You're bringing your standup act to Tampa. At this point in your career, why pick up the microphone again?
I've always continued to do it. Every few months I'll pop into a comedy club or go to Vegas. I've been really itching to do it again. That immediate reaction you get from the audience — it's indescribable! You don't get that from the movies or doing a sitcom. Just me onstage with a mike having an intimate relationship with the audience. I don't get nervous for that. I just get excited.
How did you and Sandler hook up? I openly and proudly defend I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, by the way.
I met Adam years ago. I was doing standup, and he was on Saturday Night Live, and he came into a club and gave me encouraging words. Really nice of him to do. Many, many years later, we talked a few times and he put me in 50 First Dates. I'm in it for half-a-second actually.
Who were your comedy heroes growing up? I see a lot of John Belushi in your style, a big man with physical grace.
I'm a huge Belushi fan. John Candy. Jackie Gleason — there's another big man who could really move well. I've always loved their comedy. It's an honor to be mentioned with them.
You beat yourself up pretty good for our benefit, from flying out a window in Paul Blart to crashing into a wedding ice sculpture in The Zookeeper to face-planting a tree in Grown Ups. How are you feeling these days? You dinged up?
Every time I do a movie where it gets physical, I say never again. I'm not a young kid anymore. This is getting serious. It's fun for me to do, but I'm definitely feeling the pain from it. But then the movie comes out, and people love it, and then it's worth it. In Here Comes the Boom, I literally get punched in the face. My wife says it's like labor pains — after a while, you forget how bad it was and say, 'Let's do it again!'
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.