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People’s comedy crowns surprising legacy

'Queens' nine-year reign nears end

Born into a more ratings-rich era for comedy, in which multicamera sitcoms ruled the networks, the conventionally themed “King of Queens” stands out today amid a much leaner field of laffers, most of which are of the unconventional single-cam ilk.

Still, in its final season, and airing its 200th episode tonight — a nice little benchmark, considering only eight of the 500 sitcoms launched since 1990 have made it to such a bicentennial — “Queens” remains a strong utility player for CBS and popular with audiences for its easily relatable, everyman appeal.

Creating a relaxed, accessible show was very much the intention, says series co-creator David Litt. “We said, ‘Hey, let’s give people comfort food and let them enjoy and get away from problems, rather than confront them every week.’ ”

Easy-to-digest storylines, consistent performances and familiar, relatable characters made “King” an audience favorite, says series showrunner Tony Sheehan. While the series didn’t have “quite the sophistication or polish of ‘Friends,’ ” he says, “people look forward to something they’ve seen before, and gravitate toward the show over and over, (knowing) there would always be something really funny to laugh at.”

Next month, “King” — which currently holds the baton as TV’s longest-running sitcom — will exit CBS primetime as the last of the big ’90s multicam sitcoms.

In fact, its May 14 broadcast finale “marks the end of the era” of traditional 20th-century comedies, says Brad Adgate, research director at ad buying firm Horizon Media.

“The show is a testament to (star) Kevin James’ personality and his strength,” Adgate adds.

Indeed, the longevity of the series spawned from the characters and the actors who portrayed them. From the beginning, series’ lead James “jumped out” from among a selection of comics, recalls co-creator/executive producer Michael J. Weithorn. “He can get angry in a funny way without it being threatening. He seems to have a real inner life, very relatable and identifiable,” he explains.

These qualities made James the ideal candidate for which to center a modern-day “Honeymooners,” Weithorn says, a show that “sensibility-wise could be a good Monday-night companion to ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ ” for CBS. That extended to the casting of Leah Remini as James’ sexy, smart aleck wife and Jerry Stiller as his eccentric-but-lovable father-in-law. The chemistry between the three was immediate.

” ‘King of Queens’ really fit into what we were doing at the time,” says Wendi Trilling, exec VP of comedy development for CBS. The series, she says, had a “very natural feeling as part of our lineup … The key is, that it’s a really funny show.”

For her part, Trilling describes “King” as “sort of an unsung hero at CBS.” Indeed, garnering only one Emmy nom in its nine-season run — an actor nod for James last year — but plenty of critical scorn, the skein nonetheless served as an important kickoff for CBS’s Monday and Wednesday primetime comedy blocks, sustaining its numbers even after multiple moves.

In syndication and on cable, “King” has also remained “very competitive,” says Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming at TV station rep firm Katz TV. In fact, the series currently ranks fourth among syndie sitcoms, after “The Simpsons,” “Raymond” and “Seinfeld.”

Part of the appeal “has to do with it being perceived as a companion show to ‘Everybody Loves Raymond,’ and to some degree it has the same feel,” Carroll says.

Stylistic similarities between James and Ray Romano, as well as occasional character crossovers on the two sitcoms, he says, have also “impacted the style of the show, and its perception by viewers.”

Important, too, Carroll notes, is the sense that James’ Doug Heffernan “comes off as everyman.” Unlike Jerry Seinfeld, a character “surrounded by zanies,” the problems addressed on “King” are more normal, the kind an “average person” would experience, Carroll says.

The trend remains toward single-camera, non-laugh track comedies, and those are often more favorably received by critics, adds John Rash, senior VP and director of media negotiations at Campbell Mithun, another ad-buying firm.

But they can also be more difficult for audiences to decipher. And because there are “still many viewers who are comfortable with the more straight narrative that ‘King of Queens’ represents,” Rash says, a series in the conventional narrative style can still be valuable for advertisers and networks alike.

In syndication, he notes, “King” “can be paired with multiple sitcoms, as a lead-in or lead-out … It has instantly recognizable storylines that make it easy to promote.”

In the end, even TV crix could see the appeal

“There was a real comfort level,” agrees TV Guide’s Matt Roush. “You could always rely on the show to make you laugh in a very familiar way. … It was the show it wanted to be right from the start. It never lost its game.”

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