The premise for Valerie Armstrong’s first series creation came to her in a simple, distinct sequence. A woman walks out of the living room of a traditional sitcom set and into the kitchen, where the studio lighting gives way to regular bulbs and she can drop her forced smile. Then, “she’d look straight at the camera and say, ‘I fucking hate my husband,'” Armstrong says.
Four years later, that inspiration grew into “Kevin Can F**k Himself,” which, in the eight-episode first season follows Allison (Emmy winner Annie Murphy), a Worcester, Mass., woman who slowly has an awakening about how destructive and manipulative her husband (the titular Kevin, played by Eric Petersen) is. The sitcom space is Kevin’s space to say and do horrible things and get laughs, but the story follows Allison out of that space into a single-camera structure where she, and the audience by extension, can think a little harder about the behavior sitcom husbands, neighbors and fathers have been allowed to get away with for decades.
“In its DNA is, how do you make the sitcom wife a real woman?” Armstrong says of the show. “Figuring out how aware she was about how miserable she was was very, very important in creating the pilot. For that woman to be there, she can’t know she’s miserable; she has to be convinced that this is where she’s supposed to be [and] that her happiness will ultimately lie in her marriage because that’s what she’s been told she’s good for.
“So, in the pilot it’s, ‘Kevin’s funny, Kevin’s a great guy, you just need to know how to work him’ and then getting to this place of understanding he’s not just destructive by accident. It might be masked, it might not be completely intentional all the time, but he manipulates her and has been for a while. And so, honestly as the show goes on I don’t think he gets worse, I think you start to realize his behavior,” she continues.
In developing the show, Armstrong, who previous wrote on “SEAL Team” and “Lodge 49,” asked and answered all of the questions she feels the audience will have when sitting down to watch the premiere: namely, whether part of the show is in Allison’s head, if she’s crazy, if there is a show-within-the-show element and/or if something supernatural is going on. For the record, the answer to all of those is no: “What happens in the multi-camera world is just as real as what happens in the single-cam world, it’s just how the events are viewed by the people in the room,” Armstrong explains.
Armstrong admits she had to put together a lot of rules for what could or could not happen in each of these worlds. The key one was that if Kevin, his father Pete (Brian Howe) or neighbor Neil (Alex Bonifer) were on-screen, they “cause the world to be this little sitcom that could air on CBS,” Armstrong says, calling them “multicam catalysts” but noting the show would never give them behavior one couldn’t find in another sitcom, nor include a “sitcom scene that doesn’t fit into that episode of their sitcom.” This means that if she were to create an episode that is completely Kevin-centric, it would be 42 minutes of multicam. (She admits she does not know that the show would ever do this in its future, but it does not do it in Season 1.) The show can switch perspectives to other characters, such as neighbor Patty (Mary Hollis Inboden), though and see action in the single-camera format.
When it came to creating the sitcom, Armstrong says she wanted the audience to feel like they’d dropped into a long-running show, like it was “lived-in” but also familiar. Physically she drew inspiration from the sets of “That ’70s Show” and “Roseanne,” for example, while “Frasier” helped inform with what sitcom tropes to play (including a French farce in the fifth episode).
“We tried to make a funny sitcom in and of itself. And the more you realize how destructive Kevin is, I know it’s harder to see it as a harmless sitcom, but we always try to get you to laugh in spite of yourself. So in the last episode, when things are darkest, it’s almost like laughing at a funeral,” she says.
The setting for the series also helped with the timeless feel for which she was going, as she laughs that “Worcester sometimes still feels like it’s in the ’90s.”
Although Armstrong grew up in Connecticut and “wanted to write people that I knew and people that I grew up with, and that meant repressed New Englanders,” she opted to set the show in a place more “classically sitcom blue-collar” than what she thought most people thought of Connecticut.
“Worcester [was] where my brother’s college roommate was from and he had this fascinating mix of absolute hometown pride while being ashamed of it and knowing all of its faults — and he had the most fantastic accent. You couldn’t distinguish between the world ‘career,’ like your job, and the country Korea,” she recalls. “There was a light and a dark to it: it seems like somewhere Kevin could be proud of, but Allison sees it for all that it is.”
When it came to casting Allison, who not only had to flit believably between both worlds, but also have her worldview expanded greatly as the first season went on, Armstrong was originally looking for “someone who maybe surprised you on ‘SNL’ with how funny they were.” This was because the show called for someone who was “not taking themselves too seriously. We knew with the wrong delivery in the single-camera scenes, it can be dour — it can be a huge bummer.” Ultimately, though, Murphy, who spent the last six years on Canadian sitcom “Schitt’s Creek” (for which she won a supporting comedy actress Emmy last year), got the gig.
“We ended up going the other way because Annie can do anything,” Armstrong says.
Armstrong felt it was important to carry some lightness and humor into the single-camera world of the show, even when it’s dabbling in not-so shiny realities, such as Allison working at a liquor store or getting pulled over because Kevin reported their car stolen when she didn’t call him or come home when he expected her. She didn’t want people to be uncomfortable watching the single-camera scenes and just eagerly awaiting getting back to the sitcom ones, especially as the single-camera ones are what really illuminate the systemic issues both Allison and the audience need to face.
“She goes through most of that first season saying, ‘Kevin is the problem.’ She’s pretty myopic,” Armstrong says. But, “Kevin is only a symptom.”
“Kevin Can F**k Himself” premieres June 13 on AMC Plus and then linearly June 20 at 9 p.m. on AMC.