Kevin James thought he'd be happy when his dreams came true, but what happened when his dreams changed?
- Posted on Feb 26, 2018
“I’m happy.” Anyone who has ever existed tries to not only say these two words but actually mean them. We all have the same basic goal: to live a happy life. I always thought that my happiness depended solely on fulfilling my dreams... “Then I’ll be happy.” Which is true—as long as you allow your dreams to change.
When I was growing up on Long Island, my childhood wasn’t perfect, but it was filled with happy memories. Of course, church on Sunday was mandatory—St. James in Setauket. I remember Little League, ice cream trucks and Sunday dinners with family. Not just the immediate family—the entire family. And the thing I remember most about those dinners was how much we laughed.
Whether my brother and I were doing impressions of people we knew, or my uncle was telling funny stories, it just felt like, as far as comedy went, my family “got it.”
Did we think we were stand-up comedians in training? No, we were just having fun. But looking back, there was one experience that created a spark for me. It was the moment I saw Robert Klein on HBO, standing on a stage, microphone in hand, making an audience of strangers laugh (and my family howl). At that moment, I knew I was seeing something special.
Here was the problem: I wasn’t Robert Klein. I didn’t have the life experiences he had and, on top of that, unless I was with friends or family, I was extremely shy. So stand-up comedy wasn’t really an option for me. In fact, it wasn’t even a dream.
But sports were. I was all about sports. To play professional football, that was my dream. I thought, if I could just make it to the NFL, then I’d be happy. As it turns out, I was a pretty good running back at the high school level—going pro, I thought, shouldn’t be a problem. All I would need were good grades, so I could get a scholarship to a Division I college.
But my grades weren’t the best. And it wasn’t just because of a lack of intelligence. How do I put this? I had some attendance issues. Because of this, no big schools would take me. I had to get my grades up, so I went to Cortland State University, which was Division III. Oof. And I didn’t get much playing time there. Let’s just say, if you’re trying to go pro and you can’t dominate Division III football...it might be time to try out a new dream.
My modified plan was to finish college and get my degree in sports management (which, unless you’re the manager of a sports team, I’m still not sure what that means). Problem was, I still didn’t like going to class. I needed only about 20 credits to graduate. A buddy of mine told me about an easy class for three credits where all I had to do was show up. It was called Public Speaking.
Okay, this may seem obvious now, but at the time I didn’t realize that in public speaking class, you actually had to speak...in front of other people. Publicly. Hence the name. This was a problem for me because, as I said before, unless I’m with friends or family, I’m shy.
When I learned that my entire grade depended on how well I did in this class, I panicked. The night before my final speech, I sat in my dorm room with sweaty palms, rehearsing over and over. I prayed, barely slept and then prayed some more. At one point, I may or may not have thrown up.
The next day, when it was finally my turn to speak in class, something crazy happened—people laughed. Not at me but with me. Just like when my brother and I did our impressions at the family dinner table. Just like Robert Klein. Well, not as much as Robert, but it was a start.
So naturally, I did exactly what any parent would want for their child: With only 17 credits left to fulfill my degree, I quit college and moved back home. New dream: If I could make people laugh for a living,,,then I’d be happy.
There’s something to be said for throwing caution to the wind and putting it all on the line. Night after night, I hung out at local comedy clubs and worked my act with that new dream pushing me forward. The plan was to earn enough money to quit my day job and make a career performing standup. It was a solid plan…
...And I did it for a while. But it wasn’t enough. I still needed more.
In fact, it seemed as if every time I accomplished something special and finally seemed on my way to becoming completely happy, my sights were already set on something bigger. Something even more special. I set a goal to perform my stand-up on TV...and did it. Then I thought, Well, if I could just get on The Tonight Show...then did that. If I could just get on a sitcom…Got it. If I could just act in a movie…Boom, done.
Am I grateful for all those things? Absolutely. But it was as though every time I achieved a goal that would supposedly make me happy, the goalposts moved. I was caught in a cycle. And that dream of being happy—the big overall life goal that I had set so many years earlier—felt as if it wasn’t even close.
It didn’t make sense. I was missing something. Something big. It’s amazing that it took me so long to figure out what it was.
I missed home.
And not just in the geographical sense. I was in Los Angeles, and I discovered that what I was missing most was Long Island. Not just the place itself, but everything that Long Island meant to me. I missed the values I’d grown up with. I missed St. James parish in Setauket and going to Mass. I missed the tree-lined service roads off the L.I.E. I missed the American flags waving on so many front porches. I missed…home.
After years of searching, and running toward a dream that I thought was special, I realized that I was running from the most special thing of all: the ordinary. Faith. Family. Home. This was the true dream.
So my wife and I made some big choices. We moved back to New York and started going to church regularly, just like I did when I was a kid. We get the family, the entire family, together on a more regular basis. I was even blessed enough to have my new TV show, Kevin Can Wait, shot on Long Island—close to everything I love.
In the end, my unfulfilled desires found rest in God, family and home, the things that are there for us with or without fame and fortune. I am grateful to Long Island in so many ways—for helping me realize my dream, for being there for me even when I went astray, for helping me reach that goal of a more firm happiness and, even more, for making the best pizza on the planet. Because, the truth is, you can’t really find a good slice in Hollywood.
Catch Kevin James in his show Kevin Can Wait on CBS Mondays at 8pm. And look for his Netflix comedy special Kevin James: Never Don’t Give Up premiering in April.
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