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Kevin James in the short film “The Red Light.”
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When will Kevin James get his Uncut Gems?

A look at the comedian’s YouTube short films proves he’s capable of more

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Adam Sandler’s reputation for making lazy comedies is so well-established that during the Oscar campaign for his uncharacteristically rich, challenging drama Uncut Gems, he joked that if he didn’t win the race for Best Actor in a Leading Role, he’d “fucking come back and do one again that is so bad on purpose, just to make you all pay.”

But even though he didn’t win, the fact remained: Adam Sandler, the force behind Jack and Jill and The Ridiculous Six, had been in the running for a Best Actor nomination. Uncut Gems is definitive proof that he has the capacity to be a great actor, if the material is right. But will there ever be an Uncut Gems equivalent for his comedy pal Kevin James?

Unlike Sandler, James doesn’t have a Punch-Drunk Love or a Meyerowitz Stories to showcase his dramatic chops. His name in cinema is nearly synonymous with Paul Blart: Mall Cop, which makes any larger ambitions seem impossible. And based on the rest of his filmography — Grown Ups, in which his one character trait is that he’s overweight, or I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, in which his and Sandler’s characters pretend to be gay — there’s no clear evidence that he wants to double up as a dramatic actor.

But James’ YouTube channel tells a different story.

Between “Sound Guy” videos, a recurring bit where James plays a film-crew member who mugs throughout iconic scenes, are a series of short films that cast James in a new light. Though the shorts all have punchlines, they’re also all fairly dark, or have some kind of dramatic theme. “Misread Waves” is built around the fairly common, embarrassing occurrence of responding to a hand-wave meant for somebody else. The existential spiral this mix-up sends James on is surprisingly well-acted. There’s no winking at the camera as his character berates himself for the mistake, walking morosely along railroad tracks or slamming the steering wheel of his car. It’s all played completely straight. Even the finale, which takes things a step further, and has James finally actually receiving a wave, is funny precisely because James is playing it so seriously.

“The Red Light” and “My Living Nightmare” are similar in just how earnest James’ performances are, in spite of the thin or silly premises. “The Red Light” features James growing increasingly antsy while waiting for a traffic light to change, and experiencing a moment of catharsis when it finally does. And that’s it. But the short film manages to have an emotional effect, thanks to the intensity of James’ performance, and the care evident in the filmmaking (credited to the Kinnane brothers). These shorts are the furthest thing from lazy or half-assed, and James genuinely seems invested in them.

The darker shorts cement the impression that James’ Uncut Gems is out there somewhere. “Happy Place” and “Time Machine Diaries” weaponize James’s familiar harmless comedy persona. The premises of the shorts (a man wearing VR goggles eats microwaved pigs in a blanket on his couch to recreate the experience of eating hot dogs while camping; a different man wants to go back in time to escape his shrewish wife, and make sure his adolescent crush pays attention to him) could easily be pictured as stereotypical Kevin James movies, rife with jokes about big appetites and fatty foods, and with the apparent loser ending up getting the girl.

Instead, they flip the script. If anything, “Happy Place” is depressing, as there’s no punchline or reveal past the realization that the main character is, in fact, experiencing a campfire through VR. It feels almost like an episode of Black Mirror, as that twist is treated as something melancholic and bittersweet rather than a gag. There’s no laugh track or silly music; there’s just ambient sound, as James pretends the reason his pigs in a blanket are hot is because the sausages have just come off the fire. “Time Machine Diaries” has a few jokes — James’ character, a would-be time-traveler, is named “Leouis D. Ripbuerger” — but it plays like a rebuke of the kind of character James has played before. His annoyance with his family, particularly his wife, is mean and frightening rather than played for sitcom laughs. (It’s a reminder of the hubbub over how casually James’ sitcom Kevin Can Wait killed off and replaced his character’s wife after the actress was fired.) Leouis’ insistence that he’s going to prove everyone wrong is similarly unsettling, rather than inspiring.

For the most part, James’ persona up until this point has been the everyman-slash-manchild, or the overweight friend to Sandler’s everyman-slash-manchild. His performances haven’t gone much further than that. In his short films, however, James takes advantage of that affable persona, lulling viewers into a sense of comfort with his appearance and the initially mundane premises. Then, as the stories venture into stranger territory, he uses his expressive features to their full capability.

Years of physical comedy have made him more than capable of conveying sorrow or any other emotion with just his body language — a hunch of his shoulders and crease of his brow, a blankness in his expression. His energy is different from Sandler’s manic presence, but his short films suggest he could slot easily into a role in the modern-day equivalent of Barton Fink, or into Richard Dreyfuss’ obsessive shoes in a film like Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

It feels revelatory to see James venture away from not just playing likeable characters, but from turning everything into a joke. He’s capable of digging deeper, and he’s showcasing that ability on his YouTube channel. The big question is just whether he’ll ever be invited to tap that vein in movie form. He’s expressed interest in working with Bong Joon-ho. (“I wanna work with this guy,” he wrote, albeit in a caption of a picture of Bong saying he couldn’t stop eating on set.) Maybe that’s the Sandler-plus-Safdies match that James needs. Through his YouTube shorts, James is proving he has the talent to pull off a dramatic turn, one that’s totally different from the film roles he’s taken before. He just needs the right project to let loose.

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