Whenever you see the poster of a sitcom, you see that guy with that woman, and you think, Oh, she would never stay with him. Why is she still there? The job of [this] show was to say, “This is how that woman stays.
Four and a half years ago, Valerie Armstrong was a writer’s assistant on Masters of Sex (created by Michelle Ashford). She was looking forward to a possible staff writer position, then the show was canceled, leaving Armstrong without agent or prospects, but with a bad case of imposter syndrome. That’s when she decided to set a timer every day to force herself to write.
One of her projects then was Kevin Can F**K Himself, now an AMC Networks series about unhappy working-class Allison McRoberts (Annie Murphy, of Schitt’s Creek) married to Kevin (played by Eric Peterson as Jackie Gleason crossed with Archie Bunker).
When Allison learns that her self-centered, misogynistic husband has squandered their savings, ruining her dream of escaping their humdrum small-town New England life, she plots to kill him.
The pilot’s surprise is that Allison is a classic TV housewife, trapped in a multicam sitcom with an intrusive laugh track, thankless dialogue, and corny theme music. When Allison steps offstage from her garishly lit living room, the mood darkens to a single camera dramedy, with cable TV trappings of moody lighting, longer scenes, and actual character development.
Armstrong loved it, but figured it would never get made.
Then, in 2018, AMC called her in for a meeting. Former Masters of Sex executive producer Amy Lippman wanted to hire her as story editor on a show she was developing, and Armstrong figured executives needed to check her out. After all, at that point, she’d had only one season as a staff writer on Seal Team.
“Right before the meeting,” she remembers, “I got a call saying, ‘So, I guess they read your script, and now the meeting is about buying it.’"
The script was Kevin Can F**K Himself.
“I thought I blew that meeting,” Armstrong says. “And then, three weeks later, I got a call saying they wanted to put in an offer.”
The series debuted in June on AMC+ and AMC. Now Armstrong and her room are working on Season 2 while hoping for a pickup.
By any measure, it’s an extraordinary success story.
“Almost obnoxious,” jokes Armstrong, who, for the record, never received any network resistance to the show’s title.
She spoke to the Writers Guild of America West website about her inspiration for Kevin Can F**K Himself; the challenge of creating two shows within one episode; and what the series is really about.
How did you get this outrageous idea for Kevin Can F**K Himself? Had you watched so many sitcoms that it finally struck you how demoralizing the wife’s role usually is?
It was more realizing that these shows that I had loved had some rot beneath. I realized it listening to a podcast where two women comedians were talking about going out for pilot season every year. They get the sides, and all of their lines are setting up the men. They don't get a joke. I thought, “That just sucks.” That first format switch image came to me of a sitcom wife leaving her brightly lit living room, and her funny husband, and the laugh track, and going into the kitchen through a swinging door, and all of a sudden it's quiet, and desperate, and sad, and she's miserable. It just went from there.
Did you start writing immediately?
I texted my brother. It almost helps that he’s not in the industry. I said, “What if you have, like, a sitcom, almost like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, where the characters from Hamlet are on stage with Hamlet, and when they’re off, it’s those two talking to each other. What if it’s like that, but with a sitcom? Where, when the funny husband leaves, it’s suddenly very different, and it’s about the wife, and it looks like Breaking Bad or something?” He said, “I like it a lot. Try it.” It was like an ear worm. It wouldn't get out of my head. I found myself fleshing it out in my journal every day.
What did you want Allison to be, and what kind of changes did she go through while you were developing her?
Whenever you see the poster of a sitcom, you see that guy with that woman, and you think, Oh, she would never stay with him. Why is she still there? The job of the show was to say, “This is how that woman stays. This is what, in her background, in her psychology, and her circumstance, is what keeps that woman there.” My first instinct was to make her a lot more like how Patty [Allison’s neighbor, played by Mary Hollis Inboden] ended up being. Somebody who knew they were miserable but just thought it was their lot in life to be that way. For Allison, what we found is that what drives her is the hope that things can actually get better. The idea that if you do everything right, you should be rewarded with happiness and fulfillment. And she’s been told, since the time she was a kid, that the way she does that is through her marriage, through her finding the right guy.
The concept is so risky. After the high you must have felt from selling the show, did you worry about pulling it off?
I was always a little concerned that I would get the note, “Is she likable? Are you worried about people rooting for her to accomplish this monstrous goal?” The wonderful thing is that the network really understood that I was never trying to tell the audience that this is the right thing for her to do. I’m never saying that a woman should kill her husband to get out of a bad situation. I just want people to understand why Allison thinks this is what she has to do, not necessarily agree with her. Once you know why she feels she has to do it, you can still root for her. Allison, to me, now, is somebody who put all of her hope in her husband, and that life, and is only realizing right now that she has to put her hope in herself. To me, the show is so not about killing Kevin. Everything she wants now is on her own shoulders, and that it’s really about her waking up.
You can’t have the audience really hate Kevin, right? He’s a smug, arrogant jackass, but we still have to be able to laugh at him.
That’s exactly right. If we asked for you to just hate him, it would be hard to get through those multicam scenes. We really tried to make the best version of a multicam that we could. I’m not asking anyone to look down on it. When Kevin swallows a key, and almost regurgitates it in Episode 4, I laughed so hard on set, and I laugh every time watching him do that. And Eric, he's just like a savant at multicam. He knows how to make anything a joke. He was teaching a class on multicam acting when we found him. I do laugh in spite of myself. I think of it as almost like laughing at a funeral, which I have also done.
Balancing the sitcom and the darker worlds must be tricky.
We broke every episode a little bit differently, but we always tried to start with where Allison was psychologically and break from there. I’m really proud of how the room figured out how to braid these very seemingly different forms constantly to make them inform one another and bounce off one another, and thematically, how to make them touch on similar things in different ways. If you just read the pilot, if it is shot, acted, even set up a certain way, it could be very disgusting. Just the words themselves could lend it to being dour. We knew that it was so dependent on performance, and on direction, and on cinematography. We just had to find the right people to bring it out. And Annie Murphy is that person. She can make anything funny, but she can also completely sell a dramatic scene. I knew that we had to make sure that the humor of the multicam wasn't completely gone in that single cam stuff. It’s just a different sort of humor, but we never wanted to take it too seriously. There aren’t setups and jokes in the single cam, but we always wanted to bring out the local humor and quirk.
I love Kevin's droopy athletic shorts and Allison's lumpy sweaters.
Our costume designer, Carol Cutshall took it to another level. She understood these characters in a costume sense in way that I never, ever could. In my head, Allison always wants to look put together and nice. She’s always trying to look fresh off a sailboat, but never, ever achieving it.
Is glimpsing the toilet through an open door on the set a commentary on cheesy sitcoms?
It struck me when we started filming. But our DP really loved the depth that it gave. It’s not just a flat wall, there’s something behind it. It’s almost like a bit of single camera in the multicam. It’s reminding you that these are real people. The multicam part of the show was never meant to be winked at, or looked down upon. We’re definitely commenting on it, but we’re not calling it stupid. We’re calling certain behavior abhorrent.
Do you have a favorite scene?
It was one of the first scenes that we shot in single cam. They had been doing days and days of multicam rehearsal, blocking, and then shooting. By the end of it, I almost forgot that we had another whole show to make. It was like we almost all believed that the show was actually about Kevin, and it’s not. So, that first day, in single cam, we shot the scene on the porch where Patty tells Allison that they don’t have any money. We had rehearsed it, and rehearsed it, and rehearsed it. And the first few times we ran it through, there was just something missing. And I think it was maybe the third time that they ran it, they just nailed it. I remember walking up to them and saying, “If I were a crier, I’d be crying right now. Thank you so much.” Whenever I have trouble reconnecting with the show, remembering what the show is actually about, I just think of those two women on the porch.
You’ve said it’s not a man-hating show, and it’s not poking fun at any particular sitcom. So can you tell us, then, what it is about?
It presents as a show about a toxic marriage. But to me, what cracked it open when I was developing it, what made me want to tell the story, is realizing that it’s about how women get each other out of toxic situations. To me, the show is [about] Allison and Patty. It is not Allison and Kevin. There were certain things that I really wanted to say about how women perceive each other, and how we can be pitted against each other so easily. That meant that they couldn’t be allies from the beginning. We couldn’t start it there. Also, I find it, as a viewer, so satisfying to watch two women who seemingly don’t like each other realize that they are each other’s saviors.
Have you had many women allies?
I’ve found some really great women who took me under their wing and showed me how to do this. I was a PA for a season, and then Michelle Ashford at Masters of Sex, and Amy Lippman, promoted me to writer’s assistant, which is just the best job. I was Susannah Grant’s assistant on a pilot. I then worked for Tassie Cameron on Ten Days in the Valley. Amazing women who showed me how to be a creator and a showrunner and still be a woman. I know that sounds funny, but for a long time, women got ahead by pretending they were one of the guys. Watching all these women run shows, I realized that it can be such a benefit to be a woman. They were able to be set mother to everyone, and that environment on a show is exactly the kind that I wanted to create on this one. I feel like I got a grad school education in how to do this job.
Tell us more about setting that timer to write.
I set it for an hour. No internet, only music with no lyrics. I started doing that every day. I found that it was really helpful to not feel guilty any more. It’s that thing in a writer’s brain that says you haven’t done your homework. It’s been four and a half years, and I’ve never missed a day. Everything great in my career has happened because of that.
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