James fell into comedy with a little more grace than his screen characters. In the mid-'80s, a community theater role turned the college football player into a laugh-addict. Instead of wrapping up his sports management degree, he bailed for a life on the Long Island stand-up circuit, where he'd continue touring for nearly a decade. He describes his first gig in 1989 as "a revelation." But at a time when many young entertainers would cling to lofty goals, James stuck to immediate ones.
"[My career] was moving target," he says. "I loved stand-up, and I still do. Though once I started doing stand-up, I said, 'If I ever got on TV, that's all I would need.'" He did, appearing in a short-lived MTV sports series called Sandblast.
"Then it was like, 'Okay, now if I ever got on to The Tonight Show!'" That happened.
"Then after that, 'If I ever got a part in a sitcom...'" Ray Romano, a pal from the stand-up world, hooked him up.
"Then it was if I got my own sitcom..." Two years after his praised Everybody Loves Raymond appearances, CBS launched King of Queens.