BETHPAGE, N.Y. — It's been a decade since Kevin James and Leah Remini played pugnacious partners on CBS' The King of Queens, but their waggish rankling never stopped.
"Can you chew any louder?" Remini hisses, curled on a couch next to James on the set of Kevin Can Wait, where they're shooting a promo for her guest arc in the two-part season finale of his newest CBS sitcom (Monday and May 8, 8 ET/PT).
"Yeah, I can," he counters, shoveling a handful of kernels into his mouth and crunching voraciously.
The badgering continues into the episode, "Sting of Queens," in which retired cop Kevin Gable (James) is reluctantly called back to finish an undercover assignment with his old police-department rival, Vanessa Cellucci (Remini). The unlikely duo poses as husband and wife to investigate a fraudulent dealer's art show, but much like Doug and Carrie Heffernan, the married couple they played on King, Vanessa spends most of her time trying to keep Kevin in line.
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They're "literally Doug and Carrie, as cops," says Remini, sitting on audience risers overlooking the cavernous soundstage, which is dotted by swooping cameras and crew members in New York Mets gear.(James is a superfan.)
"Yeah, it really is," he adds. "They argue all the time and rib each other, but you can tell deep down it all comes from love."
After King's nine-season run ended in 2007, James enjoyed box-office success with the Paul Blart and Grown Ups movies. He mulled a small-screen reunion with Remini throughout Kevin's first season, which averaged 9.3 million viewers to become TV's top-rated new comedy.
"It was always about how to do it the right way," he says. "I didn’t want to have her come on and deliver a meatball hero and then she leaves, like 'Oh, it’s a funny cameo.' We had to come up with a way that incorporated what made (our dynamic) special before."
He landed on an idea about a month before the March taping and rang up Remini, who vaulted back into the spotlight in November with her revealing A&E docuseries Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath, which was renewed for a second season due later this year.
"I was excited by the call," Remini says. "I wanted to work with Kevin again, so I was really honored and touched that they’d bring me back for such an important episode."
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Their easy working relationship "is not something you find all the time," she adds. Between takes, they snap selfies and get down to local hero Billy Joel, whose songs blare through the speakers as the crew sets up the next shot. Taping their scenes together, they often burst into giggles and bounce jokes off each other, with Vanessa likening Kevin to both a member of Run-D.M.C. and "a guy that's gonna get whacked on The Sopranos" when he saunters down the stairs in a red-and-black tracksuit.
Aside from the episode's winking title and Remini's meta-casting as Kevin's fake wife, James was careful not to go too overboard with the King references.
"We're (not) going, 'Hey, can you Carrie this for me? I really Doug myself out of a hole this time, didn't I?'" he deadpans. "It's a weird thing to bring someone in. I chose to not make her Carrie or say he was having a dream. I just wanted to make it realistic and not break that fourth wall.
"That was greedy on my part," he continues, glancing at Remini. "If I just made you a weird Carrie I met in my dream, you couldn’t come back on the show."