Annie Murphy Doesn’t Want to be Pigeonholed

Minor spoilers ahead.

For her next act after Schitt’s Creek, Emmy winner Annie Murphy was ready for a departure from Alexis Rose, the ditsy heiress-turned-publicist who can name-drop more life-threatening dating escapades than one can count. So she gravitated to Allison McRoberts in AMC’s Kevin Can F**k Himself, a suburban wife living in a sitcom who’s so fed up with her man-child of a husband that she plots to murder him. As Alexis would say, “Love that journey for her.”

“I was so excited when I got this script, because it’s a gamble, and it’s weird, and it’s something that I had never seen before,” Murphy tells BAZAAR.com over Zoom from Los Angeles.

Created by Valerie Armstrong (Masters of Sex, SEAL Team), Kevin Can F**k Himself imagines the sitcom wife’s life beyond the laugh track. When Allison is with her husband, Kevin (Eric Petersen), she’s on a bright soundstage, packaged in tacky punchlines and canned laughter; when she leaves the room, she’s in grim, single-camera shots as she continues the rest of her day—working as a cashier, running into an old flame, and later planning her escape from her insolent spouse.

In Kevin’s world, she’s the target of his jokes and shenanigans, but he still depends on her to survive and clean up his mess. In Allison’s, she’s at the center of the narrative—dreams, frustrations, and all. Armstrong created the series to do right by the sitcom wives we watched growing up—those who endured sexist humor without our realizing. After premiering earlier this month (production took place during the pandemic), Murphy’s wish now is that Kevin gets viewers thinking.

“I hope it is a show that is going to spark some conversations,” the Toronto-based actress says, “and if that’s the case, then it will have been a success.”

Here, Murphy talks about the misogyny in sitcom humor, the importance of female friendships, and the unshakeable appeal of “A Little Bit Alexis.”

Watching Kevin Can F**k Himself was super eye-opening, because I realized how much the sitcom wife is actually the butt of the joke, and we didn’t think about it, because we grew up watching and loving these shows. Was that a realization you made as well working on this project?

A hundred percent. I was being hard on myself for not being at all analytical [until I] started working on the show. I watched a sitcom as if it was no big thing, because it becomes so ingrained in us as just what’s funny and it’s not offensive. It’s light, no one ever really develops, it’s fine, that’s how it is. But now, looking at the world of sitcoms with a more analytical eye, it’s astonishing to see how much misogyny and homophobia and racism is shrouded by this laugh track and glossed right over.

Even though we read the script so much and I was obviously there for shooting, it wasn’t until I saw that first transition from multi-cam to single-cam that it really became clear to me what the show was. And to realize that all of these quote-unquote jokes are really impactfully chipping away at the confidence and heart and mind of a human being. To see the effects of these jokes was a really cool, eye-opening moment.

What was it like for you as an actor to go from the studio vibe to the single-camera setup?

It was so interesting going into it, because the first four days of shooting were multi-cam. Then, I went in alone to shoot my first single-cam stuff, and it was the exact same set that I was going into and all they had done to change it was drop in a fourth wall, change the lighting, and move all the furniture just a little bit tighter together. It was a completely different vibe and energy. Everything felt oppressive and claustrophobic and dingy and uncomfortable. And it was such a cool experience as an actor going from this bright open stage to, with just a few changes, a very, very different environment.

What sitcoms did you love and watch growing up, and which ones did you watch specifically to research for this role?

I wasn’t a huge sitcom kid. I watched Home Improvement—because of Jonathan Taylor Thomas, let’s be real here. I watched Saved by the Bell, but I didn’t watch the family sitcoms. When I got this part, I watched episodes of Everybody Loves Raymond. I watched a few minutes of that infamous episode of Kevin Can Wait, where they write off Erinn Hayes who played his wife in the first season. And [Kevin James] admitted to just running out of ideas for her and so they killed her off very unceremoniously in the first episode of the second season. And all she gets is one of the kids is like, “I sure miss mom.” And then he’s like, “Yeah, it’s sad now that she’s dead. Want to go to the baseball game?” While we were shooting, I do so much breaking of glass and punching, but there was one particular moment where I was like, “This one’s for Erinn Hayes.”

There is a really interesting, brief conversation in Episode 2 about why Allison doesn’t leave Kevin that may be very relatable for a lot of women who also feel trapped in their relationships. She says, “Like it’s easy? … What would [I] do, sleep on the street?” She acknowledges that she still needs him to survive, as much as she hates him. What did you think of that exchange?

I thought it was a very important exchange, because when I got the script, I was like, “Murder? That seems a bit extreme. Why doesn’t she just get out of there?”

I think his death is representative of her ability to keep living.

But upon reflecting on it, I think so many women, particularly those in abusive relationships, do feel trapped and don’t feel able to go, don’t control the money in the households, or don’t want to leave their kids or their families. Allison says in that episode, “He’d find me anyway.” She really doesn’t see a world where she could be free of him unless he didn’t exist in the world anymore.

To try and sort it out in my own head, I think that this overwhelming anger and chaos that she’s feeling is manifesting in her very real feelings that she wants to murder him. But I think his death is representative of her ability to keep living. So those two kind of go hand in hand, and she isn’t able to look at it quite that way just yet, because she’s so tangled up in so much torment.

Why do you think she liked Kevin in the first place? Why did they end up together?

That’s another question that I had going into it. I think that they live in this small town, in Worcester [Massachusetts]. They were told what their life needed to look like. They went to high school, they fell in love. Then, the next thing you do when you fall in love is you get married, and you get a house, and then you have kids. I think particularly for Allison, who very much abides by the rules and is very much a type A and wants to do everything in the correct way, it was just what you did. Kevin was there, and he made her laugh, and they moved in together, and what you do next is you get married. There wasn’t a lot of thought or feeling after that. It was just the thing to do. Unfortunately, I think people are really governed by societal expectations more than they should be regardless of happiness.

Seeing her relationship with her neighbor Patty [Mary Hollis Inboden] grow was also interesting, even though they do get into some trouble together. It shows the importance of having relationships and friendships outside of your committed relationship or your marriage. What do you think that friendship means to Allison?

I was so excited by this relationship, because I do not think female friendship gets anywhere close to the screen time it deserves. Speaking from my experiences, my relationships with my female friends are as big and as powerful as many romantic relationships that I’ve had. You would do anything for this person, and your love for this person is so deep. And I don’t think we see that enough. I don’t think we see female friendships celebrated or talked about or analyzed enough.

So it was really cool to see how these women, who were basically told, “You don’t get along. You’re not each other’s kind of girl,” and who have been occupying the same space, like, 10 feet apart for 10 years—how they know nothing about each other because they’ve just been existing in the male gaze and the male sitcom energy—to finally get an opportunity to even just have a simple conversation, which they have not had for so, so long. It’s been really, really fun, especially with Mary Hollis, who is just like America’s sweetheart, really.

This is your first big project post-Schitt’s Creek. What do you want people to learn about you as your career continues to grow?

I want to play as many different parts in as many different genres as possible. I really hope to not be pigeonholed into one role, and that’s why I was so excited when Allison came around, because she really is a departure from Alexis. I just hope so much that I’ll be able to keep playing very different people for as long as you’ll have me.

Does the phrase “Emmy winner Annie Murphy” feel real to you yet?

No, honestly. I keep thinking Ashton Kutcher is going to leap out from behind a truck and yell that I’ve been punk’d. No, it feels very weird, very, very weird. Very wonderful, but I don’t think I will ever totally get used to it.

Do you still ever find yourself singing “A Little Bit Alexis” from time to time?

Anytime I see the words, the song goes in there and doesn’t leave, and I feel like I have, like, an apology to make to so many people, because once it gets in, it does not go away and that can be crazy making. But, yeah, it gets stuck in there for sure.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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