He’s the Most Successful Stand-Up Comic in America
So why isn’t Kevin Hart more famous?
Though he brings swagger to the stage, Hart’s comedy is rooted in insecurity—he’s always describing things as his “biggest fear.” Granted, one of Hart’s “biggest fears,” which he announces in Seriously Funny, is his son “growing up and being gay”—while he claims at the beginning of the bit that he’s not homophobic, the next few minutes suggest otherwise. Typically, however, Hart’s fears subvert the standard macho line rather than reinforcing it. Uncle Richard Jr. is a satire on one particularly exaggerated form of machismo, and his “House Husbands” sketches for BET—the inspiration for his upcoming series—cover this ground as well, albeit much less successfully. In Seriously Funny, Hart confesses that his “lady” calls him a b----. His unexpected answer: “So? What happens now?” And then a clarification: “It’s not that I’m a b----, it’s just that I’m smart.”
Warning: The video contains profanity.
If you go to Hart’s new movie Think Like a Man expecting to see this complicated take on manhood, you’ll be disappointed. Instead, the script stakes out a retrograde position (courtesy of Steve Harvey) on the sexes, relegating the tiny comedian to pint-sized buffoonery (which he absolutely nails, but still).
More intriguing is the movie Hart is set to star in alongside Seth Rogen, wherein the duo plays history's first-ever interracial pair of buddy cops (the movie is set in the 1940s).* Hart’s partnership with Rogen isn’t hugely surprising, as he’s hovered on the fringes of the Apatow crowd for years, going back to the 2001 TV show Undeclared. (He also has a funny cameo in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and The Five-Year-Engagement is an Apatow production.) What makes this upcoming role a departure is that racial difference has never been a big part of Hart’s act. (He did attempt some unfortunate jokes about light-skinned vs. white-skinned women on Twitter a couple years ago; it did not go well.)
In his interview with Marc Maron, Hart makes light of the material he used when he first got on stage. In addition to a “horrible” riff about getting “robbed by a cross-eyed midget,” he says he did a lot of “black people talk like this, white people talk like that” bits. “That’s all I heard and all I knew,” he says. He has long since dropped such jokes from his act. The only charge of racism I can recall from his last three specials is directed at a dolphin.
Hart’s decision to abstain from the comedy of racial comparison is a fairly unusual one for a big-time black comedian. Other than Cosby, all of those once-in-a-decade comedy superstars mentioned above—Pryor, Murphy, Rock, Chappelle—made race an overt part of their routines, albeit in a more nuanced way than “black people talk like this, white people talk like that.” In a recent roundtable discussion of black comedians, Desiree Burch notes that her mostly white crowds seem to enjoy her jokes making fun of white people. “Make fun of us, you’re a nice one!” she imagines them thinking. Paradoxically, Hart’s decision not to tell such jokes may have kept him from becoming a cross-cultural comedy icon.
Cosby, who seems like a possible model here, occasionally had to defend himself from the charge that he was avoiding the subject of race in his routines. Hart’s act helps to highlight how wrongheaded that type of criticism is. On account of his frankness about dark personal experiences, no one can ever say that Hart avoids any subject. Race and racism simply aren’t a big source of material for him. And white comedy fans shouldn’t require that Hart speak to them on the matter. His big subjects—childhood, relationships, sex—are universal.
In that roundtable discussion about black comedy, Baron Vaughn suggests that Dave Chappelle’s departure from the scene has left “this void,” one that has yet to be filled by the next great black superstar of stand-up. He then asks, somewhat tentatively, the “weird question” of who might step up and fill that void. His fellow comics put forward a number of excellent stand-ups, including the 29-year-old Hannibal Buress, the wonderful veteran Wanda Sykes, and even the late Patrice O’Neal (the conversation took place a couple months after he died). No one mentions Kevin Hart. It feels like a mistake.
Clarification, April 23, 2012: This sentence has been updated to make it clear that Hart and Rogen will be playing history’s first interracial buddy cops, not that they are the first actors to play interracial buddy cops. (Return to the revised sentence.)