Kevin Hart isn’t the kind of comedian who spends a lot of time talking about the pressing issues of the day. His routines will cover no part of your newspaper. He is not interested in making you feel smarter or God forbid, feel better about yourself. From the very beginning of his comedy career, Hart has been upfront about the fact that his one great subject is his own life. His style is accessible and largely cautious, the ‘I’m scared my son will grow up gay’ joke and the resultant Oscars kerfuffle notwithstanding. This is as true today as it was for his early albums like I’m a Grown Little Man (2008) and Seriously Funny (2010).
Here’s the thing, though: Hart is now one of the world’s bestselling comedians. His last two specials were performed at massive, sold-out arenas. But if you’re the kind of performer who fills an entire stadium easily, odds are that you now belong to the one percent (or are very close to getting there). And this represents a problem for Hart the comedian. How do you play the Everyman while multiplying your millions every few years?
His new special, Zero F***s Given, is an exercise in finding a working solution to this problem, if not a long-term fix (or a stylistic departure). At one point, Hart even acknowledges the scope of his conundrum: “I don’t like what you guys have made me become,” he says. “I don’t like it. I’m no longer comfortable. You switched it on me! We’re the weird people now. You look at me, like, What the fuck is wrong with him.”
That line, ‘you switched it on me’ is significant here, because it sums up the situation, really. In the past, Hart could and did critique celebrity culture from the outside because some popular movie roles aside, he wasn’t really a comedy bigwig up until 5-6 years ago. He could talk about the ‘weird people’ any which way he wanted, safe that he was still closer to his audience than his subjects. This just won’t work anymore, because Hart is now big enough for Netflix to shoot an hour-long comedy special in the middle of a pandemic, inside his gigantic living room.
Think about that for a minute: think about the resources, logistics and entry barriers involved in producing a Netflix special at a time like this. Think about the luxury of replicating an actual show—complete with audience—inside your very own house, when just about every other comedian is winging it on Zoom and biding their time.
And for all that, Zero F***s Given never really takes off. At the beginning of the routine, Hart promises his small, socially distanced audience, “This is my household, I’m not holding back!” But he then proceeds to do exactly that across the next 60-odd minutes. He sticks to some tired routines about COVID-19 (“I got the ‘vid!”), watching his young son fumble his way through school (“dumb is the way to go around this family, he’s just a chip off the old block!”), his ageing body and so on. Nothing remotely controversial, everything within the realm of familiarity, seems to be the modus operandi here. “Does COVID make you shit?” Hart asks to lukewarm applause. “We bought all of the toilet paper!” Yes, quite.
His encounter with what grumpy grandpas and writers of speculative fiction call ‘cancel culture’ is barely touched upon, for instance. And this is something that he had teased fans about. I should point out, however, that Hart’s ‘zero reaction’ still beats what Chappelle, CK and Ansari did, baiting their critics directly in their routines and doing so for a cringe-inducing period of time (can you imagine Richard Pryor or Bill Hicks or George Carlin with such wafer-thin skin?)
One of the few stories that I liked here was Hart worrying about his teenage daughter’s dating life. The great thing about this one was Hart’s willingness to go beyond the easy punch line (“that’s ho energy!”) and pick away at his own visible discomfort and what it actually means. He sees how and why his daughter seems to develop a new crush every week and grudgingly arrives at something resembling maturity.
Unfortunately for Hart, it proves to be one of the few revelatory moments in a special that promises edginess but delivers cold cereal. I did, however, enjoy looking at his huge-ass home. It is very well-designed and clearly, a labour of love for Hart. Just outside of his living room are portraits of his comedy icons Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy (good on Hart, showing a respectful sense of history), both of whom were known for pushing comedy to its unbearable limits, all the way up to the edge of tragedy. But to be honest, Zero F***s Given proves that Hart has a long way to go before he can match either gentleman, comedy-wise.