“You gotta learn from your fuck-ups,” says Kevin Hart, in a new Netflix special that makes a solid case for Hart being his own comedy psychic.
Kevin Hart: Irresponsible, which premiered on the streaming service Tuesday, is Hart’s first major project to be released after the media scandal that found him stepping down from his position as host of the Oscars.
(The Upside, a comedic drama co-starring Bryan Cranston, was released in the thick of the controversy, to the extent that the promotional tour conflated with not-very-effective Oscars damage control.)
Contrary to some misleading headlines—and almost baffling considering how prescient so much of the stand-up in it is—the special was filmed three months before Hart’s grotesque mishandling of criticism for past homophobic and anti-gay jokes ignited enough backlash for him to lose his gig as host of the Oscars. Still, it’s apt that Irresponsible, recorded during Hart’s world tour at London’s O2 Arena, is billed as “a fresh special inspired by his own mistakes.”
That marketing line will likely intrigue loads of viewers eager to see how Hart distills the Oscars fiasco in his comedy, and thus confuse them when he doesn’t. The special instead tackles mistakes Hart has made as a father and as a husband, addressing the scandal in which he was forced to admit to cheating on his pregnant wife.
Penance, it turns out, is an evergreen topic in Hart’s life. The entire theme of the special, and certainly certain quotes from it, will inevitably be extrapolated, used to hold the comedian accountable for failures in how he handled the Oscars scandal. More than that, it’s a new test case for whether audiences are willing to laugh with him again.
Irresponsible is about how much we’re willing to forgive or forget, and how much is on a person to atone for past mistakes and poor displays in character. The fact that this is the thesis of a special filmed before, yet released after the Oscars controversy is truly wild.
At a time when discerning eyes are focused on how comedians work through and own up to their personal failings and misbehaviors in their stand-up—Louis C.K., Aziz Ansari, and Amy Schumer—Hart does a remarkable job of parsing his with candor and sharp humor, even if it’s not exactly the scandal we may be most curious to see him address.
The entirety of Irresponsible posits Hart as a family man struggling through the various insecurities and indignities of being a married father of three. It’s familiar territory for male stand-ups, though filtered through Hart’s odd perspective of crass wholesomeness—R-rated material pitched to the masses. If not groundbreaking, it’s still relatable and funny.
The formula has made Hart arguably the most successful comedian of the millennium, and it’s barely altered here. The only thing different, and maybe even surprising to those aggravated by his obstinacy and self-victimhood during the Oscars fiasco, is his humility. (This is still Kevin Hart. The humility is fleeting.)
Following a bit about two of his children walking in on him and his wife having sex (again, Irresponsible does not reinvent the wheel male comics coast on), Hart’s second big set piece tackles his infidelity. In 2017, Hart came clean in an Instagram video about an alleged extortion attempt over a compromising video of the comedian with another woman. His wife, Eniko Parrish, was pregnant at the time.
“Shit hit the fan with my marriage, and everybody had an opinion,” he says. “‘Kevin Hart did it again. Kevin Hart fucked up again.’ I want to make it perfectly clear to everybody here tonight. I did not fuck up ‘again,’ OK? In my first marriage, I filed for divorce. That means I chose to leave. That means I made a better decision for me and my life. That’s not fucking up. That’s me moving on. Now, this time... I fucked up.”
As the audience applauds, he tells them “you gotta learn you from fuck-ups,” joking that the first lesson he learned after the cheating scandal was “whatever happens in Vegas does not stay in Vegas.” You can surmise where the incident took place.
But then he talks about how he had to look in the mirror and take stock of himself and his values, and pledge to grow up. “That meant I had to go back to my wife, make my wife feel secure, and understand that I was done doing the dumb shit,” he says. “That put me in heavy Kiss My Wife’s Ass mode.”
The comedy that sprouts from this is self-effacing and recognizable. It’s broad enough to earn the raucous laughter of the 20,000 fans in the O2, but tinged with enough personal detail to win them back over on the idea that Hart is a family values A-lister, despite the details of the cheating scandal he just alluded to. It’s quite the comedy con.
But Hart’s on-stage psychotherapy doesn’t end there. Following a bit about his inability to separate his pride from reality when it comes to his wife’s porn habits, he drops more sage advice on the audience, the “one gem” he hopes they leave his show with.
“So many people are on this journey to live a perfect life,” he says. “I personally think it’s stupid. The reason I think it’s stupid is because you have no idea what perfection is unless you’ve experienced imperfection. The point I’m making is that you should embrace your flaws and fuck-ups because they make you who you’re supposed to be. Don’t run away from your bullshit. Embrace it, and become better.”
That bit of wisdom might seem particularly rich to the skeptical when it comes to whether Hart deserved to be redeemed following the Oscars scandal.
When past tweets and stand-up bits surfaced, including jokes about inflicting violence on his son for acting gay and multiple derogatory uses of the slur “faggot,” outraged members of the LGBTQ community and their allies implored Hart to apologize, or at least explain.
He refused, complaining with exasperation that the jokes were in the past and thus irrelevant, that anyone angry was a “hater” out to deprive him of an opportunity, and even used the galling justification of “funny is funny.”
He had every right to explain himself and how he evolved, just as those who were upset had every right to feel that way—and an obligation to listen to Hart. But he didn’t offer anything to listen to. Instead he deemed himself a martyr and sulked. To use his own words from Irresponsible, he ran away from his bullshit. The humility and heightened self-awareness that he preached three short months before all of this happened was nonexistent throughout the entire ordeal.
While Irresponsible doesn’t address the Oscars, its release this week does mean that Hart is back doing press and, unlike with The Upside, this time with some remove from the high emotions of the time.
In a lengthy and honest interview with Vulture’s Jesse David Fox, Hart talks about why he was so defensive, exasperated, and unwilling to listen to the outrage when all the criticism was happening.
“I understand why people are like, ‘That’s not funny. He shouldn’t say shit like that,’” he told Vulture. “You’re absolutely right. I apologize for those that are offended. I don’t want you guys to think that that’s who I am, which is why I went on this big, ten-year run of not doing that anymore. So, it wasn’t about not being comfortable. It was about me being frustrated with the fact that the ten-year change was instantly overlooked.”
He also admitted that he didn’t understand that what people needed to hear was exactly that, another round of explaining his growth, his 10-year track record, and more apologies, and he acknowledges that he didn’t get that right.
He said it took lengthy conversations with Lee Daniels and Don Lemon to really understand why people were upset, and to comprehend how each time he spoke he was failing to use it as an opportunity to condemn hate speech and violence, because he didn’t think he needed to.
“So, for this period, and this time, and this particular incident, I’m not asking for the emotions to be buried behind the statement for others that that may have hit close,” he told Vulture. “I’m asking for the understanding and acknowledgement of someone being ignorant to what is going on and to simply think that his apology from old should have been good enough.”
Is that good enough now? It’s certainly more in line with his own advice in Irresponsible, and a far more satisfying explanation than the petulance and entitlement that shadowed his real-time reaction to the controversy. More, it could have fed the conversations about comedy, hate speech, and accountability that needed to happen at the time, but got drowned out by the histrionics of the ensuing culture war.
Hart says he wants to talk about it all on stage at some point. Irresponsible is a perfectly fine comedy special, and will likely do very well and work to ingratiate Hart back to some of his critics. But it’s the next one that has the potential to be great. Maybe that one will be called Responsibility.