Hosting the Academy Awards is an infamously thankless gig, exposing the emcee to intense scrutiny from the culturati and critics, typically with little to gain professionally in exchange. It’s gotten so bad that earlier this week, in response to the fact that dozens of celebrities had turned down the Academy’s requests to preside over this year’s ceremony, The Hollywood Reporter proclaimed hosting the Oscars “the least wanted job in Hollywood.”
That was, of course, mere hours before the Academy announced that comedian Kevin Hart had taken the job.
Hart actually wanted the job very much, and has been on record saying as much over the years. He announced that he was “blown away simply because this has been a goal on my list for a long time” when he shared the news on Instagram. And now that he’s gotten it, he’s already witnessing part of the aforementioned reality of the gig: the scrutiny.
It didn’t take long after the announcement for homophobic and anti-gay jokes and tweets Hart made in the past to resurface.
“Considering how many of the Oscars’ biggest fans are women and gay men it’s quite something for the Academy to hire a guy who beat one wife, cheated on another when she was eight months pregnant and said one of his biggest fears is his son growing up and being gay,” awards pundit Erik Anderson tweeted in reaction to the news.
As the frustration over these past jokes has reached a groundswell over the last few days, the Academy now finds itself in an unignorable predicament. Does it force Hart to directly address them and apologize? Or are the comments inexcusable enough for the organization to follow the precedent established when it forced Brett Ratner to resign as Oscars producer in 2011 following his use of homophobic slurs?
Should Kevin Hart be fired?
The offending comments include an alarming number of tweets in which he calls men gay or “fags” as pejorative, as well as gay-panic jokes about his fear that his son would become gay if he didn’t start acting more masculine.
Most of the tweets have not been deleted, which is surprising given the stakes at play as Hart’s Hollywood star has risen, but as Buzzfeed’s Adam B. Vary noticed, “he basically stopped tweeting those words after 2011—i.e. the year his first stand-up movie became a hit.”
One egregious deleted tweet from that year reads, “Yo if my son comes home & try’s 2 play with my daughters doll house I’m going 2 break it over his head and say n my voice “stop that’s gay.” Another compared one Twitter user’s profile picture to “a gay billboard for AIDS.”
In others, he calls user @wayne215 a “fat faced fag,” user @sydneyisfunny “fag boy,” says he won’t pass along a photo he saw of a naked man because it would make him “gay by association,” and cautions “no homo” when he talks about wanting to improve his body.
A bit from Hart’s 2010 comedy special Seriously Funny is being passed around, in which Hart joked, “One of my biggest fears is my son growing up and being gay. That’s a fear. Keep in mind, I’m not homophobic. . . Be happy. Do what you want to do. But me, as a heterosexual male, if I can prevent my son from being gay, I will.” The special also included a skit, as Indiewire describes, in which Hart looked back at instances of his son exhibiting “homosexual tendencies” and shouted, “Stop, that’s gay!”
When asked about the offensive nature of the bit by Rolling Stone in 2015, Hart justified that the joke commented on his own insecurities and wasn’t meant to target the gay community.
Hart, however, has yet to comment on the revived anger over the jokes in the wake of his Oscars hiring, at least not overtly. Overnight, when social-media anger over his homophobic tweets was reaching a fever pitch, he did publish a series of tweets that could obliquely be interpreted as defensively addressing the controversy, though he does not mention anything directly.
“I was asked the most amazing question from my kids today on the phone....they said “Dad why don’t you get mad when people talk about you on the internet” ...my answer was “I never see that stuff because I’m to busy being happy & loving you 2,” he tweeted.
He added, “I then explained to them that it’s hard to know what angry things people are saying when you stay away from the places that angry people love. I said angry people love the internet... so use it only when necessary and spend the rest of ur time enjoying life.”
It’s nothing new for comedians to be asked to answer for past jokes of questionable taste that were made before their fame took off or, in many cases, before their own barometer for what is acceptable had evolved or matured. There’s still opportunity for Hart to express such a sentiment or explain himself—although he didn’t seem to grasp the severity of the content’s offense in that 2015 Rolling Stone interview—in which case, would that be enough?
In that interview, he said, “I wouldn’t tell that joke today, because when I said it, the times weren’t as sensitive as they are now. I think we love to make big deals out of things that aren’t necessarily big deals, because we can. These things become public spectacles. So why set yourself up for failure?”
It doesn’t seem as much an acknowledgement or understanding of why the joke is dangerous and inappropriate or an explanation of how his viewpoint has grown as much as it is an acknowledgment that people would get more upset about it in today’s day and age—as the current debate proves—and therefore not worth the risk.
Reactionary calls for an offender’s head is the normalized impulse in today’s culture, an instinct that is of debatable value and responsibility. Who knows whether any of this was on the Academy’s radar when they made the decision to hire Hart, if they are blindsided by this controversy or had weighed its severity and moved forward with him as host anyway.
There are plenty of people who won’t be satisfied by an apology in the name of saving face and keeping the gig, not when homophobic comedy is still so normalized that harmful humor is shrugged off and even encouraged all over pop culture, as we wrote about this week in reference to Saturday Night Live. Until there is some sort of liability for such content, how would it ever stop?
At the same time, it’s arguably unfair, to a degree, to hold people accountable today for mistakes made in the past. (Would any of us be immune from outrage over boneheaded jokes we’ve made when we were younger?) And it’s true that when public figures of color transgress, we arrive quicker with our pitchforks and are much less lenient than we would be with white performers.
The Academy can’t seem to free itself from the quicksand of bad press, with an onslaught of PR nightmares and backlash in recent years, from #OscarsSoWhite to the Moonlight snafu to the Best Popular Movie category. Now it’s in an impossible position again. Political correctness has never been a mandate for the awards telecast, but it’s also not exactly in the best interest of a TV show to actively alienate its most passionate audience.
Hiring Hart in the first place underscores the low priority culture places on combating homophobia. Hart’s anti-gay humor has hardly been a secret. Again, it’s unclear if the Academy had done its due diligence and learned this when it was considering Hart for the gig. If it had, that history surely would have popped up. But either way, the organization seems to have ruled that Hart’s box-office appeal and ratings potential is more important.
That’s why people are upset. It’s not so much anger, or even exasperation. It’s disappointment that, even now, we should hardly be surprised.