At age 32, Kevin Hart is one of the most popular and successful comics working today. His stand-up tours have been extremely profitable for years, he’s an NBA All-Star Weekend staple, he’s hosted awards shows, has carried movies on his back, and currently stars on the BET hit series Real Husbands of Hollywood. And for more proof of his stature in today’s comedy world, consider this: While in New York City this week, writing and rehearsing for Saturday Night Live (with musical guest Macklemore and Ryan Lewis), Kevin dropped by the Comedy Cellar to share the stage in an impromptu performance with legends Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle. As recently as Wednesday night, momentum was clearly on Kevin Hart’s side.
Until it wasn’t anymore.
Last night, Hart did very little to show that he ranks alongside Rock and Chappelle, starting with his monologue. Stand-up comedians on SNL usually open with their stand-up material – see most recently Louie C.K., in November – but strangely, Hart seemed out of his element. The bit felt very long, the jokes didn’t kill, and his transition into a part about his own SNL audition was far from seamless. In a pattern that would emerge throughout the night, Kevin seemed to let nerves get the best of him.
It’s too bad he didn’t get the chance to step out, even in a tiny role, during the cold open sketch, which turned out to be one of the best of the night. Based around this week’s spending sequestration news in Washington, Jay Pharoah as President Obama showcased workers who’d be affected by the cuts. The sketch, which involved nearly everyone in the cast, minus Kevin, had laugh-out-loud moments and very smart writing.
In one of the night’s more confusing sketches, Kevin dressed up as Quvenzhané Wallis, (the 9-year-old actress who starred in the critically heralded film "Beasts of the Southern Wild"), as she accepted her new position as Pope. Sure to be a viral sensation merely for the fact that it was Kevin Hart dressed as a third grader Oscar nominee, Kevin had just two lines, and they were in butchered Latin.
And even when Kevin was speaking English, it was a struggle. Bobby Moynihan and Cecily Strong returned as the obnoxious employees Niff and Dana, who, convinced that they’re about to be fired, open up the floodgates on the horrible feelings they have for all of their co-workers. Again, it was a great vehicle for the whole cast – reactions from the weirdo characters played by Taran Killam, Kenan Thompson, Jason Sudeikis, and Bill Hader were classic – but it felt like Kevin, as the store manager, was off on his own. Even more unfortunate was during the sketch’s dénouement, when Hart’s nerves got the best of him; he broke and began to laugh.
Weekend Update, which featured a satisfying visit from Dennis Rodman (Jay Pharoah) and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (Bobby Moynihan), offered Kevin a great place to show off his wit and attitude, on the Update favorite "Really ?!?" But he dropped the ball. Playing Amy Poehler to Seth Meyers’ Seth Meyers, Kevin wasn’t able to nail the one-liners dedicated to the fight over the Voting Rights Act. At one point, when Kevin stumbled over his words, he verbally admonished himself, as if he could feel the opportunity slipping away.
The night also featured so-so pieces dedicated to the ABC reality series Shark Tank, and AMC's zombie serial The Walking Dead, but Kevin didn’t hit his stride until around three-quarters of the way through the show. Hart’s turn as a commercial voiceover artist was very funny, especially when put alongside his competition for the role, Vanessa Bayer. For all their differences – one black, one white; one male, one female; one loud and brash, the other Midwestern and homely – the advertising executives (Fred Armisen and Bill Hader) saw it as a perplexingly close race, and it totally worked.
Very high expectations for the episode played just as big a role as any cast member Saturday night. Sadly, that didn’t help Kevin or the viewers at home. So in the end, perhaps Kevin Hart is like Chris Rock . . . in the respect that he needs to step away from Saturday Night Live so he could really be himself.
Last Week's Recap: 'SNL' Host Christoph Waltz Plays 'Djesus Uncrossed' in Tarantino Spoof