Review: Kevin Hart’s tepid new Netflix special will satisfy no one

Kevin Hart stands amid portraits of comedy predecessors, including Eddie Murphy.
Kevin Hart’s new Netflix special was shot in his L.A. home.
(Glen Wilson / Netflix)

The Netflix comedy special “Kevin Hart: Zero F— Given” came saddled with expectations that the controversial comedian would drop offensive jokes about women, the LGBTQ community or anyone else who proved an easy target in the comedy clubs of pre-”woke” America.

Cancel culturists were waiting to pounce. His loyal fans and supporters were ready to defend. The trailers for the comedy special, which was shot inside his Los Angeles home, played upon that anticipation. This performance, we were promised, would have “zero filter” and “zero apologies.”

“I’m no longer comfortable anywhere else but my house,” Hart says in the special, performing for a masked crowd in an intimate setting, dressed to resemble a comedy club. Hart, a Hollywood success who‘s used to playing huge venues, greets his audience like friends. “I’m in my ... comfort zone. I’m gonna let it fly today.”

Letting it fly, of course, is how Hart got in trouble in the first place.

Critics called for the motion picture academy to rescind its invitation for the comedian to host the 2019 Oscar ceremony after homophobic tweets Hart posted in 2011 resurfaced, and comments from his 2010 stand-up film, “Seriously Funny” (“As a heterosexual male, if I can prevent my son from being gay, I will”), were submitted to new scrutiny. When he declined to apologize in an Instagram post claiming that he had been pressured to do so by the academy, he was buried under a second wave of rebuke. Soon thereafter, he stepped down as host, writing, “I sincerely apologize to the LGBTQ community for my insensitive words from my past.”

Yet the hour-plus streaming special, which premieres Tuesday, doesn’t offer much grist for his critics — or his champions. Hart delivers a stand-up routine designed to avoid overtly bigoted and insulting material, and instead focuses on his own life, family, post-Oscar debacle and present-day COVID-19 state of mind. The show reveals a more subdued Hart who is clearly no longer willing to say anything for a laugh, meaning he really does give at least one or two f—.

But is it funny? Sort of, but what he discloses about his life in the special is often more memorable than the jokes themselves.

Kevin Hart in his new Netflix comedy special.
(Kevin Kwan / Netflix)

Hart has clearly been knocked back by — and perhaps even learned from — the blowback around that Oscars hosting gig. The usually frenetic and outspoken actor appears more guarded than hammy, more measured than hair-trigger, at least relative to the yelling, high-pitched, bouncing-off-the-walls approach he’d previously made part of his brand.

Hart even says he didn’t mind locking down at the start of the pandemic, since there was nothing he missed outside: “There’s people out there. I don’t like people. I said it. Cat’s out of the bag. I don’t f— like people anymore. You won. You beat me up ...”

He then turns the joke around to focus on his own paranoia. “You guys got me living my life like a successful drug dealer,” he says, claiming that he’s taken to making people who come to his house strip naked and get in the pool if they want to have a conversation. “How else would I know you’re not wearing a wire? ‘Who you with? E!? People? Who you with? Did you come here to do a story for the tabloids? I don’t trust you, Dad.’”

In a furious, unfunny 27-minute set posted to the Netflix Is a Joke YouTube page, Dave Chappelle traces a path from slavery to the death of George Floyd.

June 12, 2020

He also riffs about contracting COVID-19, or “the ‘VID,” as he calls it. He says harsh things about his kids for effect. He makes fun of himself for becoming a grumpy over-40 dude whose sex game is slipping.

The special kicks off with Hart hanging out with his very pregnant wife and three kids before heading down the stairs and through hallways of his huge home. He points to framed art of comedy greats like Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy and pours himself a drink at his sleek marble bar on his way to the stage.

A drink cart and fireplace near the stage gave the scene a certain cozy appeal, fitting the theme. Here, Hart could let it all out. Well, up to a point.

To wit, he recalls going to a pizza party at Jerry Seinfeld’s. “Italian chefs came out, passing out pieces and talking some Italian ...” Hart automatically begins disparagingly imitating a foreign language. Then he catches himself: “I realize what I’m saying is racist and I apologize.”

Kevin Hart

Where: Netflix

When: Any time, starting Tuesday