What does a stand-up comedian do when a global pandemic hits and you can no longer reach the audiences whose laughter you've become dependent on over the years? You bring the audience to you, of course.
In his sixth and latest Netflix comedy special Zero F**ks Given, Kevin Hart performs in his own living room to a socially distant, mask-wearing audience of less than 50. I say living room, but obviously for the purposes of the special it's been decked out and transformed into a cosy comedy club with a fancy stage.
It's a very cool idea, adding to the list of the various innovative things being done in stand-up this year. We've seen virtual Zoom shows, Dave Chappelle performing daily outdoor shows in his hometown, and HBO's upcoming series Colin Quinn & Friends: A Parking Lot Comedy Show, which sees comics perform in a parking lot with audiences in their cars honking instead of laughing.
Hart is one of the biggest names in comedy. He's broken records in selling out stadiums and arenas worldwide and it's admittedly strange to see him perform to such a small crowd (his last Netflix special Irresponsible was filmed at London's o2 Arena to a crowd of over 15,000 people). 'It's the first time I've been this intimate with a crowd…This feels right to me. I've been in a lot of different spaces, arenas, stadiums to tell jokes. This right now feels right, in the comfort of my own fucking home,' he says during the opening of the special.
Unlike many other top comics like Chris Rock, Bill Burr or Dave Chappelle, Hart's comedy isn't known for its edginess, political statements or commentary on real world issues. He mines humour from his life as a parent and husband to dish out massive laughs – something we could bloody well use right now. It's fair to say then, that what you're hoping for from a special like this is something that captures this incredibly weird moment in time, sure, but more importantly delivers big just big, embarrassing hilarity in true Kevin Hart style. But Zero F**ks Given only really delivers that in moments.
This special feels like watching a comedian who misses his audience and has a lot he wants to get off his chest. As if this was more for him than for us. Hart constantly presents the show as an experience of him sharing personal things and creating something that feels real and intimate with his small audience. And that may well have been the case for the lucky few in his living room, but for the rest of us watching it on Netflix, that just doesn't translate.
The 70-minute set opens with Hart breaking down life in lockdown, from buying masks to hoarding toilet paper, to his own experience of contracting COVID and choosing not to announce it because Tom Hanks stole his thunder. He also briefly touches on the burden of celebrity in 2020 and why fame has lost its charm in the age of online apologies and cancel culture, where people are raring to call you out (he famously lost the prestigious Oscar hosting gig last year as a result of old controversial Tweets that resurfaced and led to outrage). 'I don't like what you guys have made me become…for the longest time we celebrities looked at normal people as the weird people, but we're the weird people now', he observes.
There are a few big laughs, like a bit about navigating his teenage daughter's dating life, and having to issue a formal apology to the plant-based community after being caught on video eating a Big Mac. The one that broke me was his lengthy, colourful description of what an all-male group chat of friends over 40 looks like and why 'it's just random unfocused conversation'.
For the most part, Zero F**ks Given is focused on his rants about life after 40 and the freedom of no longer giving a shit, alongside his favourite topics of being a parent and husband. There are a few big laughs, like a bit about navigating his teenage daughter's dating life, and having to issue a formal apology to the plant-based community after being caught on video eating a Big Mac. The one that broke me was his lengthy, colourful description of what an all-male group chat of friends over 40 looks like and why 'it's just random unfocused conversation'.
What's interesting about stand-up this year is how raw and unrefined the material has been. Right now comics don't have access to the machinery of being able to hit gigs every night for months to refine, hone and fine-tune their material, and that lends a certain charm and honesty to what they're putting out. Perhaps that's why so much of this special feels like a series of underdeveloped bits.
In the end, Zero F**ks Given left me feeling frequently impatient for the next big laugh. Over his 70-minute set Hart frequently cracks up in the midst of telling his own jokes. I just wish I did too.