When he first hosted Saturday Night Live back in 2013, Kevin Hart's episode was kind of a snooze. Something has happened since then, though: Hart has absolutely exploded in movies, with three starring roles in 2014 alone — all huge hits — not to mention an appearance in Chris Rock's Top Five alongside SNL cast members Leslie Jones, Michael Che, and Jay Pharoah. Now that Hart's stature as a movie star is nearly equal to his spot in the upper echelon of stand-up, there's an extra charge to his energy. He is electric and relentless. Like Louis C.K. and Rock, both of whom Hart can call peers, he uses his monologue as a chance to do stand-up. It's a perfect introduction to the breathless, Sherman's March–style showmanship Hart brings to every single sketch.
Although the material failed him somewhat in the second half of the show, Hart's performance never flagged, even in the face of a cringe-worthy technical glitch that would have tripped up so many others. (More on that later.) If you somehow haven't seen any of Hart's movies or his stand-up specials, this episode alone could serve as exhibits A through Z that he is a consummate pro who gets it done.
MLK Cold Open
As usual, the cold open is the most topical part of SNL, aside from Weekend Update. In a bit of a deviation, however, instead of getting explicitly political, tonight's opener uses the occasion of Martin Luther King Jr. Day to examine today's racial landscape altogether. The change pays off with one of the best cold opens in recent memory. Kenan Thompson plays MLK's ghost, appearing before a boy (Pete Davidson) who is trying to write a paper about him. The sketch gets a lot out of Kenan's MLK learning about things like hashtag activism and Macklemore — all with increasingly dismayed oratory gusto. The glaring Selma snub in this year's Oscar nominations is the most current event that comes into play, and it's a breath of fresh air not to see a political talk show parody remix the news at the top of the show.
Kevin Hart Monologue
As mentioned earlier, Kevin Hart is very good at stand-up comedy. He kills here with a bit about a raccoon, delivered while wearing the most leather of shirts imaginable.
Calvin Klein Ads
It's been a long week, and I almost forgot that it began with Justin Bieber's ridiculous Calvin Klein ads, the latest in his unconvincing quest to be taken seriously as an adult man. Do you know who definitely did not forget about these ads? SNL. When you've got a killer impression by Kate McKinnon in the repertoire, you don't keep it to yourself. In what turns out to be two short spots placed throughout the episode, McKinnon's Bieber vamps around in grayscale, next to and on top of an unimpressed model played by Cecily Strong. When he's not making prayer-hands or doing man-stuff with scooters and drums, this Bieber says what the Bieber on the billboard so desperately wants to say: "My Calvins: Clothes for my big weiner."
Why'd You Post That?
People who are bad at Instagram finally get the comeuppance they deserve. Well, in reality, weary friends ridicule these people behind their backs constantly, but it's nice to see them taken to task on a television show. Kevin Hart lives all Instagrammers' dreams of interrogating some of the people in his feed about why they posted what they posted. (Other people's dreams may not include a game show format.) At the top of the sketch, the glitch mentioned in the above intro occurs, the screen that is meant to display one of Vanessa Bayer's 'grams remains blank for maybe 15 seconds longer than it should. Hart addresses the issue in character and we're right back where we were, seamlessly. Although the premise ultimately over-makes its point, details like one of the characters having the handle "Trishdishsuperstar" and the weirdness of sending all contestants into a dungeon inside the wall as punishment for their Insta-crimes make this worth watching.
Bushwick, Brooklyn, 2015
This digital short's titular neighborhood represents many places in New York currently at the forefront of gentrification. Kevin Hart tells a story to Kenan and Jay Pharoah that gives all three a chance to casually reference some of the more epically dainty hipster stuff they've been getting into lately. (Hart went to an artisanal mayonnaise place called Martha's because he'd read on a food blog that "the garlic truffle is a must-try.") Even without the extreme turn at the end, this would have been a funny commentary about how living in New York right now is to live in transition.
Get On Up
James Brown is hallowed ground on SNL, thanks to Eddie Murphy's indelible impression; therefore, he might be considered off-limits to some. None of that matters, though, once Kevin Hart appears as james Brown in this ensemble sketch, my pick for best in show. Hart's Brown is 100 percent spot-on vocally, and he makes the character his own. In leading his band through the movie trailer standard "Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine," he goes way more granular than the real Brown in his stage banter with the rest of the band. The usually rhetorical questions about whether it's time to get even funkier now require a verbal commitment from each member of the band, who seem unsure of their leader. Nearly the entire cast is onstage for this one, and everybody looks amazing in their white pleated pants, as they refuse to give the King of Soul enough buy-in to take it to the bridge. Heyyyyy!
Soap Opera Reunion
One of the worst tragedies that can befall an SNL episode is when the best sketch of the night is followed by the worst. The momentum goes right out the window. In this case, the setup is that when the reunited cast of a soap opera appears on Aidy Bryant's talk show, the sound guy really has it in for one of the actors. It is a one-note joke, and that note is "fart sounds."
It was a short Weekend Update, with only one guest — Colin Jost's "neighbor" Mrs. Santini. Kate McKinnon's recurring character is a woman wearing a floral tablecloth as a vest, who makes animal skeletons when she's not sending passive-aggressive notes on napkins to neighbors. Aside from this appearance, Update was tight this week, with killer jokes about Bill Cosby and Mitt Romney, and another mini-rant from Che, which is starting to become a weekly tradition.
The bizarre musical comedy fairy tale Galavant has only been on TV for a couple of weeks, but apparently its ratings were high enough to merit a parody sketch, so here that is. Kevin Hart's character is upset when he delivers news to king Kenan that a dragon is heading toward the castle, and he is met with a song. The contrast of the king's court singing about their journey while Hart frantically packs for it is fun for a while, but the real winner here is the production design team, which whipped together ornate curtains, a fireplace, ivy-covered bricks, and of course an enormous dragon eye with moving lid.
We all know Jay Pharaoh can do impressions, but can he do one of Kevin Hart? Yes. Yes, he can. With Pharoah playing Hart's illegitimate son here, the two take turns trying to out-Kevin each other, with mostly amusing results. It's telling, though, that the last line of the sketch is "This is so nice. It's rather annoying, but … "
Speaking of annoying, any enjoyment of the show's final sketch hinges on the audience's threshold for hearing Kevin Hart scream the following words: "Pew, pew, pew, bop, bop, gunshot sounds." It happens three or four times during the course of this listening party for a bubbling rapper's forthcoming debut album. The idea of a rapper who tells all of his crew's secrets (tax evasion, herpes, etc.) in his songs has a lot of potential, but this doesn't seem like the optimum version of that sketch.
The cast and crew had several weeks off for winter break and delivered a mostly solid show, with a shakier second half, carried by Kevin Hart's energy and charisma. Next week's host is wild card Blake Shelton, so the writers won't have a proven comedic entity holding everything together. Here's hoping they recapture the spirit of that streak that led to so many top-shelf episodes last fall.