‘SNL’ Review: Kevin Hart Gets an ‘A’ for Effort

When it was announced two weeks ago that comedian Kevin Hart would host SNL, an odd debate sprung up online over whether Hart was “qualified”  (i.e., “famous enough”) for the gig. Hart has certainly had a huge year, with his film Think Like A Man and comedy album Laugh At My Pain both raking in millions, and his SNL episode received higher ratings than Oscar-winner Christoph Waltz’s two weeks ago. Regardless, it’s not for us to decide whether or not someone is famous enough to host — only whether or not his talents make him a good fit for the show.

Yes, Hart did occasionally stumble over lines and plow through most sketches with a high-octane, mile-a-minute delivery. But considering he never lost his cool (even during some flatlining bits) and gave every sketch his all, he still came across as a likable, gracious, and often funny host. Hart gave the performance of a comedian who knew he had a lot to prove, and, for better or worse, he left it all out on stage. Of course, he couldn’t save a hit-or-miss lineup of promising yet unsatisfying sketches, and the obligatory-black-host racial humor bugged me a little, but there was enough to like in this episode to give Kevin Hart the credit he deserves.

What Hit:

Budget Sequester Cold Open. SNL wisely repeated the full-cast press conference format from last episode’s opener in this cold open about the real-world consequences of the looming budget sequester. The spotlight was fixed less on Jay Pharoah’s Obama impression as on the government workers explaining the new cuts – border security allowing every 10th Mexican to cross the border, astronauts without glass in their helmets, zookeepers forced to sell horses for meat. I was impressed that every joke hit here, especially Aidy Bryant as the thrilled inner city school teacher: “Good luck reading Beowulf, you monsters!”

Monologue. I could have done without Hart’s story about his SNL audition and his De Niro impression, but I enjoyed the urban hypochondriac humor in his anecdote about the homeless man at Panera. Some might see his breakneck pace as nervous or impatient, but I was won over by the burst of energy he brought into every segment.

Situation Room III: A New Pope. These Situation Room sketches have taken on less of a direct parody structure and served more as a vehicle to mock current events – in this case, the retirement of Pope Benedict the XVI and the buzz around 9-year-old Oscar nominee Quvenzhané Wallis. The twist with Wallis was brilliant, and I’m thankful the sketch didn’t linger too long after that, making a few quick jokes about the actress’ undeniable cuteness before a classic Vatican-molestation out.

Barnes & Noble Firing II. After previously burning bridges at McDonalds, Bobby Moynihan and Cecily Strong’s rude ranters now took to task the staff at a Barnes & Noble. Their tone and obsession with the word “bitch” felt a little too mean-spirited at times, and their coworkers’ quirks somewhat hit-or-miss, but the elaborate lengths they go to put down every person is still fun to watch: “I’m calling it. Time of bitch: bitch-thirty PM, January bitch-teenth, two-thousand-and-bitch.” Tim Robinson had a particularly good episode, cracking up Kevin Hart as the bumbling scapegoat Carl.

Weekend Update. Seth Meyers killed it this week, with especially great jokes about Girls Gone Wild holding their shirts at half-mast, White Trash Clue, and the Fresh Prince of Downton Abbey. The segment was relatively light on new characters, other than a brief appearance by new best friends Dennis Rodman and Kim Jong-Un (Jay Pharoah and Bobby Moynihan), who got some big laughs comparing themselves to Winnie the Pooh and Tigger (yes, Tigger) and jumping into their backpack Jedi training. Kevin Hart joined Meyers in a solid Really?!? segment about the Supreme Court’s doubts about the Civil Rights act. Hart misread the cue card at one point but recovered nicely when he got to the joke: “Nothing’s more racist than having one black friend.”

Z-Shirt. The strongest piece of the night catered to Hart’s lid-blowing energy – a 90s-hip commercial for a children’s clothing line that hits an awkward wall. It’s a simple flat joke but it’s executed perfectly.

The gag returned in a later sketch, and while I loved the callback, I would have preferred it to blackout the moment Hart jumped back out with “Is it a W-shirt?!”

Dove Chocolate Recording Session. I remain a little on the fence about this sketch’s borderline exploitation of Kevin Hart’s race – the joke essentially being how awkward a loud black guy sounds doing commercial for Dove chocolate, a product marketed to white women. In that sense, it echoed the famous Chris Farley Chippendales sketch, but instead of an audition blind to obesity, it’s an audition blind to race. I still enjoyed the sketch though, largely because of Hart’s straight-manning and Vanessa Bayer’s character.

What Missed:

Steve Harvey II. I actually don’t mind Kenan Thompson’s Steve Harvey impression that much, but the talk show format is an uncomfortable fit and doesn’t do Thompson any favors considering how despised he is for relying on it. I was surprised the lineup led with a sketch that ran for so long on Hart’s character’s fear of horses. The sketch had one solid joke, though, with Thompson apologizing to the audience member who caught on fire.

Walking Dead. I was excited as anybody to see SNL finally do a Walking Dead parody, but the somewhat clever premise – a recently-infected black guy uses the race card to shame Rick and co. for excluding him – got too bogged down in slapstick dramatic irony and trying not to be racist that it never got around to making any memorable jokes.

Shark Tank. The weakest sketch of the night was this parody of the business pitch TV show, in which Hart played a desperate idiot pitching sunglasses for lamps. The premise wasn’t very clear and the pacing felt completely off.

360 News. I rather enjoyed this quick reveal of a speedy news anchor who whips his head between dozens of camera angles, just to have the anchor stuck in a painful neck brace. Unfortunately, the joke was over once we saw Hart struggle through the first few cut-tos, but the sketch dragged on for another two minutes.

Note: The Starbucks Verismo commercial was re-aired from the Jennifer Lawrence episode, and I don’t have anything new to say about it other than I’m disappointed the show felt the need to air another sketch with racial undertones in an episode with a black host.

Whether you watched this episode as a devoted fan of Kevin Hart, or, like me, you were less familiar with his work, you must admit he still gave a much better performance than most of the abysmal A-listers who have hosted this season. Compared to hosts like Daniel Craig or Justin Bieber, Hart didn’t have the luxury of a massive body of work or a worldwide reputation to help viewers contextualize his appearance on SNL, but he still took care of business. On the other hand, perhaps being slightly under the radar allowed Hart to overcome not-as-high expectations. While not a knockout episode, it was nevertheless a win for Hart, who made a strong impression and likely added to his already massive fan base.

What did you think? Did Kevin Hart earn his hosting gig, or should he have been wait-listed like other comedians Louis CK and Zach Galifianakis? Did Hart’s performance silence the haters or add fuel to the fire? Did you find his pacing and enthusiasm distracting, or did Hart’s energy compensate for lackluster material? Should the one poor soul who first typed Quvenzhané Wallis’ name in a blog receive royalties for the number of times it has likely been copied and pasted into articles like this one?

I’ll see you next week, when Justin Timberlake will return in his dual role as host and musical guest. I hope he calls Bieber for tips.

Erik Voss is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. He hosts the Evil Blond Kid podcast and performs improv on the Harold team The Cartel at the iO West Theater.

‘SNL’ Review: Kevin Hart Gets an ‘A’ for Effort