In his latest Netflix special Irresponsible, Kevin Hart has two modes. They look alike on the surface because Hart brings the same intense, physical, ebullient energy to everything, pulling the audience from one story to the next with a rushing-forward pace that rarely stops for a breath. But underneath the energy, there are some jokes that swerve toward the personal, toward vulnerability, that feel tapped into something raw. And there are some that feel like Hart took a pass.
The set begins with Hart introducing the title: “The name is Irresponsible for a lot of reasons — we’ll get into all those reasons as the show goes on,” he begins. The special was filmed months before Hart’s disastrous Oscars situation, in which he accepted the hosting gig and then walked away after public uproar over his history of homophobic jokes. In spite of the seeming relevance of this special’s material, Hart’s introspection here is largely focused on his relationship with his family, and he also seems reluctant to linger on any moment of big revelation. “I don’t really like to waste time,” he says. “I feel like while I’m out here, let’s just get to the shit.” He launches into a story about how his kids caught him and his wife having sex that quickly builds into a very funny little sequence about different sex positions and how you can play them off as something else if your kids interrupt you.
It’s a strong opening, and it’s a demonstration of the most effective things about Irresponsible. It lets Hart play around with his antsy, persuasive physical performance and the theater-in-the-round setting for the special, a square stage surrounded by the audience on all sides. Hart takes the premise — how to disguise various sex positions as other innocuous parental activities — through its paces, illustrating several options and acting out the possibilities, his face straining and contorting as he imagines trying to have a misdirecting conversation with his children while still mid-thrust.
That opening bit also works because it lets Hart place himself in a relative position of vulnerability. Onstage, he’s the one in control: He’s framing the story, he’s playing himself, and he’s carefully adjusting the pacing and goofiness of each imagined incident. But the core idea of the joke is Hart naked, caught in a supremely revealing and unguarded position. He is on display at a moment when he did not intend to be. There’s a slightly different version of the same idea later in a bit about how he put a mirror above his bed and caught a glimpse of his own dirty, bare feet while having sex with his wife (“I didn’t wear shoes today? Jesus Christ!”). And then another one, about how Hart, a short guy, feels wounded by his wife’s porn search history, which shows her looking for bigness.
They are jokes about his insecurity. It’s something that feels implicit in the setups that put him in a position of defenselessness, and it briefly becomes explicit when he makes the connection to recent events in his life. He was caught cheating on his wife — he behaved irresponsibly — and Hart’s material about his family and his sex life are all looped in through how committed he is to saving his marriage and how it’s made him feel insecure as a result. Because he spends his life now trying to reassure his wife and make her feel safe, he feels less safe. His footing is less sure.
Most of the first half of the special flows pretty seamlessly through that idea, twisting through a digression into when Hart’s daughter first gets her period that feels cringingly awkward. But it fits nicely into the broader theme: Hart means well, sometimes makes mistakes, sometimes acts irresponsibly, and often ends up looking like a fool.
But through the second half of Hart’s set, things start to fray a bit. There’s a sequence about a trip that Hart took to Japan that shuffles quickly through several bits — one about a roller coaster, something about his seafood allergy, some mimicry, some language-barrier stuff — that totally fails to coalesce into anything bigger than the sum of its incomplete parts. The final closing chunk, about a family ski trip to Aspen, tries to perform that “pull the thread from other jokes through the closing act of a set” gambit. The unmotivated setup of the whole premise, which sees Hart trying to compete against the singer Seal for reasons he never really exploits, undermines the whole thing: The callbacks are cute, but the joke itself isn’t substantial enough to support them.
Hart’s opening line from the very beginning of Irresponsible is also a demonstration of one of the most frustrating things about the set. In its strongest moments, the idea of him as irresponsible and the themes he relates to that idea stand on their own. But right after Hart introduces the idea of irresponsibility, he continues with “I don’t really like to waste time” and “Let’s just get to the shit.” It’s not a bad idea, especially as a way to combat the slow momentum drain that can inevitably happen as an audience watches a single person hold their attention for a full hour. And Hart carries it with his infectious energy. As he leaps and pounces and mimics everything from being an old guy trying to fold up a stroller to an action hero trying to stop a home invasion, you can forget how quickly he rushes you from thing to thing. But once you notice — once you feel how relentlessly he cuts every joke off before it gets to the place you feel like it should lead — it’s hard to feel satisfied.
A joke about how his dogs behaved when his house was robbed, another bit that pulls from well-reported recent events in his life, never touches on Hart’s feelings about the robbery or even explains the event with any detail. The sex-positions joke from the beginning of the set plays through several imagined scenarios but never loops back to the beginning premise of what happened when his children actually did walk in on him. The joke about his daughter’s first period transitions abruptly from him throwing a maxi pad in her face like it’s a grenade to how grateful he is that his children don’t add stress to his life. It’s a strategy that feels designed to keep the audience from ever catching its breath, but once frozen on camera and viewed as a comedy special, divorced from the dynamics of the live room, it makes everything feel clipped and unfinished.
In all, Hart’s Irresponsible has some solidly hilarious moments, and his unquestioning mastery as a performer is an undeniable pull. But often, the experience of watching the special feels like Hart’s bit about the roller coaster in Japan, where Hart braces in terror because he thinks his harness isn’t fastened, only to discover once it starts moving that he’s not even on the roller coaster; it’s just a gentle tram transporting him to the entrance of the actual ride. It’s funny! But it leaves you a little annoyed that you never got to the part where you and Hart get to ride the coaster for real.