There are not many comics with the resources to put on a comedy special like Kevin Hart’s new Netflix special No F**ks Given. It is a mid-COVID stand-up special filmed indoors in Hart’s own home, on a stage built in his living room and in front of a small audience of masked and distanced observers. Its very existence is impressive and ostentatious. Hart can get a stage with his name on it built in his own home, and he has the kind of Netflix pull to film an hour-long special in front of an audience at a time when the liability costs alone are mind-boggling. Not to mention, Hart has the space in his living room to put on a whole comedy show. The sheer fact of No F**ks Given is its own elaborate form of a brag.
It’s also an elaborate, desperate display of neediness. For exactly the same reason that Hart can pull off a COVID-era comedy show in his own home and turn it into a Netflix special, he’s also the kind of celebrity who doesn’t have to do any of this. As he explains at the start, he and his family caught COVID months ago, but his potential immunity doesn’t make any of this cheaper or easier. His career will not tank if he takes a year off, and he’s achieved a level of fame and financial success that means he could easily have set aside stand-up — heck, he could’ve set aside everything — for as long as he wanted. And yet, here he is, standing in front of a fireplace and doing an hour of comedy for a small crowd, because something in him needs this.
Hart knows exactly how this all comes off: as a combination of anxiety and arrogance. He’s obsessed by it, worried about it, at once proud of what he’s accomplished and embarrassed by how much he wants everyone to think he’s great. He wants approval and wishes he didn’t want it so badly. He’s frustrated and confused about what it means to be a celebrity now, but he’s not blaming the audience — he’s just not exactly sure how this relationship works now. If this was all unconscious, the bragginess and the neediness on display in Zero F**ks Given could be wildly annoying. Instead, Hart makes those things the deliberate centerpiece, telling joke after joke about his weaknesses, his misapprehensions, the things he’s proud of, and how awkward it is to navigate between boasting and wanting to be loved.
This is not a special where a comedian stumbles past their neuroses, hoping no one notices. This is Hart taking those neuroses out one by one and putting them on a stage in his own living room for the world to examine. It’s deliberate, painstaking, and masterful.
There is an elephant in the (living) room, and it’s one Hart does not directly address. In 2018, Hart was invited to host the Oscars, a decision that drew a maelstrom of criticism because of Hart’s history of casually and cruelly homophobic material. After a series of inept non-apologies, Hart did eventually come across as contrite, but he quickly stepped back from the Oscars gig and has been trying to dig himself out of that hole ever since. It was such a messy, toxic situation (due to public outcry, yes, but fundamentally due to Hart’s horrible comments and his (nearly as bad) apology attempts) that the Oscars have gone hostless in the two years since.
He does not talk about it directly in this special. He never mentions the word “Oscars,” and he doesn’t even do a joke with an “everyone knows what I’m talking about, but I’m not going to say the words” kind of reference in it. What he does, though, is return over and over to jokes about fame and shame, about celebrity as living inside a surveillance state, and most fascinatingly, about thinking he understands something and then totally missing the mark. There’s a section near the beginning of the hour about how the nature of celebrity has changed, featuring a joke about Hart getting caught stuffing a cheeseburger into his face after having recently announced that he “was going plant-based full time.” The woman who catches him, a stranger, records a video of him sitting in his car eating the burger.
It’s an okay joke, with a punch line about apologizing to the “plant-based community” and a remorseful photoshoot next to cows. But Hart then takes it in a more interesting direction. “I don’t like what you guys have made me become,” he says. “I don’t like it. I’m no longer comfortable. You switched it on me! Fuck!” Celebrities used to be able to look at regular people as the weird ones, the odd mass of everyday life which they have managed to escape, Hart says. “You switched it on me, man! We’re the weird people now. You look at me, like, What the fuck is wrong with him?” It’s not about the Oscars specifically, but it is a more broadly applicable admission that this power dynamic is not what he once thought it was. It’s a joke about being newly uncomfortable in the world he built for himself. He doesn’t blame the audience, and he doesn’t regret the fame. He’s just not sure how to live with the discomfort, even as he admits he’s earned it. It’s not a stilted, scripted apology; it is maybe more interesting.
That’s not the only section that made me think about Hart wrestling with the past several years. There’s a joke about learning how to box and feeling sure he must be very good at it, only to get his ass handed to him and later learn he’d misunderstood his coach’s praise from the start. There’s a joke about worrying that his teenage daughter is a “ho,” a classic Hart-esque setup that in the past would’ve stayed in the realm of anxiety about her sex life. Here, Hart ends up sympathizing with her choices and makes himself look like an idiot for not getting it earlier. There’s material about his need to rub his success in his ex-wife’s face, and on its own it’s an unbearable gloat. Except that in the next breath, Hart tells a joke about his longing to succeed at something small outside of comedy and how funny but sad it is when he fails. Those jokes do not echo one another, but together they make up a fuller, more complicated picture than just “braggy celebrity who feels no remorse.”
I don’t know that Zero F**ks Given will change anyone’s opinion about Hart, especially if it’s been forged by the disaster of his Oscars response. But I went into this special assuming it would feel like Hart’s last one, a big stadium production with enormous energy and not enough insight. It doesn’t — it’s smaller, more intimate, and more subdued, and it occurred to me that a low-key production shot inside a living room translates beautifully into a filmed comedy special to watch on the sofa. Even better, though, this hour is so much more self-reflective, and so transparently honest about Hart’s relationship to his work.
That said, it still may not be honest enough for some of his audience, and I hope it’s not the end of his self-reflection. The special is executive produced by Dave Becky, one figure in the comedy world who (so far) has dodged any of the public reconsideration Hart seems to be trying to find for himself. There’s further to go, and more work to be done. I was impressed by Hart’s growth, though, and what a compelling show he puts on for this small crowd. He’s up there in his living room doing this because he craves it, and he’s proud of how good he is. At the same time, he wishes he did not need this quite so badly.