When Russell Simmons’s Def Comedy Jam premiered on HBO in 1992, it showed Americans a generation of talented black comedians that would have otherwise been relegated to obscurity. The weekly series launched the careers of stars, including Chris Tucker and Bernie Mac, and informed the template with which most aspiring black comedians developed their styles.
Unfortunately, as is the case in any commoditized art form, Def Comedy Jam and BET’s Comicview fueled the explosion of derivative comedy that focuses on superfluous vulgarity, raunchy sex humor, and the now mocked “how black people and white people are different” brand of observational comedy. Although many of these performers were emulations of Richard Pryor, who mastered the abovementioned devices of standup, the faintness of the more contemporary homages to Pryor led to the same marginalization that Def Comedy Jam fought against in mainstream entertainment.
However, the positive byproduct of the current black comedy landscape being filled with inadequate carbon copies of one of the greatest comedians to ever live is the high reward for being exceptional. And for no black comedian is this acclaim more telling than with Kevin Hart. Instead of following the “urban” comedy template that indicates a lack of dimension, Kevin Hart has capitalized on Pryor’s other hallmark: exposing his flaws as the bridge to his audience. His choice to make light of his vulnerability became apparent on a global level in the title of his last concert movie, Laugh At My Pain, but he built on the momentum of that approach in his latest feature, Let Me Explain.
With vivid illustrations of his failed marriage, his friendships, and his parenting, Hart places himself on the receiving end of his punchlines often enough to remind the audience that his humility has not been compromised by his fame. And even when using the age-old gender divide as his premise, Hart manages to depict commonly understood domestic tensions through a funny lens all his own.
Hart also adds value to the theatergoing experience—$13.25 for a movie that runs 72 minutes?!—by bookending his performance with documentary footage chronicling his tour leading up to his New York City performance at Madison Square Garden as well as a more cinematic featurette that pokes fun at the persona that being famous would create. But whether watching Hart shed tears at the enormity of his fans’ appreciation or play a Kanye West-like version of himself, the blend of both creates a depth that justifies why Kevin Hart is such a big star.
Breaking away from the traps of black comedy, Kevin Hart stands as the biggest crossover black comedian of this era. And it appears that staying true to the human experience without trading in his identity has been at the core of his success. In an age where finding a unique voice is as daunting as it is beneficial, Hart’s newest offering exemplifies how staying the course and remaining true to oneself (warts and all) can lead to benefits that words cannot describe.