Monday, March 4th, 2013

'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.


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  • ianrey

    Gotta say, "IS IT A W SHIRT?!" was the biggest laugh of the season for me. The unexpected juxtaposition of the callback was perfect, but I agree with you, there was no need to drag it out after that huge punchline.

  • Jarod

    Can we talk about the biggest event of SNL from Saturday night? Whatever that weird/awesome Daft Punk teaser was?

  • carson1

    While I thought the Walking Dead sketch was executed better than most people did, I'm basically on board with you on this one. Kevin Hart was terrific and loose and a lot of fun and by and large the sketches worked for me.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jeff-Mclachlan/747758431 Jeff Mclachlan

    I don't know why, but the funniest thing for me this episode was the way Vanessa Bayer ended every other sentence with that little "eh?" in the dove chocolate sketch.

    • eavoss

      Bayer's great about subtle ticks in her delivery. Re: her Bar Mitzvah comedian character and her Swarvoski Crystals commercial.

  • Gibby

    Steve Harvey sketch was the funniest one of the night. Also the Starbucks commercial was hilarious

  • teresa raczej

    Trying too hard, this poor guy, Kevin. Not funny, that's all.

  • Marie

    I enjoyed this episode and appreciated Kevin Hart, but god damn Shark Tank was one of the worst sketches I remember seeing this season.

  • http://twitter.com/ravenstarrevans Raven Starr

    Was that Bieber for tips joke sarcasm or an honest opinion?

    • eavoss

      Gah, I forgot to hold down the Sarcasm Lock key while I typed that. My bad.

  • theBULL

    I was hoping the News 360 sketch would be he snaps his neck during the broadcast, instead of starting off already with a neck brace.

  • HardAsIs

    Here's what this episode taught me: This is a really strong, really funny ensemble cast. I was delighted to see several sketches that featured almost everyone (The cold open was the best so far this year, I think). Also, I was glad to see the return of the two fired employees, though I agree they were definitely harsher this time around.

    My point is, Kevin Hart was not great. I appreciate his energy, and he was clearly very excited to be there, but even playing straight man in some sketches, he could barely pull it off (as evidenced in the "Really?!", which was still solid, and the B&N sketch). The nice thing was, this really fantastic group picked up the slack. This isn't a "Dana Carvey, Mike Myers, and the rest" kind of cast. There's vets and new people and everyone is really talented.

    Hart's best bit was Z shirt, I agree. The stylization was perfect and his energy was a perfect fit.

    I loved the Walking Dead bit ("I'm totally ok killing him because I'm 12 now"), but I was disappointed they chose to do the race thing. AGAIN. I know it's been discussed before, but why when a black host is on do they need to do more race material, or more specifically, more race material that has been done before?

    The funniest thing about the Steve Harvey sketch was when the horse came on, Kenan saying "now, this is a stuffed horseholdon!" He has such a great mug for that.

    And yea, no idea what happened with Shark Tank. That was mercifully short, but still seemed to end before it was over. Like this post.

    • eavoss

      Most hosts lack the precision and timing that mark great hosts, so in the absence of that, all we need the host to do is to put his back into it and look like he's enjoying himself. Hart reminded me of Bruno Mars from earlier this season… not perfect, but pretty fun to watch.

      And yeah, I guess we'll just have to get used to the black host = black jokes pattern on SNL. That, or keep calling it out until it stops.

      • HardAsIs

        You're right (said no internet commenter ever). I'll admit, I was not a huge Bruno Mars fan going in, but he did give it a good try. I especially liked his Hawaiian in the Underunderground Records. Bieber was an abomination. So you're right, I'll give that to Kevin Hart. Good energy, glad to be there, having fun.

  • http://twitter.com/pinchthatpenny Bryan

    I didn't know who he was prior to the episode, but I agree, he was pretty darn funny. I actually laughed out loud a couple of times during the opening monologue, I think because it felt so alive. I can't remember the last time I laughed out load during a monologue. Maybe I was just overjoyed that it wasn't another lousy song.

    • eavoss

      There was a certain congeniality to Hart's monologue that I enjoyed, though on pure laughs alone, I still gotta hand it to Louis CK's awesome story about the old lady in the airport.

  • http://twitter.com/FirasAlexander Firas Alexander

    360 News was my favorite sketch. Didn't have an opinion on Kevin Hart one way or the other before the episode started but now I can say that I like the guy quite a bit. He was a game host and fit in with the cast really well. They looked like they were having a good time too.

  • David Pulsipher

    absolutely Jeff – loved that.

  • David Pulsipher

    Erik – I think you are off on the Barnes and Noble sketch as a hit. The energy is wrong, and they don't deliver anything really clever – just being mean. Regrettably, the only funny parts of the sketch didn't involve Bobby and Cecily's (caustic) performance – Taran's weird stare guy and as you mentioned, Tim's "Carl.". That bit was tired the first time, and even worse the second. This is not Bobby's strong suit, reminds me of the weird rasta/lisp waiter he did back in his early days that fell flat.

    Z-shirt was amazing, and Dove could've been better if Hart had used something other than "full volume" to carry the sketch.

    • HardAsIs

      I agree about the Dove. He just went for the "loud black guy" voice. I think if he would have maybe tried to mimic Vanessa Bayer, it would have hit better. But there I go rewriting sketches from my armchair.

  • Trammel

    I thought the episode was average at best. It seemed Kevin had a hard time with the cue cards, and was reading a bit too much. Is this the first time a skit was re-aired?

    • eavoss

      Re-airing commercial videos is actually pretty common, unfortunately. I can understand if it happens toward the end of the broadcast, in replacement of a sketch that was too long and needed to be cut, or some other logistic reason. But re-airing a sketch in the first half hour just seems lazy.

  • http://twitter.com/mikead Michael Dearie

    One thing about the 90's Funeral I'm surprised nobody's mentioned: I can't think of or find a single instance of SNL using callback humor outside of this one.

    Anybody else?

    • eavoss

      You're right. Runners have been increasingly common, but a twist character callback is incredibly rare these days. I've been trying to think of other cases where it has happened. The only ones that come to mind at the moment: Paul Brittain had a James Franco segment during Weekend Update, then came back a few minutes later — again as James Franco — to do a separate bit with Seth; and a gag in the early years of SNL when host Buck Henry injured his head when Belushi hit him with a samurai sword during a live broadcast, and for the rest of the night various castmembers started appearing on camera with head bandages to match Henry's. But that was more of a organic running gag than a specific character callback.

    • http://twitter.com/milwaukeedude20 MilwaukeeDude20

      I thought the same thing. Felt very Second City-y to me. Hope to see more of that.

    • http://twitter.com/rachelereynolds Rachel Reynoldz

      They did sort of the same thing when Jon Hamm hosted once. They had a commercial for the Closet Organizer (Will Forte) and later Jon Hamm's character recognizes him at a bar while he's out of costume.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jasper.johns.7 Jasper Johns

    I thought he blew to be honest.

  • http://www.facebook.com/nathalie.galde Nathalie Galde

    I agree with everything in this article.

  • http://www.facebook.com/teaflax John Thelin

    Wow, really? I came here expecting an evisceration. I thought this was the worst SNL episode I've seen in years and Kevin Hart was godawful throughout. Apart from some bits in Weekend Update and parts of the Barnes & Noble skit (which was still weaker than the McDonald's original) almost nothing even made me smile in this one. I guess I'm in the minority on this one (although at least my wife agreed, and we're rarely on the same page when it comes to comedy).

    • eavoss

      I disagree of course, but it may be comforting to know that this episode evoked a divisive response, with as many people who tolerated it as who despised it — at least, from what I've gathered from a number of reviews.

      You liked the Jennifer Lawrence episode better than this one?

      • http://www.facebook.com/teaflax John Thelin

        Yeah. That was just lacklustre, while I found this episode almost aggressively bad in spots.

        The cold open wasn't quite as bad as the one with the Petreus/50 Shades mashup from last season, as at least it had a few funny lines (or delivery of lines, if nothing else), but the entire Steve Harvey sketch was just pointless, as were The Walking Dead and Shark Tank ones. New Pope had one or two funny lines from Sudeikis. Eh.

        I'm sure at least part of it comes down to the fact that I'm just not a fan of Kevin Hart's delivery. High-energy is fine, as far as it goes, but to me it feels like his energy is compensating for a lack of most everything else, including timing.

        Having seen the following JT episode, I really got the feeling that the better sketch ideas were held back for that, but I'm pretty sure that's not how anyone works in the pressure-cooker environment of that show.