When Richard Pryor had a film crew shoot his stand-up act at the end of his 1978-’79 tour, he was taking a calculated risk. To that point, no one had really tried to turn a stand-up performance into a theatrical feature; there was a posthumously-released Lenny Bruce film (but it was a simple affair, shot predominately to serve as an “exhibit” in one of his obscenity trials), and HBO had begun airing hour-long comedy specials from the likes of George Carlin and Robert Klein. But whether moviegoers wanted to spend ticket money on a comedy performance was an open question – answered when Richard Pryor Live in Concert was a critical and commercial success, prompting two follow-ups in the ensuing years, Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip and Richard Pryor: Here and Now. (He also began a trend of theatrically released, live-in-concert movies, a tradition mostly filled by other African-American comics – Bill Cosby, Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence, the Kings of Comedy – for reasons we can discuss another day.)
Before, in between, and especially after that trilogy, Pryor made many other films, and precious few of them were any good. His was a special talent, merging social commentary, physical comedy, piercing insight, and boundless charisma, and the (mostly white) filmmakers he worked with seemed to have trouble crafting projects that could properly capture those qualities. The only movies that really got him were the concert films, where he was the writer and sole performer (and often, credited or not, the director as well). He could only really shine when he could be, inarguably, himself.
All of which is a long way of getting around to saying that while Kevin Hart is not quite the talent Pryor was (this is not a slam; I don’t think he’d argue), the similarities of their dilemma become clear while watching Kevin Hart: What Now?, his third theatrically released stand-up feature, following 2011’s Laugh at My Pain and 2013’s Let Me Explain. The narrative films Hart’s made in between aren’t all terrible; Central Intelligence is charming, and About Last Night has its moments. But between Get Hard, The Wedding Ringer, the Think Like a Man movies, and the Ride Along movies, it’s hard to say his is a name that inspires a great deal of confidence on a marquee.
But What Now is consistently funny, at times explosively so. It doesn’t really start that way; one of the traditions of stand-up comedy specials on television is the inclusion of an unnecessary and usually painful “sketch” before they take the microphone, and Hart obliges with a James Bond take-off. It’s kind of like a big SNL piece, in that it’s about twice as long as it should be and full of head-scratching cameos, but it does have some laughs (his failed attempts to count chips at the poker table provoke some funny back-and-forth, and a moment of him doing pre-fight math in his head works as an accidental parody of The Accountant), and reminds us that Halle Berry is an unmined comic resource. And they do go all the way with the parody; the torch-song animated opening credits are barely separable from the real thing.
Once that business is out of the way, it’s off to Philadelphia’s Lincoln Field, which Hart sold out – all 53,000 seats – just over a year ago. He’s not quite on his game at first; his stories about his big house and his animal problems there aren’t the most relatable material (though, to be fair, Live in Concert features long riff about the horses and monkeys that populated the Pryor estate). But once he gets a rhythm going, and gets the audience tuned in to it, it’s hard not to get swept up.
Some of the bits go on too long, and some of the assumptions about men and women are modestly retrograde, though no more than most comics. But there is some very funny stuff here, about his embarrassing father, how private school educations are giving him kids who lack “edge” (there’s some fascinating subtextual stuff happening here about class and race), his new-ish relationship, changing with age, and some very candid material about sex.
“I’ll tell the truth, I don’t give a shit,” he shrugs, before going into a particularly confessional bit about his sexual shortcomings; such asides pop up frequently, lines like, “I know it’s wrong, but I said it” and “Y’all can think I’m an asshole all you want, this is how I think!” It creates an intimacy, even in a venue so large it can barely be dubbed a venue, and this is the key link he shares with Pryor. There’s that, and an openness about his own vulnerability, both in his bed and in his life, that makes him stand apart from, say, a strutting peacock like Raw-era Eddie Murphy. Couple that with his clear sincerity about his debt to his fans (“I appreciate you so goddamn much,” he tells them in his encore, teary-eyed), and their loyalty is more than understandable.
Hart’s troubles finding a “real” movie worth his and our time, like Pryor’s, are hard to lay directly at his feet; even actors who consistently delivered such robust returns-on-investment face the typical trouble finding quality material, thanks to any number of factors (delusions about overseas box office, shortages of black writers and directors crafting quality roles for black actors, etc.) But as long as he’s still got access to a microphone and something to say, he’ll be just fine – and if Pryor’s example is any indication, those are the films that will live on anyway.
Kevin Hart: What Now? is out today.