In the intro to Laugh At My Pain, Kevin Hart and his friends and business associates pray together, then gather around, chanting, “Everybody wants to be famous, but nobody want to put the work in.” The chip on his shoulder is totally justified. Before he was scoring high-profile cameos in Modern Family and Fockers sequels and before he was a popular enough standup to cut a direct distribution deal with AMC theaters for his new special (Pain first played exclusively in a limited but lucrative run last fall), he was another catch-as-catch-can comedian and “That Guy” actor.
On the commentary track for an episode of the Judd Apatow cult hit Undeclared, star/writer Seth Rogen discussed Hart guest-starring as a religious student. Rogen detailed giving him advice on delivering a line, then burst into the note-perfect Hart imitation he used to get the reading right. Rogen noted, “You can do an impression of him to his face. He doesn’t mind.” Long before he carved out a name for himself, Hart had a distinctive style and cadence that combined live-wire energy with pensive apprehension. And he was humble. These two attributes have served him well.
Comedy Central’s edited-for-TV version of Pain is a fine showcase for Hart’s physical comedy gifts. One won’t soon forget the sight of him using a microphone cord to impersonate his crackhead father’s free-range penis, and a set piece utilizing the microphone and a stool to demonstrate the important of a headboard to a man’s sexual performance is an impressive display of his inventive mimicry and precise timing. Hart’s dumbfounded face is a thing of beauty, his paralyzed mouth open but not slack-jawed, his eyes simultaneously wide-open and dazed, his posture frozen. Hart has a skill for shifting from macho swagger to paralyzing terror at a moment’s notice, as when a SpongeBob SquarePants children’s-birthday entertainer threatens him with violence, or when a woman unexpectedly ups the ante on Hart’s dirty talk.
Pain is the culmination of a process Hart began with 2009 special I’m A Grown Little Man. After a few years of sometimes relying solely on his off-center, manic energy to score jokes (Hart often brings to mind a nerdier version of clear influence Chris Tucker), Hart the comedy writer is now delivering material worthy of Hart the performer. Pain starts with a solemn static shot of Hart looking pensive and “serious” that the performer quickly mocks. He makes his entrance via a ridiculous tube that rises from the ground, and as soon as the smoke and triumphant music fades, he immediately makes fun of the over-the-top bravado in which he just indulged.
Hart has of late zeroed in on a theme that works for him: lampooning and undercutting the alpha-male swagger and you-can-have-it-all materialistic celebration of the modern baller. Stressing the importance of staying “in your financial lane,” he tells an embarrassing story about hanging out with NBA player Dwyane Wade in Las Vegas, being too proud to let his friend pick up the tab for a night of Bottle Service and paying his own way. (“You ever get a bill so high you put it in the light like it’s going to change?”) The next morning he is horrified when Wade insists they do it all over again. Hart quickly shifts from a cocky rising star with cool friends to an exceedingly dorky family man earnestly explaining how he won’t be able to transfer money from his savings account to checking account fast enough to ball again: “It’s going to take three business days.” The transition from stud to square is all the funnier for its whiplash-inducing speed. And it’s worth noting that actually using people like Wade as material for humorous setups is a huge improvement over Hart’s annoying habit demonstrated in 2010 special Seriously Funny of simply mentioning that he’s friends with NBA players, then impersonating them while the camera pans over to Shaquille O’Neal chuckling with approval.
Hart is relentlessly honest on Pain, opening up about his divorce, mercilessly making fun of his sexual shortcomings and explaining how he can never quite seem to get away from the painful upbringing he tried to escape through comedy. He’s very good at picking just the right detail to give a story impact. That his drug-addicted father stepped on and wouldn’t give back the $20 bill that fell out of the birthday card his grandmother sent him is a heartbreaking story. But the face Hart makes when impersonating his father stepping on the money and hoping not to be noticed is a riotously cathartic creation that lampoons his father’s aggression while humanizing both of their shame.
The line between joy and shame, triumph and embarrassment is one Hart explores fluidly in his work. Perhaps his greatest achievement is how he turns self-effacement and humility into his own personal brand of swagger.