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Kevin Hart’s Low Humor

His existential small-guy shtick is still working

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

What would the comedy of Kevin Hart be like if he were taller? He’s 5-foot-4, and at 36, barring some act of God or Hollywood medicine, he’s ineligible for a growth spurt — thankfully. Too much would have to change if he got bigger. He’d have to do away with his finest sight gag, for one. His costars, big guys like Will Ferrell (6-foot-3) and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (6-foot-5), but also Ice Cube and Aaron Paul (both 5–8), would no longer get to loom over him like stepfathers or first-grade teachers, and he’d no longer seem constantly on the verge of getting a spankin’ or earning one. Lines like, “You’re still shorter than my cat,” and, “You’re like a snack-sized Denzel,” wouldn’t land with quite the same force. Johnson wouldn’t get to cart him around in a mail carrier as if it were a stroller. In his stand-up, he’d no longer get to demonstrate sex positions on a regular-size stool seemingly as tall as he is, riding it like a jockey on horseback.

That’s what’s sort of funny about seeing Johnson and Hart perform side-by-side in the new action comedy Central Intelligence, as connected but distinct as the first and last bars of a cell phone signal indicator. Johnson plays a CIA agent on the run named Bob Stone, formerly Robbie Weirdicht (sound it out), who was the fat kid in high school; now he’s, well, you’ve seen Dwayne Johnson. Stone is a distinct character, with his own desires and shames, his own style (fanny pack, jorts, unicorn T-shirt) and language (“What-whaaaaaat!”). But mainly he’s a force: He’s a whirlwind whose pull Hart’s character, the bored accountant Calvin Joyner, can’t escape.

You can boil the movie down to the components of its plot — satellite encryption codes, a thief called the Black Badger, world domination — but you may as well reduce it to what’s really worth the price of admission: The small-guy shtick of Kevin Hart, whose funniest bits, both in movies and onstage, gain their power from his lack of it. It’s a little existential and a lot childish, often enough for the better. Here’s a guy helpless in the face of forces beyond his control, a curtain in the wind, dragged kicking and screaming into every kind of mess. It’s a joke wrapped up in his literal smallness, but there’s subtext: Even at 7 feet, having the CIA suddenly on your ass, or even merely facing the ritual trauma of a 20-year high school reunion, would make you feel a little vulnerable, too.

Is this what critics and fans mean when they say that Hart’s comedy is relatable? Certainly it’s bankable; 2014’s Ride Along brought in $134 million, and his last two movies broke $90 million. (There were three more starring roles in between, just in case the checks didn’t clear.) There’s apparently some universality, or at least pleasant familiarity, in the comedy of that helplessness; seeing Central Intelligence in a theater, you half expect to see a TBS-themed scrawl inviting you to “ride along” on a Saturday marathon of Kevin Hart movies. It’s calibrated to our living rooms.

“You make yourself broad,” Hart told GQ in 2014. “You make yourself appealing. ‘Hey, y’all, I’m cool with everybody.’ That’s my message.” Does that explain it? One of the best jokes from his 2011 tour Laugh at My Pain involves being thrown around by a woman’s overactive gyrations in bed. He acts it out, flailing and being pushed across the length of the stage by an invisible ass, as the camera cuts to an audience that seems overwhelmingly composed of women. Call it “low” humor if you will. Low to the ground. This is his lane and he works it well, with deliberate but lively and seemingly improvised skill, grimacing and contorting with sudden flashes of frustration or enraged disbelief at life’s bullshit. There’s more than a hint of the Everyman in this. Maybe some Sisyphus, too. The refrain throughout Central Intelligence is “I’m not in! I’m not in!” — but of course he’s in it, and he’s winning it: In market terms, he looms larger than most other comedians working today. Central Intelligence isn’t projected to be a hit. He doesn’t need it to be: Ride Along 2, which came out earlier this year, was his sixth smash in three years.

Hart has another running joke, dripping with irony, about “pineapple,” his safe word, uttered whenever he’s in over his head — whenever he’s not in control. And when is that, really? Funny that a guy whose persona depends on escaping other people’s designs is the radical opposite in real life, a confident careerist who’s taken a keen hold on his brand by financing his own tour movies (Let Me Explain grossed $27 million after costing him a “mere” $2.5), for example, and expanding into the app game with a video-on-demand service called Laugh Out Loud. He’s a mogul now. The title of his current record-breaking world tour, which will be released as a special in theaters this October, is What Now? This is not Hart throwing up hands in frustration, as one of his characters might. This is Hart alluding to the certainty of his own persistence. “What Now?”: Because if he has his way, the question will always be relevant. He’ll always have an audience wondering the same. He isn’t big, but he’s big, and his comedy knows it.

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Kevin Hart’s comedy tour film What Now? will be released straight to DVD. It will appear in theaters in October.