Kevin Hart is well known for his self-depreciating kind of embodied comedy. His intense facial gestures which come one after another in rapid fire show a person who is struggling not just to articulate himself but to be accepted. He never misses an opportunity to show that although he is the smallest guy in the group, he can be tough. He can be not just a “man” but “the man.” Hart’s comic conceit is that in each of his efforts to be the man he always, at some point, gives up only to start again. His default position is that of a small man, of the man-child.
Take a look at this clip with Jimmy Fallon where he agrees to Falon’s challenge to go on a rollercoaster. He is, like a child, terrified of the ride. He doesn’t want to go and when he goes he – in comparison to Fallon – loses it. Although he takes on the challenge, he wants to turn back. And when he takes it, he falls back into his default position. Watching him, I can see that he is playing on the schlemiel character. However, unlike Woody Allen, in a film like Annie Hall (1976), he takes to his peer’s challenge. He desperately doesn’t want to be the odd one out whereas Allen doesn’t mind being so. The default position is an uncomfortable one for Hart.
The thought that Hart is a schlemiel of sorts prompted me to look through some of his videos. I came across a viral video (over 68 million views) of an appearance he did on Jimmy Fallon in 2014. The whole piece is an example of what I call, elsewhere, “the comedy of scale.” In the beginning of the segment, Fallon encourages Hart to talk about how successful he is thereby inflating himself into a great, unparalleled American comedian and filmstar. Hart makes himself out to be so successful that he got to meet President Barack Obama. He tells Fallon that no one impresses him more than the President. He is nonplused by famous people, but with the President he becomes childlike. This is a moment of slight-deprecation. But when the President calls him “Kev,” Hart re-inflates himself by saying that he and the President are tight.
Two minutes and forty seconds into it, Fallon asks Hart to tell his “Jay-Z Pineapple Juice Story.” Hart tells of how close he is with Jay Z and Beyonce. He sees them in a bar and Jay Z insists that they have drinks. But the story turns into schlemiel tale. Instead of spilling the soup on Jay Z’s lap – in the classic schlemiel tale soup is spilled – he spills Pineapple Juice. Beyonce also gets juice on her. When Hart apologizes to them, he becomes an accidental nudnick. He thinks that slipping Jay Z a twenty dollar bill will make it all better. The punch line is that it only makes things worse. Hart is a schlemiel who accidentally spills the juice and who mistakenly thinks a twenty will change it all.
Hart moves from accident to accident and, in the end, slips away, like a Charlie Chaplin character. But his comedy is mostly local to African Americans. We see this best in his stories and routines where, in terms of masculinity and maturity, he is the odd one out. His body is much different from the bodies of contemporary schlemiels ranging from the thin body of Woody Allen to the “dadbod” of Seth Rogen. He is built. But he is small. In a way, he is similar to Adam Sandler’s “Zohan” character (who is a schlemiel by virtue of his soft spot for cutting hair and his love for America).
Hart shows how, in America, the schlemiel can be both big and small, masculine and feminine. The default position of the schlemiel – across American culture – is smallness. But there is a dynamic that moves – as this clip shows – between being big (famous) and being small (embarrassed, clutzy). It is this dynamic that has become a staple of not only Kevin Hart but also people like Larry David. One could say that, for both of these contemporary American versions of the schlemiel, one’s enthusiasm is always curbed. And that’s what makes them so funny for American audiences who love the dynamic that moves between smallness and bigness. At some point, someone spills the pineapple juice on Jay-Z.