In December 2011, W. Kamau Bell declared Louis C.K. “the current heavyweight champion of stand-up comedy.” The verdict was pretty much unanimous by then: 2011 was the year of Louis. So, for that matter, was 2012. But what about 2013? C.K.’s FX show is off the air for a stretch; his most recent special, though excellent, did not grab the attention of the American public to quite the same degree as his paradigm-shifting self-distributed one from 16 months before. Perhaps, for the first time in a while, there’s an opening for an ambitious comic to step up and call himself the new king.
Enter Kevin Hart. Bell ended that 2011 column with a warning to C.K. that “Hart wants a title shot,” and Let Me Explain, Hart’s second stand-up special to hit the big screen (after Laugh at My Pain, one of the highest-grossing indie movies of 2011), is not shy about its royal ambitions, from the cringe-inducing tag line on the poster (“Witness the Rise of a Legend”) to the several-minute-long highlight reel from Hart’s European tour, presented early on in the movie as proof that Kevin Hart is no “local ass bitch.”
The infomercial feel of those few minutes may be more than some viewers can forgive—but I suspect most will get over it, for two reasons. First, Kevin Hart is real damn funny, and once you’ve laughed, hard, for an hour, you’ll excuse the initial bit of self-promotion. Second, Hart’s advertisements for himself betray an insecurity that feels deep-seated and sincere, and which gives emotional oomph to some of his best routines. It’s what most distinguishes him from truly swaggering stand-ups like Eddie Murphy, Hart’s most obvious influence.