When I interviewed him three years ago, Kevin Hart had already stolen the show as his generation’s funny man.
His 2011 “Laugh at My Pain” comedy tour had grossed more than $15 million, and the concert film made $8 million with little marketing and a micro budget. It had us all screaming, “You gon’ learn today!” It was just before the release of his “Think Like a Man,” a movie that would shock the box office with a $33 million opening, unseating “The Hunger Games” after its fiery four-week reign at No. 1. Not only did it get a sequel, it helped other black movies, like “The Best Man Holiday,” get green-lit.
Even then, Hart wasn’t claiming the comedic throne. Not even as a Jordan brand ambassador or MVP for the NBA All-Star celebrity game. He was humble. I remember hanging up the phone and feeling, well, empowered.
“I set my goals very high, and I don’t want to celebrate yet,” he told me. “I feel blessed and thankful, but I don’t want to be content with my career right now. When you think about it and accept it, you think you don’t need to go anywhere else. But there is so much more that I want to do. I have to stay motivated.”
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You could say motivation is his lifestyle. That day he had about 4 million followers on Twitter. Today it’s closer to 21 million. In just three years he has been in as many as nine more movies. His “Let Me Explain” comedy tour and subsequent movie did yet another hulk-smash at the box office. And on Saturday he’ll bring his “What Now?” tour to an unlikely place for a comedy show: the Sprint Center. In fact, the first show sold out so fast he added a second.
This is not unusual for him, though. He has sold out shows at Madison Square Garden, Barclays Center in Brooklyn and, recently, three back-to-back appearances in Houston. Billboard says the tour is on track to be the biggest in comedy history.
That would explain why he’ll be the first comedian to headline a football stadium when he closes the tour in his hometown of Philadelphia next weekend. Kevin Hart is a rock star.
Did you not see him on the cover of Rolling Stone — or, in an even less conventional comedic turn, on the cover of Men’s Health? Yes, he’s a fitness junkie, teaming up with Nike Running Club and doing pop-up 5K runs in some of the cities where he’s performing: Run With Hart.
Hart does the unexpected, and his work ethic is awe-inspiring.
Last month he was the only comedian to take part in hip-hop superstar Drake’s OVO Fest, a Canadian music festival. The fourth season of his BET reality TV spoof, “The Real Husbands of Hollywood,” debuted on Tuesday. With co-star Ice Cube, “Ride Along” became the biggest January opener and held the top spot for most of the month. A sequel is expected next January.
“He is the true epitome of the American dream,” says Fox 4 film critic Shawn Edwards. “He literally started from the bottom (Can you say “Soul Plane”?) and worked his way up. His comedy is special because he doesn’t really tell jokes in the traditional sense of stand-up comedy but shares personal, everyday, ordinary stories that many people can relate to.”
Dave Chappelle, Will Smith and Chris Rock have turned up at his shows. Rihanna, Jay Z and Kate Hudson are fans. During a stop in KC last year, Marlon Wayans told me that his comedy dream team is Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, Kevin Hart and Mike Epps.
KC comedian Al Burnes, 34, says Hart is the comedy role model to follow.
“He is pretty incredible,” says Burnes, who is preparing for a show Aug. 28 at the Opera House in the River Market. “He inspires me, because Kevin Hart is not only a comedian, he is the franchise. He started in stand-up, and stand-up can be very unfair. But he has worked and carved out a place where he not only creates opportunities for himself but he creates opportunities for other people, too. It takes a serious level of belief in yourself and a strong work ethic to go that far.”
Confidence is central to Hart’s success.
“No one can share my story but me,” he said three years ago. “My experiences are mine. I paint pictures for people to see. And it’s all about constantly reinventing myself and pushing the envelope. I aim to be universal, not just black or white. I want to make everyone laugh.”
Even though Hart stays away from political commentary and refrains from delving deep into race relations, he has given a different voice to black men.
Keion Jackson, 29, a Kansas City creative writer who likes to infuse comedy into his work, says Hart is compelling.
“My favorite thing about him is his vulnerability,” Jackson says. “I think he is subversive in a way he might not get credit for, because his voice is so high-pitched, and he is loud. But he challenges stereotypes around how hard black men are required to be. It gives permission to explore topics in a more personal way, as opposed to commenting on the things from the outside.
“He says what a lot of men feel but have not been culturally allowed to say, and he does it in a way that is charismatic and funny. There is a confident strength, a loud defiance in it.”
For the 5-foot-2 comedy giant, the journey from small bits in hip-hop videos and D-list movies to becoming the superstar he is today has been nothing short of triumphant. I’m excited to see his voice continue to grow. To watch him is to laugh yourself into an abdominal workout, both motivational and entertaining.
But you have to wonder, what now?
Kevin Hart: What Now? Tour
Kevin Hart is performing two back-to-back shows Saturday night at the Sprint Center. The 7 p.m. show is sold out, but tickets ($57 to $123) are available for the 10:30 p.m. performance. Buy them at the Sprint Center box office or online at tickets.axs.com.
The best of Kevin Hart
“I’m a Grown Little Man” I’d seen Kevin Hart in “Soul Plane” and “Scary Movie.” But it was his 2009 stand-up that made me laugh in a way I hadn’t since Dave Chapelle’s classic “Killin’ Them Softly.” His hilarious perspectives on parenthood made me laugh until tears rolled down my face.
“The Wedding Ringer” Hart and Josh Gad delivered the ultimate bromance in this rom-com about a friendless groom who has to rent his best man and groomsmen. My favorite part: the dancing.
Chocolate Droppa If you didn’t know, Kevin Hart has a hysterical rap alter ego, Chocolate Droppa. He even performed at the BET Awards. Because, as he says, “real rap raw.”
“Real Husbands of Hollywood” He’s not just spoofing the “Real Housewives.” Hart makes this BET series funny because he’s mocking himself alongside Nick Cannon, Boris Kodjoe, Duane Martin, JB Smoove and Nelly.
Bushwick, Brooklyn 2015 The “SNL” skit tackled gentrification with the type of genius Kevin Hart has come to be celebrated for, talking about artisan mayonnaise on the block.
“35 and Ticking” This 2011 indie dramedy tackles the 30-something crossroads of career, marriage and kids, and finds a more serious Hart trying to figure out what he’s going to do with his life.
“Ride Along” Ice Cube, with his stoic poker face, is the perfect foil for Kevin Hart’s animated wacky ways. I can’t wait for the sequel.