This story first appeared in the Jan. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Kevin Hart scans his iPhone, flipping through notes for future jokes. There’s one about “a nigga [who] just came and keyed my car because I stopped at a red light”; a line about “my brother being so negative, no matter what we’re doing he will always find something wrong with it”; and a quip that Hart can’t “handle amusement parks in my old age. I get dizzy and shit now!!! My whole day’s f—ed up after getting on a roller coaster.”
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These aren’t so much jokes as musings — on life, on people, on the million ordinary things that ripple through his mind. The comic jots down dozens of them each day, hundreds each week, punching them into his phone almost compulsively.
Forget any notions that Hart, 35, isn’t serious about his work. His aims are great, his ambitions unlimited. He wants to equal his heroes (Bill Cosby, Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock) and dwarf them by building an empire even larger than theirs.
To that end, Hart is riding an extraordinary wave, with three No. 1 movies in 2014 (Ride Along, Think Like a Man Too and About Last Night) and a fourth likely to follow when Sony’s The Wedding Ringer opens Jan. 16.
He also has an ongoing TV series, BET’s reality spoof Real Husbands of Hollywood, which is shooting its fourth season; and whopping DVD sales — even in a declining home-entertainment market — for his comedy concerts. 2011’s Laugh at My Pain DVD went double platinum in less than a month.
His 2012 tour, Kevin Hart: Let Me Explain, was seen in 10 countries and 80 cities, and sold more than 540,000 tickets, making it one of the most successful comedy tours to date (he also does many dozens of stand-up performances every year in smaller venues). Hart also sold out Madison Square Garden (only the sixth comedian ever to do so) and earned more than $1 million in Los Angeles on one evening alone. These tours are funded by Hart, too. “I invest in myself,” he says. “I spent $750,000 on [the 2011] Laugh at My Pain [tour], and it did $15 million. I spent $2.5 million on Let Me Explain, and it did $32 million. I’m about to spend maybe $4 million on this next one [What Next?], and the goal is to get to $100 million.”
Hart (center), who plays the straight man in The Wedding Ringer, says he wants to show “a different acting side.”
These are the pillars of a burgeoning business that’s run though a 12-man company, HartBeat Productions, which includes a photographer and videographer who record his every move, partly for reference, partly for Hart’s personal archive, accessible in a series of bound volumes he keeps in his den at home.
Despite his easygoing manner, Hart has a single-minded focus that excludes nearly everything else. It’s the sort of focus he believes he needs in order to win. “If you have a mogul mind-set, you’ll last a lot longer. That’s the mind-set of a winner.”
Hart swats away critiques, even when they come from his occasional boss, Sony’s Screen Gems president Clint Culpepper, who, referring to Hart’s desire to boost his $3 million salary, noted in a hacked email made public, “I’m not saying he’s a whore, but he’s a whore.”
Hart shot back on Instagram: “I worked very hard to get where I am today. I look at myself as a brand and because of that I will never allow myself to be taken advantage of. I OWN MY BRAND … I MAKE SMART DECISIONS FOR MY BRAND … which is why I’m able to brush ignorance off of my shoulder and continue to move forward.”
A month after that volatile exchange, Hart takes a more muted view. “I’ve talked to him,” he says of Culpepper (who did not respond to a request for comment). “Clint called right after. It’s not like I wanted to challenge him — that’s just how he talks. He did [apologize], but there was no need. When you negotiate, you say whatever you say.” He adds: “Nothing affected me. It’s very hard to put me in a negative position, man. I’m happy. And I’ll continue to be happy.”
During a 2006 comedy show in Miami, Hart owned the mic.
Happiness isn’t always the greatest source of laughter, of course, and one wonders whether Hart is being disingenuous when he says he has “no demon. I’m not an angry person. I left those years behind.”
He may not be angry, but just what is he? “My point of view is my reality,” he insists elliptically. He’s funny, but to what end? He’s neither political, nor satirical, nor remotely metaphysical, and yet he’s the most successful black comic working today — maybe the most successful comic, period.
There’s no denying his skill, as I see one Saturday evening in November, when Hart (who’s repped by UTA’s Steve Cohen, Jay Gassner and Jeremy Zimmer and for touring by APA’s Mike Berkowitz) performs before a packed house of about 3,000 ethnically diverse students in San Bernardino, Calif., halfway through a tour that will stretch from 2014 into 2015. Dressed in black jeans and bright red Nikes, with two gold chains swaying from his neck, the 5-foot-4 comic dominates the stage as he regales the crowd with his feelings about moving to suburban Tarzana, Calif.
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Everyone hollers and hoots, though that’s more because of his manic manner than his content. “[There’s] a bunch of wildlife, a bunch of animals ’round where I live [that] I don’t like, plain and simple,” he says. “I’m walking my dog, and out of nowhere this old lady opens up the window and stuck her head out.” His voice rises several octaves: “She’s like, ‘You better watch your dog! Don’t let them eat him like they did mine!’ And she closed the window.” He blinks in disbelief. “Who’s them? What are we talking about, people or animals?! A lot of weird shit in my house, man.”
Expletives pepper his routine, but he’s never salacious, never tawdry and never makes comments about women or gays that might offend some or even all. He seems almost genetically inoffensive, in fact, and avoids anything controversial, from the death of Eric Garner to Ferguson, Mo. “I’m not interested in politics,” he shrugs.
The comic (right) mugged with Rock, his friend and mentor, at the BET Awards in June.
And it works. The comedy of the self plays big. Forget the biting satire of a Jon Stewart; forget even the sophomoric appeal of a Seth Rogen. Hart is the quintessential comic for the age of selfies and social media. Just being Hart is good enough.
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“Once I realized that I had a voice and didn’t have to pretend to be a different version of myself, I stopped forcing the situation, stopped being a character,” he says. “I stopped and went, ‘OK, I can just be me.’ “
Sitting with Hart in the spacious kitchen of his $2 million home, munching on pizza and Caesar salad that his fiancee, model Eniko Parrish, 30, has just brought in from California Pizza Kitchen, I find him warm and easy to like.
His father, Henry Witherspoon, 66, who’s sitting with us, says, “I was worried about him for a while,” but that seems to refer more to Hart’s finances than any other issue. “He’s fine now,” adds Witherspoon.
Two dogs loll around, one a large Doberman with her ears wrapped in plaster after being cropped, the other a miniature version of the same. I’m wary of both: The bigger one, Roxy, has just peed on the floor right next to me, and who knows where she’ll do her business next.
Hart with fiancee Parrish and his kids, Heaven and Hendrix, at the 2014 Kids’ Choice Awards.
There’s an easy bond between Hart and Parrish, who seem genuinely close after six years together. In her sweats, Parrish appears more like a girl-next-door than “the woman who broke up a marriage,” as Hart’s ex-wife, Torrei, has labeled her. (That drew a sardonic tweet from Hart: “I guess giving a woman over 20k a month and still being there for her and being a incredible father isn’t enough!”)
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Hart stifles a yawn. He’s had only 3½ hours of sleep, pushing the limit even for him. He gets up at 5.30 a.m. most days and works out for an hour before heading to his office in Encino or to the endless spitballing sessions that consume him when he’s not on the road. Since being slapped with a DUI in April 2013, when he was pulled over for driving 90 mph, he’s been driven around in a huge van that has been converted into a mobile office.
“They told me to get out of the car,” he says. “I took the little sobriety test. They said that I failed. Locked me up, put me in cuffs. That was pretty stupid [of me]. Like, no matter how drunk I was getting, if I’d known that’s what I’m doing, why am I driving?” Hart went to jail. “I stayed in for like two hours and went home. My fiancee came to get me. I had no record, so they let me out.” He pleaded no contest and is on probation.
Even with someone else driving, he never seems to have a free moment. He has no time to read anything but scripts and has trouble naming any favorite books beyond Of Mice and Men, which he’s been reading with his kids, Heaven, 9, and Hendrix, 7. (He says he’d like to write a book of his own soon, possibly a comedic memoir.)
With an empire built on his signature manic, upbeat comedy, Hart (right, with a photo assistant) won’t let obstacles slow him down: “Everything happens for a reason. The question isn’t, ‘What happened?’; the question is, ‘How do you handle it?’
”He hardly watches TV, though Keeping Up With the Kardashians is playing in the background at his house. “That’s for Eniko,” he says. The two are planning a “destination wedding” in 2016.
After finishing his pizza, he leads me on a tour. There’s a sitting area just off the modern, white-counter kitchen. There’s a large dining room that seems completely untouched (Hart says he never has guests for dinner). Then there’s Hart’s massive bedroom and two gigantic walk-in closets, one for his clothes and another for Parrish’s.
His shelves are lined with sneakers, from the regular ones you might buy at a Foot Locker, to others that he says are worth $7,000 to $10,000. He has about 500 pairs, he notes. “I love sneakers. I have OVOs, Jordan 12s, Pit Crews. I have Yeezys, all of them.”
Downstairs, giant portraits of the comedians he most admires — Cosby, Rock, Murphy, Richard Pryor, Martin Lawrence and Dave Chappelle — line the walls. I ask if he’s thinking of getting rid of Cosby in the wake of allegations about the 77-year-old’s conduct. “I’m not going to take the picture down,” he says. “The picture serves a purpose for me. These were the men who built a legacy doing what they love to do, which is telling jokes.”
Does he think Cosby is guilty? “Right now, it’s a lot of speculation,” he says. “All I can do is just say my prayers, and my wishes go out to all of the women who are potentially involved. His personal life has nothing to do with me. I can’t control it. I will never try. It doesn’t stop me from being an admirer of his work. His work and his personal life are two separate things.”
Hart’s own personal life is inextricable from his work.
Moving into his den a while later, pushing aside stacks of his DVDs to perch on the edge of an armchair, he speaks of his boyhood in one of the rougher parts of North Philadelphia. “[Where I grew up] was not a place of wealth,” he says. “A friend of mine in high school was shot in the head over gambling. We stayed in a one-bedroom apartment — my momma had the bedroom, and me and my brother stayed in the hallway. We had bunk beds, and I was on the bottom. But it was enough. I lived there for 17-plus years. So when that’s all you know, it’s fine. There’s nothing to measure it to. It wasn’t a thing where we were embarrassed. It was life.”
His mom, Nancy, struggled to provide for Kevin and his older brother, Robert, while working as a computer analyst at the University of Pennsylvania. She was strict, and devout, and each week took her sons to the local Zion Methodist Church. She encouraged Kevin to take up competitive swimming, in which he was nationally ranked. Sports were his love, especially basketball.
Her strength made up for his dad’s weakness. When Kevin was a boy, Witherspoon (a father of 10) began a long battle with addiction, “probably heroin, crack, coke — serious stuff,” says his son. “But I will say that I got my edge from my dad. He taught me how to fight and made sure I know how to protect myself.”
Witherspoon, he says, “was in and out of jail, “so the fact that my mom held it down and managed to work, take us to extracurricular activities, check homework, go about her day — that, to me, was dope.”
Her presence, and his father’s absence, shaped him; he says he now sees a great deal of his mother in himself and shares her commitment to family; his kids spend half their time with him.
While he says he got his humor from his dad, who re-entered Kevin’s life after breaking free of drugs, it was his mother, who died in 2007 of ovarian cancer, who gave him his drive, though they battled frequently. “The thing I regret was the talking back,” he says, “being so tough, always giving my two cents before I listened.”
On one occasion, when his mom refused to let him attend early-morning basketball tryouts, he adjusted every clock in their home. “I set all of the clocks forward, her watches, the VCRs, everything,” he recalls. The next day, the family got up two hours early, Hart went to his tryouts, and his mom left for work. When she arrived at her office and found nobody there, she was livid. “She came to my school and pulled me out of class and beat the living shit out of me,” says Hart. “That was a tough whooping. That whooping lasted.”
Thanks to her, he could have had free tuition at Penn, but he never was a gifted student and preferred to be the class clown, “funny all the time.” He grew up on TV comedies such as Diff’rent Strokes, Sanford & Son and The Cosby Show but never imagined a career in comedy.
After briefly attending community college, he got a job at a City Sports store, where he could cultivate his love of sneakers. “I had to watch others come and go with what I aspired to,” he says. “It was tough. That’s what makes or breaks kids.”
But comedy quickly became his calling. When a friend told him he should try stand-up, Hart entered local competitions and won six amateur nights at $70 a pop. “I was like, ‘This is it. This is what I want to do for the rest of my life,’ ” he says.
Hart’s mother subsidized his rent while he gave comedy a go. “She said, ‘You got a year to figure out how to support yourself,'” recalls Hart. ” ‘If you can’t, then you’re going back to school.'”
Comedy clicked. Soon Hart found a manager, Dave Becky, who still represents him (comedian Dave Attell connected them), and got his break in 2002 on Judd Apatow‘s TV series Undeclared. He followed that with films from 2004’s Soul Plane to 2012’s The Five-Year Engagement and Think Like a Man, culminating in last year’s triumphant run.
Now The Wedding Ringer may lift him to an even higher level.
The story of a professional “best man” (Hart) hired by a hapless groom (Josh Gad), the movie presents Hart in a new, less manic light. Here, if anything, he is the straight man to Gad’s comic foil. It’s the first time Hart has had to carry a film in the lead and the first time he’s been seen in a part that closely resembles him: warm and real and fully dimensional.
“I was blown away by the opportunity to play this character that had so many different levels,” he says. “That’s what I cared about, showing a different acting side.”
When the screenplay was sold in 2002, nobody knew his name. Written by newcomers Jeremy Garelick and Jay Lavender, it then was titled The Golden Tux and quickly was snapped up by Miramax after Todd Phillips (The Hangover) expressed interest in directing.
That was the start of a long, slow descent into oblivion, as the project bounced from one star to another. “It was Vince Vaughn for a time, then Ice Cube,” says Garelick, who also directed the movie, “and Dave Chappelle at one moment, Dan Fogler at another. There were lots of different combinations of people.”
When the Weinsteins left Miramax in 2005, the movie fell apart, and when Miramax was sold to Colony Capital in 2010, the project went into deep freeze, where it remained until producer Adam Fields (Donnie Darko) discovered it.
Fields was in a meeting with Colony in 2010 when an executive suggested he look at a list of 642 properties the company believed it now owned through Miramax. The list was full of inaccuracies, says Fields, but after an extensive search through three warehouses and about 38,000 boxes full of contracts, screenplays and other documents, he found Tux and brought it to Screen Gems.
After an initial read-through with Chris Pine (who was unavailable when the movie shot), Culpepper took it to Hart, and a March 2013 reading took place in a Sony Pictures conference room. The group was impressed.
“It must have been the first time Kevin read the script,” says Garelick. “But you could tell something was special.”
Special, no doubt. But can Hart rise beyond being special to being great?
He is so focused on moving forward, he never seems to address the deeper questions that might lift him there. Asked what could elevate his work, he says: “Just continue with life. The more life experiences you have, the more you can talk about.”
In life, he is as propulsive as he is onstage, as if propulsion alone will shoot him to the top. “He never stops,” says Etan Cohen, his director on Get Hard, a buddy movie with Will Ferrell. “The mantra of Kevin is hard work and hustle.”
Even now, he has two movies wrapped (Ride Along 2 and Get Hard, which will open in March) and is exploring how he one day can take over the distribution of his own DVDs (Codeblack Films has handled several), thereby avoiding the middlemen.
He doesn’t dwell on prejudice, or wonder if he might have had more opportunity if he were white. “That’s not for me to say, because I’m not white,” he says.
He agrees with his mentor, Top Five co-star Rock, who lambasted the industry’s insistence that African-American performers “cross over” and find a white audience in a recent essay for THR. Hart insists he doesn’t get hung up on such things. (Said Rock: “If we’re going to just be honest and count dollars and seats and not look at skin color, Kevin Hart is the biggest comedian in the world. If Kevin Hart is playing 40,000 seats in a night and Jon Stewart is playing 3,000, the fact that Jon Stewart’s 3,000 are white means Kevin has to cross over? That makes no sense.”)
“The point he was making was very valid,” says Hart. “It’s always about us crossing over. You never hear about it going the other way. You look at concerts and the touring industry, and the people who buy those tickets are urban crowds. It’s crazy the numbers I’ve done on tour: You’re talking about a guy who does 40,000 to 50,000 people a weekend. What he said, I agree with 110 percent.”
Still, he continues: “I don’t feed into the race game. I don’t give it that much thought. I never have and never will.”
And why should he? He’s precisely where he wants to be. Soon he hopes to penetrate international audiences with his movies and build his fan base even more. And if all this keeps him too busy for self-reflection, so be it. Later, perhaps, he’ll stop and look back. For now, his eyes are on the road ahead.
“You know, a lot of people make it and then stop,” he says. “Why? When I look at Eddie Murphy, when I look at Will Smith, when I look at Denzel Washington, when I look at what all those people have achieved, why would I stop when you can keep going and keep achieving? There’s so much more that I can do. And I’m getting close. So why stop?”