Kevin Hart Wants to Be the Oprah of Comedy

Stop trying to get Kevin Hart to eat another french fry!

It was an impulse order. Hart tried to change to a kale salad, only to be sweet-talked into indulging by the waitress at the Matador Room, one of those chic Miami eateries where the walls are alabaster and the trellises adorned with climbing bougainvillea. After inhaling four or five fistfuls of golden fries, Hart insists he’s done. He hands the plate to the bodyguard sitting at a nearby table, but each time the waitress walks by, she plops more savory potatoes in front of him.

“Goddamn, don’t bring them back over here,” Hart cries in mock exasperation. Finally, he grabs a glass of water and dumps it on the fries.

“That’s how you stop yourself,” he declares. Then turning to his bodyguard, Hart points to the bowl of drowning fries and says with a cackle, ‘I watered them up, so you can go f— yourself.’”

Pamela Littky for Variety

Hart is a man of discipline. If you track his movements on social media — and with 32.7 million Twitter followers and 51.5 million Instagram fans, many do — you know he’s a physical fitness junkie. He rises every morning at 5:30 to hit the gym, and last August he ran 35 miles in a relay that took him from Mount Hood to the Oregon coast. He routinely shares pictures of himself in mid-crunch or hoisting barbells in the air.

“You can’t expect to give 100% if you’re not in a physical place to give 100%,” says Hart, 37.

Right now, the actor and comedian is arguably the hardest-working person in show business. He’s appeared in nearly a dozen movies since 2013, many of them in leading roles and most of them box office hits. That’s to say nothing of the grueling stand-up tours that put him on the road for weeks at a time. The animated film “Captain Underpants,” featuring Hart’s voice, debuts in theaters June 2, and in December he headlines “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” alongside Dwayne Johnson and Jack Black. He recently wrapped “Untouchable,” a dramatic comedy with Bryan Cranston that will open in 2018.

Working with Hart on the “Jumanji” sequel motivated Black to step up his own acting. “I raised my game a couple of notches out of the intimidation factor,” says Black. “He’s a king of the industry. I’ve done a lot of movies, but when someone is on fire, at the peak of their powers, you feel like you have to earn your spot.”

As if he didn’t have enough going on, Hart is also about to become a published author. “I Can’t Make This Up: Life Lessons,” his first book, hits stores June 6. In his stand-up act, Hart’s comedy draws from personal experiences, delving into the cheating that torpedoed his first marriage or his hardscrabble youth growing up in North Philadelphia. Onstage, stories about his alcoholic and drug-addicted father are played for laughs.

In print, Hart gets real.

“People get to see the comedic persona, but there’s more to me,” Hart says. “This is a story that can be told, and I chose to tell it. It’s funny, but there are serious components to it.”

Kevin Darnell Hart was born on July 6, 1979 to Nancy Hart, a single mother, and brought up in one of the toughest sections of the City of Brotherly Love. His father, Henry Witherspoon, missed much of Hart’s childhood. He was in and out of jail, and an addict. The drugs, and escalating parental screw-ups, such as the time Witherspoon dropped Hart off at the wrong school, caused his mom to limit his visits.

“We come from a f—ed-up situation,” says Robert Hart, Kevin’s older brother. “We come from the worst living conditions.”

When Hart performs stand-up, he treats his father as a jester, arriving coked up to cheer his son at spelling bees or giving his kids another family’s dog when they wanted a puppy. But there was a darker side to Witherspoon. In the book, Hart recounts how his father broke into his mother’s house to steal money. Another time, he robbed Robert Hart’s barbershop and crashed his car.

Pamela Littky for Variety

“He didn’t escape any of it — jail, drugs, addictions, ruining your family to a point where my mom didn’t want me and my brother to be around him,” Hart says. “Seeing the stuff firsthand. Seeing the reality behind drugs and addiction, and what it can really do to a person, that’s why I don’t do drugs. I learned what I shouldn’t be doing from what my dad did.”

Hart says his father is now sober and the two have reconciled. At some point, Hart decided it was important for his two young children, Heaven and Hendrix, to know their grandfather.

“It takes too much time and energy to keep hate alive,” Hart says. In return, Witherspoon makes an effort with the children.

“He’s as good as he can be,” Hart says. “He’s very much in their lives. He talks to them. He sends them messages. He Facetimes. He’s serious about making his presence felt.”

If Hart has conflicted feelings about his father, there’s no ambiguity in his love for his mother. It was she, Hart says, who gave him his work ethic. A computer analyst at the University of Pennsylvania, she told her sons to set goals and achieve them. And she lived out her maxim.

“She was forever in school,” Hart remembers. “She was always trying to get a new level within her education — a new master’s or a new degree. She was constantly pushing to be the best version of herself.”

When Hart decided he wanted to do stand-up, his mother agreed to pay his rent for a year as he worked to get noticed. He’d commute daily from Philadelphia to the comedy clubs in New York, hitching rides or taking the bus from his home in the afternoon and returning at four in the morning. As he opened up about his personal life, he could feel the audience leaning in and responding.

“In the beginning, I was trying to be versions of what I saw or what other people were doing,” he remembers. “It was all, What’s the new shtick? ‘Oh, man, everyone’s coming onstage and they’re using music. I need to give them some music or I need to be loud.”

The first piece that clicked centered on a fight he’d had with his girlfriend.

“I was like, ‘I called the cops on her,’” Hart says. “‘Officer, I called you here because she put her hands on me and you guys need to do something about it.’ It was funny because all the things a woman would say, I was saying.”

Dave Becky, Hart’s manager, remembers watching a tape of an early performance at Carolines Comedy Club and knowing that he had to sign the comic.

“You could just tell he was a star,” Becky says. “It was self-deprecating stuff about not being the macho guy. Every word out of his mouth was funny.”

It took longer for Hollywood to catch on. One break after another failed to turn Hart into the Next Big Thing. There was the 2001 Judd Apatow-directed pilot “North Hollywood,” about a group of aspiring actors sharing a house, which never got picked up, and a series of other failed pilots. When Hart made it on the air in 2004 with “The Big House,” an ABC comedy he created about a rich man who loses his fortune, the network pulled the plug after six low-rated episodes. It wasn’t until “Think Like a Man,” a romantic comedy with the comic as a wisecracking divorcee, opened to $33.7 million in 2012 that studios took notice.

Ben Mounsey for Variety

As he suffered professional setbacks, Hart turned to stand-up. He obsessively toured, hitting clubs on a nightly basis. Inspired by how comic Dane Cook had become a Twitter juggernaut, Hart set about building his own social-media Rolodex.

“When he was out on the road he was collecting those emails, he was getting those comment cards, and building a database,” says Becky. “There weren’t a lot of comedians doing that. He was mixing his unique comic voice with a strong business sense.”

Though she’d supported her son’s show-business ambitions, Nancy Hart never came to see him onstage.

“She was religious,” Hart says. “There was going to be drinking and alcohol and smoking stuff. She didn’t want to go around that mess. She didn’t like to be in environments that were not conducive to her spiritual growth.”

Nancy Hart was so invested in her son’s success that she swore her family to secrecy after learning she had terminal cancer in 2007. Hart had just been cast in “Fool’s Gold,” a romantic comedy with Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson that required him to be in Australia. If he knew she was sick, Nancy Hart worried her son would turn down the job. Robert Hart remembers his mother swearing him to silence by saying, “I need him to be able to go forward because I see him doing great things.”

Hart only knew his mother was gravely ill a few weeks before her death. It left him shattered. Nancy Hart had never talked much to her son about his career. However, when he was cleaning out her house, he came across a box filled with newspaper and magazine clippings of his interviews, as well as videos of his television appearances and movies.

“Anything I’d ever done, she had it,” Hart says. “She never missed anything.”

Hart’s movies, which include the “Ride Along” series and “Central Intelligence,” have collectively grossed nearly $1.5 billion domestically. In an age when superhero franchises have supplanted well-known actors as the main driver of box office success, Hart’s is one of the rare names above the title that guarantees ticket sales.

“He’s a legitimate, bankable movie star,” says Ron Meyer, vice chairman of NBCUniversal and a friend of the comic. “He’s one of the few stars left that brings people into theaters.”

That’s why he can command $10 million a film and why, as he did for his 2016 concert special “What Now?,” he can sell out a nearly 70,000-seat football stadium. The popular appeal has made Hart rich, but he’s not interested in just cashing studios’ checks. He wants to be a mogul.

“Think comedic Oprah,” Becky says.

“He’s going to build companies and invest in companies and do the things that Oprah and LeBron James do, where they don’t just do their craft — they create industries.”

As he relaxes in the Miami sunshine on that spring afternoon, nursing a Jack and Coke, Hart acknowledges that he has Oprah Winfrey-style ambitions. He’s befriended the talk-show icon and
considers her to be one of a group of business mentors, along with Jay Z and Tyler Perry, whom he turns to for advice and support.

“I’m a student,” Hart says. “It’s about getting their nod of approval and knowing I’m going in the right direction.”

To get to the top, Hart’s been investing in his own material. He shouldered the $10 million cost of producing “What Now?” and was rewarded when the concert film went on to gross $24 million. It’s part of a larger strategy that’s seen the comic retain the rights to all of his stand-up specials except 2009’s “I’m a Grown Little Man.” It’s why he’s developing more of his own projects through his Hartbeat Prods. company. “Night School,” an upcoming comedy about a group of students studying for the GED, was co-written by Hart. He’ll produce and star in it. As part of his empire building, he has gone into branding, signing an endorsement deal with Nike and becoming a pitchman for and investor in Tommy John underwear.

“I want to own it,” Hart says. “I want that last name Hart, when all’s said and done, to mean so much.”

As an actor, Hart wants to keep stretching. He’d like to do a straight action film and believes that “Untouchable,” a remake of the 2011 French hit “The Intouchables,” in which he plays an ex-convict who befriends a paraplegic, will prove he can do drama.

Pamela Littky for Variety

Neil Burger, the film’s director, wasn’t sure Hart was right for the part until he met the actor in a Manhattan restaurant. During their chat, Hart stressed that he knew people from his old neighborhood who had been to prison and had to rebuild their lives. He dropped his voice, his eyes narrowed, he read a few lines and Burger says he knew Hart could do the part. Despite the need to prove he has greater depths as an actor, Hart didn’t channel Daniel Day-Lewis.

“He’s not a Method actor,” says Burger. “He’s hilarious until you call action. He takes the piss out of himself. He’s parodying a demanding actor between setups, saying he needed softer socks to wear or a nice cup of chamomile tea for his voice.”

Hart is happiest doing stand-up and using the crowds of thousands as a confessional. He’s spent the past four weeks developing material for a new act, during which he’ll pop up at random
comedy clubs around the country as his jokes crystallize. During the year it takes to hone an hour-long set, he’ll get onstage 30 times a week.

“I don’t sit down, write stuff out and memorize it,” Hart says. “I get onstage and talk, and then I stumble into bits.”

Most of the new hour will be stories about raising his children in the cocoon of celebrity, a cloistered world far removed from North Philly. He’ll also delve deeper into his relationship with his second wife, Eniko Parrish, whom he married last summer. Hart whips out his iPhone and scrolls through a list of funny things he’s observed and thinks could be the genesis of new bits.

“I’ll take a year break between specials, and during that year I’m traveling, I’m a family man, I’m going out, I’m putting myself in position to soak up what could be material,” Hart says.

As open as he is about his difficult childhood or broken marriage, there are topics he won’t touch. Comedians have feasted on President Donald Trump, lampooning everything from his comb-over to his fractured syntax, but Hart won’t pile on. His act eschews politics.

“When you jump into that political realm you’re alienating some of your audience,” he says. “The world today, it’s really not a laughing matter. It’s serious. I don’t want to draw attention to things I don’t have nice things to say about.”

In his book, Hart reminisces about the thrill he got seeing Eddie Murphy’s “Raw” as a child. Murphy, still in his 20s, would glide across the stage with a rock-star swagger in a tight leather suit. The two men have become friends as Hart’s star has ascended. But despite that outsize, early success, Murphy hasn’t done stand-up for three decades.

“He told me one time, ‘It’s like cold water: I know I can swim, but that water’s so cold,” Hart says. “Nobody wants to jump in the cold water. Once you get in the water, you’re fine, but the initial jump in is the hardest thing ever.”

With two kids, hit movies and a burgeoning media empire, does Hart ever think about hanging up the microphone?

“I’m going to say no because I love stand-up so much, but you never know what life is going to do to you,” Hart says. “I’d love to say I’m going to have this energy forever, but I may get tired.”

More Biz

  • Sumner Redstone

    Sumner Redstone's Ex-Girlfriend Fights With Nurse For Access to Secret Tapes

    Stop trying to get Kevin Hart to eat another french fry! It was an impulse order. Hart tried to change to a kale salad, only to be sweet-talked into indulging by the waitress at the Matador Room, one of those chic Miami eateries where the walls are alabaster and the trellises adorned with climbing bougainvillea. […]

  • Disney-Fox Deal Sets Up Scramble for

    Disney-Fox Deal Unleashes Flood of Free-Agent Executives, Talent

    Stop trying to get Kevin Hart to eat another french fry! It was an impulse order. Hart tried to change to a kale salad, only to be sweet-talked into indulging by the waitress at the Matador Room, one of those chic Miami eateries where the walls are alabaster and the trellises adorned with climbing bougainvillea. […]

  • Paul Haggis Lawsuit

    Paul Haggis Hit With Lawsuit for Alleged Rape, Claims a $9 Million Shakedown

    Stop trying to get Kevin Hart to eat another french fry! It was an impulse order. Hart tried to change to a kale salad, only to be sweet-talked into indulging by the waitress at the Matador Room, one of those chic Miami eateries where the walls are alabaster and the trellises adorned with climbing bougainvillea. […]

  • Sirius Logo

    SiriusXM Hit With Big Rate Hike by Copyright Royalty Board

    Stop trying to get Kevin Hart to eat another french fry! It was an impulse order. Hart tried to change to a kale salad, only to be sweet-talked into indulging by the waitress at the Matador Room, one of those chic Miami eateries where the walls are alabaster and the trellises adorned with climbing bougainvillea. […]

  • Leonardo Da Vinci Salvator Mundi Auction

    How a Restored da Vinci Became the Most Expensive Artwork Ever

    Stop trying to get Kevin Hart to eat another french fry! It was an impulse order. Hart tried to change to a kale salad, only to be sweet-talked into indulging by the waitress at the Matador Room, one of those chic Miami eateries where the walls are alabaster and the trellises adorned with climbing bougainvillea. […]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content