As seen on nytimes.com
ABOUT 15 minutes into his stand-up set in his film “Laugh at My Pain,” following bits about his inability to spend money as lavishly as his athlete friends and the strange performer he hired to play SpongeBob SquarePants at his daughter’s birthday party, Kevin Hart pivots to a routine about his father’s cocaine addiction.
“When you first hear it,” says Mr. Hart, a compact, energetic comedian, “you’re like: ‘What? Your dad was on drugs? That’s crazy.’ ” Still smiling, he adds: “It’s not that bad. I’m going to tell you why.”
Among the advantages to his father’s habit? “There’s no such thing as a bad idea to a cokehead,” Mr. Hart explains. Among the downsides? When your dad shows up stoned to a spelling bee and roots for it like a sporting competition.
Then, to the delight of his audience, Mr. Hart imitates his father’s entrance, bobbing his head, pumping his arms and shouting in a sing-song voice, “All right, all right, all riii-iiight!”
Mr. Hart has turned this expressive re-enactment of his father’s coked-up battle cry into an improbable catchphrase — and “Laugh at My Pain,” along with it, into a grass-roots hit — earning him an ever-widening fan base and, on Thursday, a hard-won gig hosting the MTV Video Music Awards.
Last month his preparations for the show brought Mr. Hart, 33, to New York, where he explained over a lunch in Times Square that his comedy was not always so confessional but that the more personal and revealing it has turned, the more successful he had become.
“Once you tap into that,” Mr. Hart said, “is when your career takes off.”
In a career that spans more than a decade, Mr. Hart finds himself in its most explosive phase so far. Since “Laugh at My Pain” was released last September, that independently produced feature has grossed more than $7.7 million on a budget of about $700,000. “Think Like a Man,” the Sony/Screen Gems romantic comedy in which he was a member of an ensemble cast, has sold more than $91 million in tickets since April.
On TV Mr. Hart has appeared in a recurring role on the hit ABC sitcom “Modern Family.” During the New York Comedy Festival in November, he will play two shows at Madison Square Garden.
For all that he has accomplished Mr. Hart is supremely confident that even greater triumphs await him. And the higher he climbs, the more certain he feels that he must be candid with audiences about everything that has happened in his life.
“Because of what I do, it has to be an open book,” he said. “But right now this is a book that is being written.”
As Mr. Hart, dressed entirely in black, tucked into a chicken Caesar salad and a glass of pinot noir, he chattered with his colleagues Harry Ratchford (who is officially director of operations for team Hart) and Dwayne Brown (his executive assistant), who sat at a nearby table.
Back and forth the three men traded smartphones and an iPad as they excitedly reviewed ticket-sales data for Mr. Hart’s Madison Square Garden shows and details of the celebrity-studded commercials he’d be filming for MTV.
But Mr. Hart, who stands 5 feet 5 inches, could easily recall a time when he was still playing the comedy clubs of his native Philadelphia under the stage name Lil’ Kev the Bastard and did not warrant much support or enthusiasm.
“I was trying to be everybody,” he said. “I was so confused I didn’t know what to do.”
During his professional initiation in the late 1990s, Mr. Hart said, he fell under the sway of elastic and physical comedians like Chris Tucker (the “Rush Hour” star) and J. B. Smoove(who would later join “Curb Your Enthusiasm”) and tried too hard to imitate their acts.
Keith Robinson, a veteran comedian who became Mr. Hart’s mentor, recalled one fateful night he saw Mr. Hart perform at a club called the Laff House.
“The first show he bombed,” said Mr. Robinson, who has also worked with comedians like Wanda Sykes and Patrice O’Neal. “The second show he killed, but he was actually better the first show, because he was being more of himself.”
Mr. Robinson took Mr. Hart under his wing, but not before giving him a stern lecture about finding his authentic voice. “The material that’s going to take you farther is the material that’s drawn from you, that you’re going to struggle with,” Mr. Robinson said. “But it’s better to struggle with your stuff than do the stuff everybody’s doing.”
Mr. Hart, it turned out, had plenty of personal struggle to tap into, starting with a childhood in which he and his older brother were raised by their mother, while his father chased his drug habit.
But Mr. Hart said: “It takes a while to tap into that. You don’t just wake up and go, ‘Oh, I’m going to be good and do this and talk about anything.’ I didn’t know how to make that funny.”
Instead Mr. Hart honed his act in clubs in Philadelphia, New York and Los Angeles, where he had been signed to a six-figure television-network talent deal. He starred in pilots for Judd Apatow, the future writer-director of “Knocked Up” and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” and for Steven Levitan, a future co-creator of “Modern Family,” that were not picked up but gave him chances to impress Hollywood. “There was a guy who appreciated everything he had,” Mr. Levitan said. “He was pretty unknown, and even then, he was enthusiastic about the things he was working on, and that energy is contagious.”
As Mr. Hart gained attention from stand-up specials like “I’m a Grown Little Man” (released in 2009) and “Seriously Funny” (in 2010), he did not shy away from joking about events in his seemingly private life.
“My fans saw me get engaged, saw me make that woman my wife,” Mr. Hart said. “Me having kids, me divorcing, me talking about divorce before the divorce, me talking about my kids’ reaction to that divorce.” (Mr. Hart has two children with his ex-wife, Torrei.)
So when Mr. Hart began preparing for “Laugh at My Pain,” there was no question that his routine would take on his most complicated biographical chapters, whether his mother’s death from cancer or the eccentric behavior of his relatives at her funeral.
Mr. Hart said his family members had not given him grief for these routines and understood that they were not the butt of his jokes.
“It’s never specifically about my family,” he said. “It’s about my life within the crazy realm that I grew up in, O.K.? I’m speaking about my family, but I’m talking about my reaction to what I’ve seen.”
Steve Harvey, the comedian and talk-show host who has been a friend and adviser to Mr. Hart for several years, suggested that beneath Mr. Hart’s spirited exterior is a thoughtful and emotional person. He recalled a recent conversation in which Mr. Hart was discussing his need to adhere to the values that his family had taught him and began to get choked up.
“The guy started crying, you know?” said Mr. Harvey, who was a producer of “Think Like a Man” and wrote the book from which it was adapted. “But then he said, ‘Hey, man, I don’t want you to think I’m some little punk, so don’t even worry about this, ’cause this ain’t really a tear.’ And then he wiped it off, right quick.”
With an affectionate laugh Mr. Harvey said he concluded from the encounter that Mr. Hart “is crazy — I know a tear when I see one.”
No matter how he depicts his family members in his act, Mr. Hart said, he has gained valuable insights from them — even his father, with whom he now has a healthy relationship.
“My dad said, ‘I was supposed to be on drugs,’ ” Mr. Hart said. “I was like, ‘Dad, shut up,’ but then I thought about it, and it was stupid but it made sense. He was saying that, basically, he was my example to never go down that road.”
Mr. Hart also has a tendency to drop the names of celebrity comedians, athletes and musicians whom he counts as friends. Asked how he landed the couple-of-the-moment Kanye West and Kim Kardashian for a viral video announcing his MTV hosting gig, Mr. Hart chuckled and said, “That’s the power of good relationships.”
MTV said it turned to Mr. Hart for the Video Music Awards this year because he has the ability to mix it up with famous people while maintaining the awestruck nature of a rank-and-file fan.
It’s “that combination of being intimately connected and yet still a little bit like, ‘Oh, my God, what am I doing here?’ ” said Stephen Friedman, the MTV president. “That allows our audience to have a really powerful connection to someone that feels more like a friend, versus someone who’s a distant talent up on the stage.”
(It’s also an upgrade from last year’s show, where Mr. Hart performed an opening monologue and appeared in comedy sketches but was not officially named its host. “We went to him really last minute,” Mr. Friedman said. “Very few comedians would have been as amenable and gracious as he was.”)
Mr. Hart, who was as eager to pitch in last year as he is to host this year, sees the Video Music Awards gigs as points on a much longer trajectory. “Hopefully after MTV, of course we’re talking Emmys, Oscars, whatever,” he said.
Already Mr. Hart’s calendar for next year is crammed full of movie roles, including a new film version of David Mamet’s “Sexual Perversity in Chicago” and a planned sequel to “Think Like a Man.” He is also producing a reality-show satire, “The Real Husbands of Hollywood,” based on comedy segments he created for the BET Awards.
Though he estimates that 60 to 70 percent of his current audience is black, Mr. Hart said he did not cater his act to any particular group and expected that those numbers would become increasingly diverse as he takes his stand-up act global.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily white people or black people,” he said. “It’s people in general. If you want to appeal to everyone, you can’t do a world tour and expect black people to show up at every date — when you’re in Australia, when you’re in Dubai, when you’re in Indonesia.”
For now Mr. Hart was focused on his current tour, “Let Me Explain,” which he plans to film at Madison Square Garden for a new concert movie. He of course wants it to surpass “Laugh at My Pain,” but how exactly, he could not yet say.
“We’re in the think tank about it,” Mr. Hart said. “It’s figuring out what that thing is, that makes it bigger and better.
But with the unshakable self-assurance of someone who has seen all his previous dreams come to fruition, he added, “It’s going to be pretty genius, I will tell you that.”