Internet Famous

9 minute read
Joel Stein

It makes no sense to be as famous as Kevin Hart is and still not be that famous. In 2011, Hart, 32, was the top-grossing touring comedian, having sold-out back-to-back nights at the Staples Center and Madison Square Garden. Last year’s Think Like a Man, which he starred in, made more than $90 million in the U.S. Laugh at My Pain became the first hit stand-up film in years and Seriously Funny debuted as Comedy Central’s highest-rated stand-up special of 2010. And yet there are agents, studio execs and a whole lot of moviegoers who don’t know who he is. As Chris Rock improvised to Hart during a scene they shot for the next season of Hart’s BET mockumentary series, The Real Husbands of Hollywood (as yet unscheduled), “I’m like Prince. You’re like Trey Songz … I’m famous. You’re black famous.”

Black famous isn’t quite right. Hart’s stand-up audiences are racially diverse. He has purposely split his fame between audiences, making sure he does an indie movie with a predominantly white cast for every indie movie with a predominantly black cast, a mainstream film for every indie, a TV show for every movie. After hosting the 2011 BET Awards, he hosted the 2012 MTV Video Music Awards. He’s been a longtime regular in Judd Apatow projects, starting with the 2002 TV series Undeclared and appearing in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. He’s been a pitchman for eBay, Air Jordan, Ford and Xbox. But Hart, despite all those films, stadium shows and commercials, is Internet famous.

Not on the Internet but from the Internet. Copying the successful model built by his friend comedian Dane Cook, Hart collected the e-mail addresses of people who went to his shows and then invited them back to hear new material next time he arrived in town. He built a rabid audience slowly and by himself. With more than 7.5 million followers, he’s now the 82nd most popular person on Twitter–four spots above the NBA. When he’s in a city, he’ll sometimes tweet that he’ll buy popcorn for anyone who shows up for a screening of a film he’s in. He tweets and Instagrams about 10 times a day. “You want your fans to always be able to reach you,” says Hart from his trailer on the set of Real Husbands of Hollywood, a scripted parody of reality shows based on a sketch he shot for the 2011 BET Awards. “That’s where I struck gold. I don’t ever want to feel like I’m way above my fans, that I can’t talk to them.”

You’re either a hardcore Kevin Hart fan–and there are a lot of them–or you vaguely recognize him. “My agent said, ‘A guy by the name of Kevin Hart wants to get in touch with you,’ and I said, ‘Absolutely. Give him my number right now.’ My agent didn’t even know who he was,” says Tim Story of first meeting Hart in 2010, before going on to direct him in Think Like a Man. To get Sony executives to realize how big the movie could be for marketing purposes, producer Will Packer took them to see Hart live. After the film’s crew saw him command an Atlanta arena, they treated him differently.

In July, Hart is continuing to build his business himself, funding his next stand-up film, Let Me Explain, with $2.2 million of his own money. He’s getting it into 750 theaters–nearly four times as many as Laugh at My Pain, for which he invested $700,000. (It made nearly $8 million.) Just as he copied Cook, he now wants to follow the business plan of Tyler Perry. “I like the word mogul,” Hart says. “I think I can have a production company. I think I can fund and produce my own projects. I think I can write. I think I can direct. I think I can be responsible for a new wave of comedy and comedic look to films.”

Hart, who talks as fast as he moves, is intense about everything. His schedule normally involves shooting a movie during the week, flying to do stand-up on the weekend and showing up at BET meetings for his show in between. “I watched the Jerry Lewis documentary and thought of Kevin. He was that guy who thought about everybody’s job,” says Real Husbands of Hollywood executive producer Jesse Collins. “They’ll say, I need you to get on the phone with Honey Nut Cheerios and get that sale done. And he knows how to do it.” When BET asked writer Ralph Farquhar to turn Real Husbands of Hollywood from an awards-show sketch into a series, he wondered why Hart would bother. “It’s part of his bigger plan. He’s going to be online, in the movie theater, in the coliseums and be on TV. He recognizes that one fuels the other in this day,” he says. “And obviously, he’s a workaholic.” Hart, of course, also plans on writing a book.

Hart’s Secret Weapon: Kevin Hart

Hart’s onstage character is equally manic, scrolling through ideas more than vivisecting them. But he does it from a unique perspective: he’s obsessed with masculinity and the fact that he doesn’t have the height–he’s 5 ft. 2 in.–or the aggression expected of him. He’s been doing stand-up since he was 18 in Philadelphia, but when I ask him the first joke he ever told that truly felt like his, he quickly answers, “It was about my ex-wife and I getting into an argument and the cops getting involved. And they were involved because I called them. It was true. They came and were like, ‘What’s the problem?’ and I was like, ‘She hit me.’ And I started crying while I was talking to the cops. That was the first joke where I was like, That’s all I have to do.” The phrase Hart probably says most in his act is “My biggest fear is …” Vulnerable and unashamed, Hart has found, creates a lot more frisson coming from a black man.

“White people self-deprecate. We don’t self-deprecate,” says Chris Spencer, a comedian who co-created Real Husbands of Hollywood. “White audiences want you to seem normal. We want you to know we’re doing well. Eddie Murphy came out onto the stage out of a spaceship, and there was an orgy going on.” But Hart has a different approach, Spencer says. “Kevin lets you know he’s one of you. You feel like you might be able to see Kevin at Rite Aid.” During his Let Me Explain tour, Hart opened his show with pyrotechnics that he then made fun of–mocking expectations even while satisfying them.

But his main goal is always to satisfy, with the energy of an old-school entertainer. Comedian J.B. Smoove, a regular on Real Husbands of Hollywood, first met Hart when he was playing Philadelphia’s Laff House and Hart was in the audience, eager to hang out with the comics afterward. “You could tell how hungry he was by the knowledge he wanted,” says Smoove, who was impressed by the vulnerability Hart showed onstage. When Apatow saw Hart perform in 2000, he wrote a TV pilot for him and Amy Poehler about unemployed actors. “Nobody works harder than Kevin,” says Apatow. “He is a force.” In 2004, ABC gave him a short-lived sitcom, The Big House, in which he played a reverse Fresh Prince, a rich kid in Malibu who moves in with working-class relatives.

Since then, Hart has mostly played some version of Kevin Hart. His act got stronger two years ago when he talked about his divorce, his mother’s funeral and his father’s cocaine addiction. The morning after he was pulled over for a DUI this spring, he made jokes about it both on Twitter and to the crew on the Real Husbands of Hollywood set and then used it as part of his routine at Seth Rogen’s charity event, Hilarity for Charity, saying he handled it better than Reese Witherspoon. Hart is so open about his life that he’s constantly able to use it as material. When he tells me he’s engaged and I ask him when he’s getting married, he tells me it’s not happening anytime soon. “A ring just says, ‘I like you.’ It gives me 10 more years. That’s just something you hold her off with.” After a divorce three years ago, he says he’s learned that marriage is serious. “Engagements, you can do that 30 times.”

Hart’s plan seems to be to do as many things as many times as he can until he gets it right–a strategy that all but guarantees not everything is going to succeed. Which Hart is O.K. with, since he has a Nietzschean belief that his troubles and failures make him stronger. A few years ago, thinking he was Chris Rock famous, he blew through nearly all his money. When I ask him what he bought, what his Mike Tyson tiger moment was, he says, “When you buy something you can look at, that’s not dumb–it’s still there. I bought a tiger! It’s right there. The things that are dumber are things you don’t remember. When you look up and say, ‘I thought I had a million dollars. I bought some shirts. I had a belt. My dad, I got him a hat.’ You’re just adding stuff up. A hat? That’s like $60. So I must have bought a lot of those.” If there’s a better metaphor than too many hats to describe an entertainer hoping to act, write and produce, then Hart will use that in his routine too. He’s got a lot of content to fill.

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