Kevin Hart's Funny Business

Call him adorable, raunchy, shameless — just make sure you also call him stand-up's first mogul

Proceed past a tan stucco security booth in the Los Angeles suburb of Tarzana, into one of the neighborhood's opulent gated communities, and find the large house on the left with the black Mercedes SLS AMG out front, its gull-wing doors raised in an ostentatious overhead greeting. Pause to admire the white Ferrari 458 Spider in front of it, which, like the SLS, is being washed and waxed on this blazing June day by a team of guys in matching gray polo shirts. Walk up the home's stone pathway, through the heavy wooden front doors, and try not to stumble over the luggage — Goyard, Vuitton, Givenchy — piled in the marble-floored foyer. Wave to the saleswoman from Cartier, who's made a house call with an array of Love Bracelets and other jewelry in tow. Pause to take in the cascading arrangement of fake flowers in the entryway, and let your gaze move upward along either of the two wrought-iron staircases to the second-floor landing, where an oil painting depicts a short man and a beautiful woman gazing down happily at the Vegas Strip. The short man is Kevin Hart, the hottest stand-up comic in America.

This is his home. Here comes Hart now, wearing furry slippers, distressed jean shorts and, around his neck, two likenesses of Jesus Christ pimpled with diamonds and swinging from gold chains. And here's the woman from the painting — Hart's fiancee, Eniko Parrish — wearing tiny blue sweatshorts and a tank top with Bob Marley's face across the front. She's riding a $1,500 motorized plastic plank called a PhunkeeDuck across the dining-room floor. There are several large portraits of Hart's heroes on the walls: Eddie Murphy, Dave Chappelle, Jimi Hendrix. "We good, Giselle?" Hart calls over to the Cartier lady. "It'll be just a moment more — thank you," she replies, awaiting payment authorization. Hart, 36, and Parrish have a thing for Cartier's Love Bracelets, marketed as sharable between romantic partners, and Hart has bought enough of them — straightforward yellow-gold ones, which start at $4,500 apiece; more elaborate ones with diamond settings, which start at $40,000 — that Cartier gladly dispatches its employees directly to him. Today, Giselle also brought examples of another model, the Juste Un Clou, which resembles a long nail curved into a hoop. One, in diamond-studded white gold, catches Hart's eye: MSRP $47,000. He adds it to the bill. "I'm still waiting for you to buy a watch from me one day!" Giselle tells Hart.

This is the life Kevin Hart long dreamed of. He dreamed about it when he was a kid growing up in Philadelphia — his sleeping quarters a bunk bed squeezed into the hallway of the one-bedroom apartment he shared with his single mom and older brother — and he dreamed about it when he was a fledgling road comic, putting thousands of miles on rental cars and his then-girlfriend's Grand Cherokee, zigzagging between crappy bookings. Hart has been a comedian since his late teens, but over the past several years he's drawn ever-larger crowds into ever-larger rooms — first theaters, then arenas, and at the end of August, an NFL stadium. His current tour, What Now, which cost him "something like 7, $8 million" to produce, involves an enormous configuration of video screens, travels around on eight tractor-trailers and is on track to become the highest-grossing comedy tour of all time. When he passed through New York, in July, he played three nights at Madison Square Garden and another night at the Barclays Center — the kind of rooms, as his business partner Jeff Clanagan puts it, "that Beyoncé and Jay Z play together, or Jay and Kanye — and he's playing them all by himself."

Go behind the scenes of our cover shoot, where Kevin Hart revealed the secret to his universal joke-telling and freaked out at two flies having sex:

A virtuosic, hypercharged performer, Hart doesn't unfurl punchlines so much as long yarns about crazy relatives (in Hart's onstage depiction, his dad is a former drug addict with an arsenal of colorful catchphrases); about striving to overcome his own flaws (infidelity); and about one ludicrous indignity after the next. In one beloved bit, an ex-con dressed up as SpongeBob SquarePants terrorizes Hart at a children's birthday party. "Nobody told me that SpongeBob was fresh out!" Hart protests. "This nigga was fresh out of jail!" In another, he tries to hit on women while driving, only to realize that his kids' car seats are visible in the back seat, draining away his swagger. He's able to pivot smoothly from jokes that could fit into a family-friendly sitcom (the time he found himself stuck atop a runaway horse, his legs too short to reach the stirrups) to goofball surrealism (he insists a raccoon that lives near his house has repeatedly threatened to shoot him) to flashes of acid-tongued misanthropy (the bit where he tells an imposing fan at an airport, "Kill yourself — die").

Hart's most distinguishing trait as a stand-up, though, is how he combines all this with over-the-top spectacle, carrying on in the bombastic tradition of the Eddie Murphy he first saw in Raw — a vision of leather-clad black bravado that thrilled Hart in his youth. "He was my generation's, like, 'Holy shit, this guy is unbelievable' — people fall at his feet, everything he says is golden." Hart takes stages via hidden elevators and catapults. He wears bespoke jackets, designer high-tops and tons of jewelry. His mic stand is gold. In 2013, Hart gave a theatrical release to his stand-up concert Let Me Explain, which featured enormous Metallica-style columns of fire bursting from the stage — he sank $2.5 million into the project, cut a deal with theater chains, then reaped $32 million in box-office returns. Describing the upcoming What Now film, Hart says, "It's not a concert film — it's an action movie." 

Meanwhile, he's parlayed his stage success into big TV hosting gigs (Saturday Night Live, MTV's Video Music Awards) and blockbuster comedies (Ride Along, The Wedding Ringer). He landed in L.A. at 7:30 this morning from Boston, where he's shooting a new film with Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. He'll fly back to the set on a private jet tonight, after performing What Now for a sold-out crowd at the Staples Center. "You wouldn't believe how many people have hit me up for tickets today," he says. His ex-wife and the mother of his kids, Torrei Hart, is coming. Jeffrey Katzenberg will be backstage to say hello. Floyd Mayweather says he's coming too.

"I don't give a shit about critical consensus! They poll people after my movies, and I get A's. When I get an F, I'll take criticism."

Hart works his phone, communicating with his team, with the guys washing his car, with Parrish in the other room. In the few hours he has in L.A., he's cramming in all sorts of housekeeping. "Multitasking!" he says. This morning, he met with contractors building him a new mansion up the 101, near his buddy Drake and some of the Kardashians. "We're gonna keep this house, maybe use it as a guest house for family," Hart says as he opens a door onto the in-home theater. He's a conscientious host: Last Christmas, Parrish bought him a massage chair from Brookstone, and he insists that I nestle into it, then kindly dials me up a 15-minute rubdown. "You like that?" He checks on his kids, of whom he shares custody: On a kitchen stool, his 10-year-old daughter, Heaven, is getting her hair braided. His seven-year-old son, Hendrix, bounces around on a couch, wielding a plastic blunderbuss: "It's a fart gun," Hendrix says, aiming a blast my way. Hart scoops up Hendrix tenderly and, after dipping him upside down, plants him, shrieking with laughter, on his shoulders. When Heaven's hair is done, Hart pulls three hundred-dollar bills from his shorts and hands them to her to give to the hairdresser. "Tell her thank you and that your hair looks beautiful," he tells Heaven. "And say it nicely, please."

The subtext being that it's important, when whirlwinds of success threaten to sweep you away, to remain grounded. This is the message that Hart hammered home to me when I first met him, three years ago, at a Detroit casino. In town to play a Let Me Explain show for about half a million dollars, Hart blew $10,000 in 45 minutes at a blackjack table, then retired to his penthouse suite to iron the custom-made leather T-shirt he'd wear onstage that night — if he delegated such chores to others, he explained, he risked losing touch.

It's one of several contradictions Hart juggles. He says success hasn't changed him, and yet he also styles himself a "comedic rock star." He tries to keep his mostly autobiographical jokes true to his increasingly surreal life without alienating fans. "You don't ever want to look down on your audience," he says. Hart counts among his mentors superstars like Murphy and Chris Rock, and comics' comics like Patrice O'Neal and Dave Attell, but ultimately he is comparable to no one in his field. To truly get his measure, you need to think about artist-businessmen like Jay Z or Tyler Perry. Hart has had a production company for five years; he leads a crew of comedians, nicknamed the Plastic Cup Boyz, who open for him at arenas and whose careers he hopes to launch to new heights. On the horizon, he is developing a video-sharing comedy site that he intends to rival Funny or Die, and has plans to penetrate the lucrative fitness sector. Kevin Hart, in other words, wants to become the world's most hilarious mogul. "At this point," he says, "I'm competing against Kevin Hart."

Hart changes into his traveling clothes for the ride to the Staples Center: skinny jeans, tight denim shirt, Balmain sneakers. He stacks a Juste Un Clou and some Love Bracelets on his wrist. "You're about to O.D.!" Parrish says, watching the baubles accumulate. Heaven and Hendrix wheel Minions-themed luggage to Hart's tricked-out chauffeured Mercedes Sprinter van, idling out front, because they're flying with their dad to Massachusetts after the show. We roll off. Kevin Hart has his own logo — K♥ — embroidered into the Sprinter's carpeting. Hendrix plays games on his iPhone 6, but Heaven is feeling more talkative. "How can you breathe inside a car if there are no trees in a car?" she asks, having recently learned, it seems, that trees release oxygen into the atmosphere. Hart, typing tweets about tonight's show, doesn't answer, but he is an alert, doting dad. At one point, while I'm recounting one of his bits out loud, I use the word "fucking" — Heaven cries, "Dollar!" and Hart actually makes me put a buck in a swear jar.

Hart's Sprinter merges onto the southbound 101. He's accustomed at this point to sitting in traffic jams when driving to his shows: gridlock created by his own fans. "We get police escorts sometimes," he says, but it's early enough that the highway isn't too clogged, and so we pull into a loading dock at the Staples Center with several hours to spare before showtime. In Hart's dressing room, several guys from his entourage sit at a large table. One of them is Hart's longtime co-writer Harry Ratchford, who explains that they're playing Guts, "which is kind of like Poker, but the money piles up faster." The biggest single hand they've ever played was "I think, $32,000." How's Hart at it? "Like a lot of things with Kevin, he started horrible. He'd lose $70,000 in a night. But he kept at it, kept getting better, and now you can't beat him."

A few feet away is a tall white guy with shaggy hair. This is Dave Becky, Hart's manager. Becky's client list includes numerous comedy greats — Amy Poehler, Louis C.K., Aziz Ansari — but he says Hart is unique in the way he combines the respect of his peers with his outsize tendencies. "On paper, if you told me there's a guy selling crazy tickets with fire in his act, not knowing the comedian, I'd say that's probably a guy who at his core is not great," Becky says. "But Kevin sells out arenas, has this crazy production — and Chris Rock, who would usually absolutely hate that, calls him fucking amazing." 

Hart came up through Philadelphia clubs like the Laff House, eventually making a name for himself on the New York club circuit. At first he was far stronger as a performer than he was as a writer of jokes. He recalls being invited by a group of more-established comics, like Bill Burr and O'Neal, who later befriended him, to a table at the Comedy Cellar, where they sat him down and trashed his hackier aspects. "I was doing a joke about a cross-eyed midget at the time," Hart says. "They were like, 'Really? Are you really teaching us something new about cross-eyed midgets?' " This was a rite of passage, he explains, in which they encouraged him to find laughs in harder-to-reach places: "They were telling me, 'You're good enough for us to shit all over you.' "

"I've performed at Atlantic City strip clubs, family dinners, functions — all the shots to my pride have been taken."

Stand-up is Hart's first love, and he says he'll never stop telling jokes onstage, no matter how many movies he does. But he also wants to be sure that, in writing about him, I capture his business ambitions and acumen. For instance, Hart's social-media presence has grown so enormous — he has more than 56 million followers across the major platforms — that his company Hartbeat Digital charges studios extra for his tweets or Instagrams about movies he's in. It was for this reason that a Sony executive, discussing Hart in e-mails exposed during that company's infamous hack, called him "a whore." Hart responded with an impassioned Instagram post about knowing, and protecting, his self-worth, and he said later that he harbored no ill will toward the exec. Talking about it now, Hart says, "Studios will do ad buys to promote films — with my numbers on social media, why wouldn't they pay me, too?"

After grabbing a quick bite from the steam trays in his dressing room, Hart walks to a small office across the hall, where he's arranged a meeting with two marketing reps from a major athletics-apparel company. Hart's devotees have come to know him as a fitness freak: He routinely posts images online of his workouts and uses hashtags like #HealthIsWealth and #FitFamily. He invited the reps here in hopes of obtaining an endorsement deal — he wants to partner with them at co-branded fitness events and appear in their ads. He tells them it would be counterintuitively genius for the company to give him, a nonathlete, the sort of deal usually reserved for pros like LeBron James and David Beckham. (Hart pauses to note that he will be appearing alongside Beckham in an H&M ad campaign.) In two cities so far during the What Now tour, he goes on, he's arranged spontaneous 5K runs — inviting his fan base out for early-morning jogs. 

He's going to keep doing these 5Ks, with a blowout installment planned for his upcoming stop in Philadelphia, where he's playing the 69,000-seat Lincoln Financial Field: "I'm gonna run up the Rocky steps for the finish." So far, he says, "People think these runs are just for fun." But Hart has a secret plan. "My number-one priority is: People are dying. They need to get off the couch. Fitness is real. Aunt A and Uncle C are dying. We gotta get people to understand that." Number two? "Kevin Hart is a walking marketing tool," he says. "Say you guys have a new product coming, say it wicks the moisture, whatever, I don't know what the fuck it does — whatever the product is, I can wear it and market it at the runs in a way that looks authentic. It won't look like a commercial. Because I'm actually your consumer, the non-athlete who works out hard, and I have a direct connection to my fan base." There's a charity angle to boot: "I'm donating money from my Philly show to renovate parks in the inner city, put them in my mother's name, out of my pocket. I'm doing playgrounds because I want something visual that I can be associated with." The reps nod slowly, absorbing all this. Before they can respond, Hart hits them with the kicker: "With or without a brand, I'm doing it." He lets it slip that talks with other companies are imminent. "It's gonna happen. But how much stronger would it be with your brand?"

And with that, the reps ask me to leave so they can talk more freely. Later, avoiding specifics, Hart says, "I crushed it — they were speechless."

Many comedians aren't overly interested in being funny when they're not performing, but Hart takes it to another level. In business meetings and interviews, he's unselfconsciously earnest when he's talking about himself — a sharp difference between his sly, self-deprecating onstage persona. In one raucous moment during What Now, Hart describes experimenting with sex toys meant to simulate different orifices, after Parrish gives him a "pocket pussy" to encourage his fidelity when they're apart. It's a wonderfully filthy bit about a once-philandering man reckoning, messily, with new love and monogamy. Ask Hart in person about the themes he's exploring, however, and he'll say something bland about "how I've grown as a man." In such moments, he seems less like a comedian and more like an athlete offering post-game bromides. Maybe in part it's because, as a kid, he was both class clown and jock. During high school, Hart competed on the swim team and played basketball. A small-built kid, he also learned to rely on his wits, making himself popular by cracking up classmates.

Hart's father, Henry Witherspoon, separated from Kevin's mother when he was around four. Hart says that when he was about 12, he was out with his dad when Witherspoon pointed out a young man nearby and told Hart, "That's your brother Omar." Kevin, who'd grown up with his older brother Robert, was confused. It turned out that Witherspoon had fathered a boy with another woman, and this was the way Kevin found out. 

In Hart's act, he tends to describe his father as a more or less lovably cartoonish character, referring only obliquely to darker moments, like the family gathering where Witherspoon tried to steal a $20 bill given to Kevin by a relative, or those times, Hart says, when Witherspoon has alluded to "sucking dick" for money during the depths of his addiction. I ask Hart how his father, who remains in his life, responds to such bits. "He laughs!" Hart says, adding, "He can't say shit, because I take care of him." Hart's got his own hedonistic streak that he's learned to keep in check the hard way: In 2013, he pleaded no contest to one count of DUI and received a sentence of three years of probation and three months of alcohol-education classes. But overall he seems to wear the burdens of his childhood lightly. Robert Hart, who is eight years older than Kevin, and with whom he remains close, says this is because he was insulated from Witherspoon's worst behavior: "My dad was crazy. Kevin was too young to know that the shit was as dysfunctional as it was." In Witherspoon's absence, Robert — a former barbershop owner who is now a professional pool player – says he became something of a father figure to Kevin. "If he had a bad report card or cussed, he had to worry about me," Robert says. He adds, laughingly, that Kevin was always an extrovert, "but he's my younger brother, so he wasn't funny to me, he was stupid! He was being an asshole! It was, 'Act like you got some damn sense!' "

Hart wasn't a great student, and after high school, "I went to community college for, like, a week and a half, but then I fell in love with the whole comedy thing, and I told my mom, 'This is what I'm going to do, I really have a passion for this,' " he recalls. He got interested in stand-up after a co-worker at a Philadelphia sneaker store encouraged him to drop in on an open-mic night. Hart's mother, Nancy, a computer analyst at the University of Pennsylvania, agreed to pay his $550 monthly rent as he chased the dream: "She said, 'I'll help you out for a year.' " This support came with only one string attached: "She was putting the rent checks in my Bible, and there was a point where I was back on my rent for, like, two months and I was like, 'Mom, I need the checks.' And she was like, 'Have you been reading your Bible?' I would just keep lying: 'Yes, Mom, it's not about that right now.' She said, 'When you read your Bible, I'll know.' " 

Hart's talents impressed established comedians like Keith Robinson and Attell, who gave Hart crucial early support, and for a moment it seemed he might become a star almost overnight — in relatively short order, he got a series picked up at ABC and landed a starring role in Soul Plane. "He was what I call Hollywood Hot," says Becky. But the ABC series was quickly canceled, and Soul Plane was a flop. In 2001, Hart auditioned for Saturday Night Live, but he was rejected. Becky recalls, "We were sure he was gonna get it, but it came down to Kevin and Dean Edwards" — a comedian who left SNL two years later — "and the other guy got it. The first thing Kevin did was to call him and say congratulations. He's had ups and downs, but he's never complained — he's just kept working."

"I've been to some of the damnedest places for comedy," Hart says. "I performed in a place in Atlantic City called Sweet Cheeks. It was a male strip night, and some nights a female strip night, and in the middle they would stop the stripper show and have intermission, where as comedians it was our job to go up and make the people laugh. I performed at family dinners, family functions, like where you get there and you're the entertainment for a household. You name it: All shots to my pride have been taken."

With Hollywood glory forestalled, Hart redoubled his focus on stand-up. Between a barrage of small roles in projects from The 40-Year-Old Virgin to Scary Movie 4, he added another element to his act, offsetting his flights of silliness and inspired physical comedy with an autobiographical strain. By 2011's 90-city Laugh at My Pain tour, he'd found ways to eke out laughs from his father's troubles, from his crumbling marriage with Torrei, and, perhaps darkest of all, from his mother's death, in 2007, from ovarian cancer. The subject of her illness, which she kept secret from him for a while, for fear of distracting him from his career, is one that can reliably choke him up. "She was a strong woman, dude," he says. "Didn't take no shit." 

The success of Laugh at My Pain got Hollywood's attention. After the romantic comedy Think Like a Man, anchored by Hart, enjoyed a $33 million opening weekend, Becky says, "The offers started pouring in." Hart is routinely the best thing about the movies he's in, but he says he isn't bothered that he has yet to star in a particularly well-reviewed film. "I don't give three shits about critical consensus!" he says. "I don't even read reviews. The people that count are the people who go out and buy the tickets. They poll people afterward, and I get A's. The worst score I ever got was a B, B-minus. When I get an F, that's when I'll take criticism."

Hart, an avowed crowd-pleaser, isn't aiming to push boundaries or tackle taboos. Describing his sensibility in interviews, he's said things like "I'm not a political guy" and "What you have to learn to do is to give people what they want — people love a broad comedy." There is one prominent exception to this. In 2010's Seriously Funny, he tells the audience, "One of my biggest fears is my son growing up and being gay. That's a fear. Keep in mind, I'm not homophobic. . . . Be happy. Do what you want to do. But me, as a heterosexual male, if I can prevent my son from being gay, I will." This leads into vignettes in which Hart reacts to imagined signs of Hendrix's blossoming homosexuality with interjections of "Stop, that's gay!" Discussing this bit today, Hart says, "It's about my fear. I'm thinking about what I did as a dad, did I do something wrong, and if I did, what was it? Not that I'm not gonna love my son or think about him any differently. The funny thing within that joke is it's me getting mad at my son because of my own insecurities — I panicked. It has nothing to do with him, it's about me. That's the difference between bringing a joke across that's well thought-out and saying something just to ruffle feathers." Even so, he adds, "I wouldn't tell that joke today, because when I said it, the times weren't as sensitive as they are now. I think we love to make big deals out of things that aren't necessarily big deals, because we can. These things become public spectacles. So why set yourself up for failure?"

Race as an overt topic figures very little into Hart's comedy. His core audience is black, but "I approach it on a universal level," he says, and the proof of his success on this score is the racially diverse crowd that now comes out to see him. "If you associate yourself with one group of people, you alienate another 12, you know? So the thing for me is, how can I make everybody laugh at this one thought? The thought may be provoked by something that happened on the stoop or at the barbershop, but now how do I make it broad enough for everyone to understand it and see it?" I ask if he has ever felt compelled to address race more pointedly in his act, particularly in the past year, when racism, and racist violence, have dominated the national conversation. He says that, offstage, these issues infuriate him: "A guy in the hood with two nickel bags of weed gets five years in jail, because they say they want to make an example of him, but I haven't seen one judge make an example out of one of these police officers that killed one of these young black men." But he keeps it offstage: "When I see videos of children being shot dead by police, I don't talk about it because it's something that scares me. Because I have kids. At that point, it's not a joking matter. There is no joking there. I would not touch it."

Part of the reason is that Hart wants to be seen as "a motivational figure. I won't acknowledge what I won't let beat me. Have I experienced racism? Of course. But will I make you feel superior by saying I've felt trumped at times? No. I'll beat you by succeeding. I want to show my generation that a man of color, despite the roadblocks, can still make it. There's moments when I took to social media and said things, but it's always been on the positive side. I gave a message to Baltimore: At the end of the day, we're only hurting ourselves by destroying what we have. We have to go back and live there. We're torching, firebombing, looting our stuff. We need that CVS! Be smarter than this!" Hart doesn't see a time coming when he explores racism in his act, like his idols Rock and Chappelle do. Hart characterizes his appeal differently. "It's not my style of comedy," he says. "It angers me, but not onstage. Onstage, my job is to take away whatever problems are in the world, for that brief moment of time."

After the Staples show, Hart makes a quick exit and heads in the Sprinter to a tiny airfield in Van Nuys, where a small chartered jet awaits. No identification is needed to board. No seat belts are fastened. A pretty woman dressed all in black takes drink and food orders. Hart retires to the back, covers up with a blanket and falls asleep. When the plane lands the next morning at an airstrip in Bedford, Massachusetts, it's drizzling outside. Three luxury SUVs await on the tarmac, feet from the plane. In the strip's office, a worker in a bright-orange reflective vest says that when Dwayne Johnson flew in the other day, "all the women who work here were trying to get a look at him," but it's early now, and no one's around to gawk at Hart. Parrish and the kids take one SUV to a house they've rented in the suburb of Winchester. Hart, operating on no more than four hours of sleep, takes another SUV to the set. 

The film Hart's shooting with Johnson is an action comedy called Central Intelligence. The first shot of the day requires the co-stars to be hoisted up on harnesses in front of a 40-by-45-foot blue backdrop. In the movie, it will look as though they've just jumped from a building. As Hart and the Rock regard the looming crane that will be taking them airborne, they rib each other.

"I'm gonna be shitting on you all day!" Hart tells him.

"Shut your mouth!" says the Rock. He turns to me: "Watch Kevin piss his pants up there."

Hart's job, over dozens of ensuing takes, is essentially to shout, "Fuck-fuck-fuck-fuck-fuck-fuck!" or simply shriek unintelligibly while feigning free fall. It is tedious, repetitive work, but he does it with full-throated conviction each time.

Between setups, Hart has returned to solid ground, at which point the director, Rawson Marshall Thurber, walks over to the tent where Hart's standing. Hart is wearing a sweater under the hot midday sun, bouncing in place, awaiting the next take. I say it looks like he's having a great time up on the wire. "I'm not!" he replies. Thurber grins, slaps Hart affectionately on the shoulder and says that he's a master at hiding his fatigue behind a facade of manic enthusiasm. "Kevin is like my dad when you put on a movie," Thurber says. "If he stops moving, he'll fall asleep."

Hart nods his head vigorously, pretends to pass out, then snaps his eyes open wide and laughs. "Can't stop!" he cries.

He shifts his weight from foot to foot, bouncing in place. "If you sit me still, we're in trouble!"