‘That was disgusting,” says Kevin Hart. The comedian is hunched over a high-limit blackjack table at Detroit’s MGM Grand casino, where a curly-haired dealer named Alexis is mercilessly hoovering up Hart’s chips. “She’s on a heater!” cries Hart, and just like that, he’s lost $10,000. You might think 10 grand is nothing to a guy who’s in town for a sold-out show at the 14,000-seat Palace Arena, a comic who pulls in a mind-blowing “$400,000 to $600,000” a gig. But for the 33-year-old – raised by a single mom in a one-bedroom North Philadelphia apartment, sharing with his brother a bunk bed wedged into the hallway – blowing that kind of money still comes with a little agita. “I’m sore, all of a sudden,” Hart says, wincing as he gets up. “I was fine when I sat down. Now my hamstrings hurt!”
Hart’s head of security, a soft-spoken hulk called Terry, maneuvers him through the casino floor. “You see some of the weirdest people in Detroit casinos,” Hart says, flipping up his hood, stealth-style, and launching into a running commentary on the ambient despair, which could be the foundation of a future bit. That bald guy in jean shorts, staring at a slot machine, hand slapped to his forehead? “His life is in shambles right now.” The fat guy in a golf shirt gesticulating to a security guard? “Begging for his money back,” Hart notes, shaking his head.
His 2011 special, Laugh at My Pain (the movie earned $8 million at the box office), exploded Hart into the top tier of stand-ups – with masterfully crafted, seriously funny bits about depressing subjects, like the sudden cancer death of his mother and his father’s long-standing drug addiction. “That was me saying, ‘I’m gonna go a different route,'” he says. “Some deep shit. Finding different levels as an artist.”
We take an elevator to Hart’s suite. He unfolds an ironing board and drapes a white leather T-shirt over it. “The day you stop doing the small things is the day you think you’re above everybody else,” he says. Hart’s first comedy idol was Eddie Murphy. “Watching Raw and Delirious as a child, I was like, “Wow, people fall at his feet,'” he recalls. By 16, he was an inveterate clown. “I was the guy on the swim team entertaining the bus on the way to the meets.”
He enrolled as a theater major at a community college but dropped out “after a week and a half.” He took happily to the unglamorous life of a road comic. “It was six-hour drives to comedy clubs in East Bubbleshit, getting no money,” he says. “I performed at a strip club in Atlantic City called Sweet Cheeks. I performed in a bowling alley while people were fucking bowling.” The audiences kept getting bigger, and soon Hart was landing TV roles (he appeared on Judd Apatow’s Undeclared) and movie appearances (he has a riotously unhinged turn in Scary Movie 3). But 2012 is the year that he proved his jokes would work on the widest possible audiences: Hart hosted the MTV Video Music Awards, and he’s set to star opposite Seth Rogen in an upcoming buddy-cop spoof. “I went to Europe this year: London, Amsterdam, Oslo,” Hart says. “My audience was heavy, heavy white. But I sold out every place.”
Hart recently bought a mansion in the hills near L.A.’s Mulholland Park, and he collects cars: “A Mercedes SLS AMG, with the Batman doors. A ’66 GTO. Right now, I wanna go Ferrari.” None of this shows up in his new set, titled Let Me Explain – which is mostly about his recent divorce. (He does have one joke about horseback riding, but mostly to mock the fact that his legs are too stubby to reach the stirrups.) “People don’t want to hear about me having leather walls or gold toilets.”
It’s almost showtime. Hart leaves the hotel in an SUV, the leather shirt on a hanger next to him, and immediately faces a superstar problem: a traffic jam caused by his own audience. When he makes it to the Palace, he takes the stage to a booming Meek Mill track – the first bit of over-the-top showmanship in a set that also includes an entire Kiss concert’s worth of lasers, smoke machines and pyrotechnics (“I’m the first comedian with fire!” he announces onstage with half-serious chutzpah). “People need this,” the comedian says. “They need to laugh. I’m trying to do what Eddie Murphy did for his generation. You have to show people, ‘I’m different. I’m not just a comedian.’ I’m trying to become a rock star.”
This story is from the October 25th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.