The world's highest-earning comedian on his new film, Fatherhood, and why he's had it with cancel culture.
Kevin Hart is the highest-earning stand-up in the world right now, and the next highest — Jerry Seinfeld — isn't even close. Over 16 months from September 2017, Hart's Irresponsible tour filled 119 arenas around the world , including six in the UK. Meanwhile, as an actor, his prolific output of comedy blockbusters such as Ride Along and Night School have made more than US$4 billion at the box office. "I'm extremely attracted to business," he tells me, adding later that he thinks he could be a billionaire by the time he's 45. He turns 42 next month and is worth US$200 million ($283 million), so he has some work to do. But work is his thing and he lacks neither confidence in his abilities nor motivation.
Born in Philadelphia in 1979, Hart was raised by his single mother, Nancy, while Henry, his drug-addicted father, was in and out of jail. His older brother, Robert, was kicked out of the house and legally emancipated from Nancy after committing a series of crimes including drug dealing and theft. Desperate, perhaps, to avoid the same happening to him, Hart studied hard and graduated from high school. While he was working as a shoe salesman a friend suggested he try an open-mike night and he realised he could be funny for money. His freewheeling style is like Richard Pryor after a focus group — they share an energy, but Hart feels less unhinged, more practised, with skits ranging from family-friendly jokes to full-on X-rated rants. He is an elaborate, physical performer and that is his appeal to his global audience — he is raw, he is rude and he is very funny.
His next film, Fatherhood, is a departure from all of this. He plays a man left to raise his daughter alone when his wife dies after giving birth and it will surprise many to see this brash loudmouth conveying the numbness of grief very convincingly. "I say this humbly — but I'm as talented as f***," he says, which is not him being arrogant, more what he considers to be an honest reflection of his skills. "I'm really good at what I do."
Hart is speaking from a hotel room in Budapest, where he is making a film in which he plays a "military-trained specialist". To show that he can do the work better than anyone else — which is what he always wants to do — he overprepared for the role, training with US Navy Seals. It shows — he fills a tight white T-shirt and looks more athlete than comedian. He is also the most professional celebrity I've met over Zoom, with big headphones and a studio microphone set up. Most of his peers turn up with a bad connection and hope for the best, but Hart does not leave things to chance. Off screen he types away on his phone, messaging whoever, yet somehow he never seems to drop his attention from our interview. It is almost as if, rather than one big brain, he has four smaller ones, so he can split focus between his multihyphenate career and his family back in California.
Financially, then, he is doing well. But his commercial success in film has so far failed to translate into any sort of critical acclaim — something he claims not to care about. It was all smiles and laughter when Jimmy Fallon, The Tonight Show host, joked: "You've made so many films in the last few years, have you ever thought of just slowing down and making one good one?" But then there's the story of the critic who wrote a scathing review of one of his films and received, from Hart, a cardboard cut-out of the comedian plus an US$8,000 ($11,300) bottle of wine. I'm tempted to write, "Kevin Hart drowns cats!" to see what turns up in the post, but he claims that gift was just a one-off.
"I've only had two good movie reviews," shrugs the star of more than 60 films. "It doesn't bother me. I'm no stranger to negative feedback." So why send the expensive wine? What point was he trying to make? "It was a nudge," he says. "This guy always wrote something bad and he has to realise these movies make hundreds of millions; there may be a following attached to stuff I do. But the bigger that you get the more people poke at you. I don't know why. The road to success is amazing. Then you get there and opinions about you grow."
Opinions grow and personal histories are raked through. In 2018 Hart was announced as the host of the Oscars ceremony; a huge accolade for an entertainer. But there was an immediate backlash as homophobic tweets he had sent nearly ten years previously — plus some dubious old stand-up material — resurfaced. The tweets contained offensive references to Aids, while a routine from 2010 featured the quip, "Being a heterosexual male, if I can prevent my son from being gay, I will," which was followed by a joke about knocking his son to the ground. The Oscars organisers asked him to apologise. He refused and said that he had addressed it in an interview in 2015, when he said he would no longer tell that joke, and that he had also apologised — even if said apology proved difficult to unearth.
Faced with a rising tide of anger, he stepped down from the ceremony and issued a statement: "I sincerely apologise to the LGBTQ community for my insensitive words from my past." It was an extremely fraught and tricky time. Gay people associated with his company HartBeat Productions felt that they had to justify working for him. A few weeks later he apologised again and said that was that.
Today he tells me: "If people want to pull up stuff, go back to the same tweets of old, go ahead. There is nothing I can do. You're looking at a younger version of myself. A comedian trying to be funny and, at that attempt, failing. Apologies were made. I understand now how it comes off. I look back and cringe. So it's growth. It's about growth."
His latest stand-up show, the aptly named Zero F***s Given, was released on Netflix in November and has already been viewed more than 21 million times. "I mean, I personally don't give a shit about it," he says of cancel culture. His raised eyebrows suggest he really means that too. "If somebody has done something truly damaging then, absolutely, a consequence should be attached. But when you just talk about … nonsense?" He flicks his hand dismissively. "When you're talking, 'Someone said! They need to be taken [down]!' Shut the f*** up! What are you talking about?" On stage he is full of movement, and he is now chopping at the air wildly. It feels like the start of a routine. Except he's deadly serious.
"When did we get to a point where life was supposed to be perfect? Where people were supposed to operate perfectly all the time? I don't understand. I don't expect perfection from my kids. I don't expect it from my wife, friends, employees. Because, last I checked, the only way you grow up is from f***ing up. I don't know a kid who hasn't f***ed up or done some dumb shit."
He seems genuinely fed up. "I've been cancelled, what, three or four times? Never bothered. If you allow it to have an effect on you, it will. Personally? That's not how I operate. I understand people are human. Everyone can change. It's like jail. People get locked up so they can be taught a lesson. When they get out, they are supposed to be better. But if they come out and people go, 'I'm not giving you a job because you were in jail' — then what the f*** did I go to jail for? That was my punishment — how do you not give those people a shot? They're saying that all life should be over because of a mistake? Your life should end and there should be no opportunity to change? What are you talking about?" He points forcibly at me. "And who are you to make that decision?"
Though he claims not to be bothered by cancel culture, he does admit that comedy has changed because of it. He started in stand-up in the late 1990s with the stage name Lil Kev the Bastard, before his first big comedy special, I'm a Grown Little Man, took him to new heights in 2009, with cathartic jokes about his stature: he is 5ft 2in. Back then the circuit was unfiltered, he says, but now comics feel censored and have lost the freedom once attached to their craft. "You're thinking that things you say will come back and bite you on the ass. I can't be the comic today that I was when I got into this."
But if he is not, as he says, affected by the persistent threat of cancellation, why change the comedy he does? "It's not necessarily about cancel culture," he elaborates. "It's backlash. It's about the intent behind what you say — there's an assumption it's always bad and, somehow, we forgot comedians are going for the laugh. You're not saying something to make people angry. That's not why I'm on stage. I'm trying to make you laugh and if I did not make you laugh I failed. That's my consequence."
I mention how, after the Oscars mess, he said he would only get on that stage when he figured out how to win an actual award. He nods. Is Fatherhood the type of project he meant? "Life has a funny way of working itself out, right?" he says. "A lot came from that moment. Lessons were learnt. Insight. So much came my way that I take it as a good thing that happened in my life. If I do get to that stage? Great." He shrugs. "If I don't? Great. Will it be in a hosting manner? No."
There is a scene in Fatherhood in which Hart's character, Matt, goes into his daughter's school because she has been told she cannot wear trousers. The teacher asks: "What if a boy wanted to come to school dressed in a skirt?" "Well, that's that boy's business," Matt replies. "It's the 21st century!" Which is exactly the kind of acceptance the actor has been criticised for lacking.
"Yes, yes," says Hart, pre-empting my question. "But the crazy thing is that was in the script. It's a well-written line, because our job is to help [a child] truly feel like they can be themselves. It's not our job to prohibit them." He knows how people might take the scene — a not-so-subtle attempt to prove he isn't the bigot he has been accused of being. "But it's a message the world needs," he sighs. "The importance of support."
As a child Hart shared a one-bedroom flat with his mother that had tape on the floor to catch cockroaches. Part of the reason that he works so hard must be because of where he comes from.
Though now reconciled, the relationship with his dad was tough — "I love him, there's no grudge. I don't have the time to find anger" — while his beloved mum died when she was 56. He says people born with money take it for granted. Hart takes nothing for granted.
His focus now is on creating generational wealth for his family: wife Eniko and four children — teens Heaven and Hendrix from a first marriage, who split their time between parents, toddler Kenzo and baby Kaori from the second.
In 2014 emails from Sony Pictures were leaked as part of a cyberattack on the company. In the deluge of leaked correspondence it emerged that Clint Culpepper, a production executive, had called Hart a "whore" in a message to the boss, Amy Pascal. Hart was negotiating more money to promote a film on his social media channels, in an era before that was built into contracts.
"I don't consider that being a whore," Hart shrugs, as he so often does. "I just consider that understanding your brand. The assumption of 'money whore' is that needing money is a bad thing. It comes with the assumption everybody is OK because you are OK. There's a high level of ignorance attached to that."
Hart never has to work again, but he continues to travel the world, touring his routines and shooting films. Yet he talks about the importance of close-knit family and how, like wealth, that was something he did not have growing up. He was in a serious car crash in 2019 in which the vehicle veered off the road and down an embankment. As a passenger he sustained serious back injuries and that only increased his sense that "it can all go away". Now he wants to prioritise the important things. Not money, he says, but family — being with them on a day-to-day basis. Does he, then, see the disconnect between having the home life he so cherishes and being away so much for his work?
"Well, I do it in a way that makes sense," he says, a little put out. "So if I do a movie for a couple of months, if I'm in the States, I fly home every weekend. Or the family come out. If I'm touring I might just do Friday, Saturday and Sunday, so I'm at home all week. Maybe I'll take two months off and then be home with the family."
In 2017 Hart publicly admitted to cheating on his wife, Eniko, after a friend used a sex tape to blackmail him. Hart did not pay, but came clean to Eniko, who stuck by him. "Yeah, we're close," he insists. But can't Heaven and Hendrix find out all the details, sordid and otherwise, of their father's life by going online? "Yeah, but we're fine," he reiterates with added buoyancy. "There are no secrets. You can't be that way today. There's too much floating around and a high percentage is bullshit, because that is what the internet does. It creates, spreads so fast that you're playing a game of what's true and what isn't. But that should never happen in your home."
There is no doubt that Hart is extremely unflappable. This might be because he talks of himself not so much as a person sometimes but a project — as though Kevin Hart is just another part of the Kevin Hart empire. He is so in love with his HartBeat Productions company that he can come across a little Gordon Gekko — "I love the CEO lifestyle. World of VC. Investing. Creating entities and IPs." He also makes motivational audiobooks — "I'm having a lot of fun in the literature space" — and even has a young adult novel out this week: Marcus Makes a Movie, about dreaming big. "I have navigated it correctly," is how he describes his controversy-laden career and, to be honest, you can chuck so much water his way — poor reviews, Oscars, car crash, Sony, sex tape — but he just remains the duck's back.
There is no doubt, though, that his apologies can sound more like explanations — as if, deep down, he really just wants to prove he was right all along. Or, at least, to show that there was a reason for whatever happened at the time. He was young. The scene was different back then. He's grown since. Yet there is sincerity here, and persuasiveness, not to mention a willingness to address anything he is asked, which, in a world full of dubious Hollywood apology and question dodging, is not only refreshing, it is rare.
"If there's a message to take from anything I've said," he concludes, "it's that in this world of opinion, it's OK to just disagree. It's OK to not like what someone did and to say that person wasn't for me. We are so caught up in everybody feeling like they have to be right and their way is the only way. Politics is f***ed up because, if you don't choose our side, you're dumb."
He is gesticulating now, hands like a conductor, building up to a crescendo. "It's a divide. It's f***ed up. But I'm not about to divide. I don't support the divide!" His voice is rising. It squeaks. This is how he works in his big arenas. "I put everybody in the f***ing building," he continues. "We all come into this building Kevin Hart is in and we all laugh. I bring people together — like it or not."
Fatherhood is released on Netflix on Friday June 18. Marcus Makes a Movie by Kevin Hart is published by Random House and available now.
Written by: Jonathan Dean
© The Times of London