In music, it’s nothing unusual for an artist to play in front of a stadium of people. Comedy is a different story. We tend to think of stand-ups performing on barely elevated stages, in front of brick walls, in basements, probably nearby their apartment. Kevin Hart, who is in the midst of an unprecedentedly long run as the biggest stand-up in the world, is leading the charge in trying to define what it means to be an arena comedian — one huge international tour at a time.
With his sixth special, Irresponsible, coming out on Netflix on April 2, Hart appeared on Good One, Vulture’s podcast about jokes and the people who tell them, to discuss how, on a technical level, a joke progresses from an experience at home to a comedy club to being told in front of the world; how he and his comedy have evolved and continue to; and what he learned from audiences after stepping down from hosting the Oscars late last year after old homophobic jokes of his resurfaced. Read a short excerpt from the conversation below, or click the audio player to hear the full interview.
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Something like your kids walking in on you having sex happens — how long before you start working on it as potential material? And what are the first steps?
We’re talking about it that night. I got two guys [Harry Ratchford and Joey Wells] that have been with me for the longest time. I’ve given them the title of writers, but they’re more of listeners and understanders. They understand me; they understand my humor. So, when I had these crazy thoughts, we talk about them. My way of writing is a spark plug.
I’m just, here’s a thought, Oh shit: “I’m on the phone, you all jump on the phone, this could be funny.” “What, Kev?” “Hey look, today, me and Nico was getting down, the kids got home early, we ain’t hear them, he popped in the room, I just laid down on her, in missionary position, but it was so scary because we didn’t know what he saw, what he didn’t.” But the playoff was so smooth, and I was like, “The joke is just about playing off what this actual act is.” And they was like, “The playoff?” We just started going back and forth on the playoff.
You just riff and talk about it and it balloons. How do you then refine it at the clubs, before you are ready for arenas?
The best way to shape and mold a joke is through conversation onstage. The benefit of me having Harry Ratchford and Joey Wells is, while I’m onstage, they’re taking notes as to what’s working. It’s basically like having a voice recorder without having a voice recorder. They make bullet points. And then before I go onstage what they give me is the bullet-point list.
I’ll do ten shows at a comedy club from Wednesday through Sunday, and the goal will be to come out of that with a strong 20 minutes. Yeah, I’m doing an hour onstage, but the goal is for me to say I got 20 minutes from that hour that I want to hold onto. Now when I come back to do another comedy club, I’m not talking about the extra stuff that was within that hour. I’m starting on that 20 minutes, and then after that 20 minutes, then I’m talking and I’m expanding and I’m freestyling and I’m seeing what else can basically be developed based on this amazing 20 minutes that I feel really good about.
How do you know if the audience’s response is really meaningful and it’s not just that they’re excited to see Kevin Hart?
The only reason why I feel really good about the 20 minutes is not just because of the audience responses, but because of me and my guys — our conversation about it and me knowing me and knowing, No, Kev, you got better than that. You can do better than that. Having a real team around me that’s not afraid to go, “That’s shit-ass.”
What do you do to make sure it works for an audience, then, of 20,000?
The best way to make sure that material works for thousands of people is to make sure that it’s universal — to make sure that it’s something that everyone can relate to. You only separate people when you talk about the differences between people. You alienate a group of people that may not understand. I personally note what everybody relates to. You relate to kids. You relate to growing up. You relate to parenting. You relate to marriage. You relate to divorce. You relate to turmoil. You relate to fear. You relate to superstition. You relate to psychological warfare. Those are things that everybody pretty much goes through. You relate to the growth of an individual.
There are many different ways for a comedian to tell stories onstage, but what I find interesting is if and how comedians decide to tell the audience that they know they are doing something wrong. Why do you prefer to let the story stand on its own and have the audience sort it out?
If you’re not true to yourself, then who are you true to? What I’m learning, as I get older, is that you’re never going to be done figuring it out. I also learned that you’re never going to be able to please everybody. It’s literally the most impossible thing to do in the world. You get to a point where you say, “I’m going to do my best. And if those that aren’t happy aren’t, hopefully in the future they will become happier with me and my craft and my talent.” They can only realize that you’re ever a work in progress.
I know you’ve said you’re done talking about the Oscars.
Let’s just go. Talk. I have no problem with being candid and open. What I love about getting to the age that I’m at [is] you really are okay with talking about whatever it is. When I said, “Yo, I’m not talking about it anymore,” it’s because the reason for me being out and what I was supposed to be —
Promoting a movie.
I was supposed to be working on something else! But the conversation if I didn’t do that would have been shifted and geared towards this, and now the attention to what people have worked hard for is taken away. Keep in mind, that’s the whole reason for me stepping away from it in the beginning. So many things can get lost and get misconstrued, but the attempt for good gets swept up with the look of bad, because that’s the perception that is being portrayed. I didn’t want to take away from a night where people should be celebrated for their hard work. I’m in the movie business, so I know the work that goes into the movie business.
The thing that struck me, as a person who has followed your career, and how vulnerable you are onstage, was how defensive you seemed — how closed off.
When people are asking questions about that time, that period, that joke, it’s not that I’m defensive. I’m really looking at it as: Guys, what do you want me to explain? Like, I don’t feel like that. That wasn’t done in a malicious way, to where I’m saying I’m going to do that to my kid for real! It was an attempt to be funny. Today, I understand why people are like, “That’s not funny. He shouldn’t say shit like that.” You’re absolutely right. I apologize for those that are offended. I don’t want you guys to think that that’s who I am, which is why I went on this big, ten-year run of not doing that anymore. So, it wasn’t about not being comfortable. It was about me being frustrated with the fact that the ten-year change was instantly overlooked.
Now, I can say, within growth, within time, and a moment to step away, those that may not look into the ten-year period as growth may be looking for another round of, “That’s not who I am,” and “I’m sorry’s.” Which, okay. I have to understand that. I have to acknowledge that. Okay, guys. I’m sorry. But then I didn’t say it right, or it wasn’t said with this and it wasn’t said with that. So now, now you just get confused.
So now I say, You know what, I’m going to step away from it. I’m going to talk to somebody that I know, because I know tons of people that are in this community, tons of friends. Hey, tell me what you feel I did wrong? Lee Daniels, Don Lemon, good friends. “Hey Kev, we just feel like you had an opportunity to say that you don’t condone this type of violence towards anybody for being who they are.” And I said, “But why do you think I do?” “Kevin, because of this right here. And you not coming out and talking about it correctly makes it look like you do.” “But I never said that I do.” “It doesn’t matter, Kevin. That’s what we want to hear. We want to know.” “You know what? Point taken, I understand. Can I ask a question?” This is to my friends! “Ask your question, Kevin.” “Why do you assume that I’m supposed to know that? Why do you assume that a man from North Philadelphia, 15th and Erie, who is not familiar at all with this world until I was introduced to Los Angeles, California?” And even after coming, I’m not in deep to where I know of all the issues and problems that people have suffered from from being themselves. I’m not aware!
So, I asked them, “Why didn’t you call me earlier and say that? Why wasn’t that the call? Why wasn’t it, ‘Kev, it ain’t about that. People don’t really think that that’s you. This is an opportunity for you to speak up for so many others.’ Why didn’t you say that, then?” That my friends had to go, “You’re absolutely right. Maybe there was an assumption of what you’re supposed to know.” There shouldn’t be, because that’s not where I’m from. That’s not how I was raised. That’s not what I’ve been around. So, there’s a level of understanding that has to come from everybody, but nobody wants to relax and breathe. Right now we live in a time where it’s cool to be angry, where it’s cool to just be irate. And what this showed me about comedy is, Wow, it is real easy to be insensitive onstage. Wow, it is real easy to say some hurtful shit onstage. It is real easy to do something for a laugh that can affect somebody else’s life. Oh, shit! Whoa. When I read [the jokes again] I thought, Oh, ooh, fuck! That’s bad. That’s extremely bad.
Which is why I said I’ll never do it again. And then I didn’t. So, for this period, and this time, and this particular incident, I’m not asking for the emotions to be buried behind the statement for others that that may have hit close. I’m asking for the understanding and acknowledgement of someone being ignorant to what is going on and to simply think that his apology from old should have been good enough.
Are you going to talk about it onstage? Are you excited?
Of course! I’m happy that I have the friends, that I’ve learned, that I’ve grown, and onstage, you will see me talk about this. The conversation that me and Lee Daniels had was a serious one, but I can find funny in everything. You know, the craziest part of the conversation was Lee not snapping on me, but Lee popped me. He popped my hand. You know, ‘cause he felt like I … he said, “Just shut up and listen to me.” Because I kept saying “Lee, I’m asking just what — ” and he’s like, “Shut up, I’m trying to tell you.” He popped me. I said, “Alright, I’m not going to say nothing else, Lee.” The conversation, the realization, and the conclusion: It’s just like a joke.
If I don’t talk about it, I’m leaving an incomplete story to the people that have followed me the most. I’ve never not talked about anything. I’ve talked about it all! This is a pivotal moment in my life and in my career, so it will be onstage. But, once again, there won’t be anything malicious behind it. It’ll be about me. It’ll be about my take on what happened, my opinion, and my realization. There’s going to be funny in it. I’m going to make people laugh at it no matter what. That’s what I do. I’ve done it with everything — my mom’s funeral. I’ve done it with my dad and his drug addiction. I’ve done it with my kids and my ex-wife and how we split up. And one of the most toughest times ever was me and my kids, when I fucking left the house and I had them there! But I talked about it. That’s my therapy. If I don’t talk about it, I don’t fix it.
These are sort of amorphous terms, but would you rather people say Kevin Hart was the biggest comedian of the 21st century, or Kevin Hart was the best comedian of the 21st century?
You can’t get into what you want people to say. I’m about me. I’m about putting the work in, and when it’s all said and done, knowing that I did everything that I possibly could to leave it all on the table. In no way, shape, or form am I ever going to be Eddie Murphy, because there’s only one Eddie Murphy. In no way, shape, or form am I ever going to be Richard Pryor; there’s only one Richard Pryor. When you talk about the GOATs of comedy, I don’t know who else comes up, but those two names are always there. Dave Chappelle, he’s always going to be in that discussion. Chris Rock, always going to be in that discussion. Those are the names that I know no matter what gets brought up. Katt Williams, regardless of his personal life, his name gets brought up! Katt Williams had one of the funniest specials of all time. I’m not going to deny that. Those conversations will always be conversations. But they have no affect on me and what I’m doing.
The Kevin Hart conversation hopefully will be a conversation where it puts me in a land of my own. All I can say is that my résumé speaks for itself and numbers don’t lie. The level of consistency doesn’t lie. But, the opinion and feelings — I don’t have the time to care. I only have the time to do. When it’s all said and done, my portfolio will be one that I will forever be proud of, and when you look back at it, you gonna say that was a bad motherfucker, man. And by that time, hopefully I’m at an age where I can go, “Wow, man, they appreciated it.” Or maybe I’m not here and my kids will feel fucking proud about what their daddy was and what he did and what he left.