News Column

Kevin Hart: Comically independent

June 30, 2013

YellowBrix

June 30--For Kevin Hart, the urban Rumpelstiltskin who has spun his crazy childhood coming up at 15th and Erie in North Philadelphia into comedy gold, the Fourth of July has unusually idyllic associations.

"It was a big family event," he says on the phone from his home in Los Angeles. "Eating hot dogs, watching the fireworks at Penn's Landing with my mom and dad."

This Independence Day should be his most memorable yet.

He's MCing the Philly Fourth of July Jam, the free concert on the Parkway, featuring John Mayer, Ne-Yo, Demi Lovato, and a distinguished contingent of local talent, including the Roots and Jill Scott.

Signaling the growing stature of this annual event, the Jam will be telecast nationally for the first time (8 p.m. Thursday, VH1).

Hart doesn't mind working on a holiday. "It depends on your definition of work," he says. "I enjoy being a personality. I love entertainment. I'm going to have a good time with the crowd."

The interview is constantly interrupted as Hart steps away from the phone to plead with one or another of the dogs barking busily in the background.

The Parkway show falls on the day after Hart celebrates both his 33d birthday and the release of his latest performance film, Let Me Explain, filmed at Madison Square Garden during his international stand-up tour in 2012.

He makes a curious choice for his entrance music in Let Me Explain: "Eye of the Tiger" from the 1982 one-hit-wonder Survivor. It was, of course, the theme song of another Philly legend: Rocky Balboa.

"It was a perfect song," says Hart. "That song defined where I was."

The comedian does do a good deal of mock-defensive explaining in the film. The stand-up routine is prefaced by a skit set at an epically awkward after-party during which Hart is scolded by one attendee after another for the negative stories that have attached themselves to him in recent years.

"As an entertainer, you're judged by everything you do," he says. "People grasp a concept of what your reality is and that sticks to you.

"It was said I don't like dark-skinned women, that I don't get along with my ex-wife, that I didn't give her no money" in the divorce settlement, he continues.

He also takes a lot of heat in the sketch from people still objecting to his role in Soul Plane, the 2004 airline movie that many attacked as a shabby baggage carousel of negative stereotypes.

"Everyone said that was offensive to African Americans," Hart says. "At the end of the day, it was a spoof. It was made to make fun of all ethnicities. Those people judging it were looking at it too serious."

The comedian is convinced that nasty gossip is just part of the price of doing show business. And Kevin Hart does a lot of business.

In addition to his flourishing stand-up career, he's a scene-stealing dervish in films like Think Like a Man and This is the End. Over the next year, you'll see him in films alongside Ice Cube (Ride Along), Michael Ealy (a remake of the 1986 romantic comedy About Last Night), and Robert De Niro and Sylvester Stallone (Grudge Match).

On TV, he's hosted Saturday Night Live, The BET Awards, and MTV's Video Music Awards served as a panelist on Chelsea Lately; and appeared on series from Modern Family to Workaholics.

That's in addition to his own show, Real Husbands of Hollywood, a riotous reality-show parody on BET. It will be hard to outdo the episode that had chart-topping white R&B crooner Robin Thicke transforming, Hulk-like, into Terry Crews. But when the second season of Real Husbands kicks off in the fall, it will include guest stars like Chris Rock, Katie Couric, Wanda Sykes, and Ed O'Neill.

Hart is also a popular commercial spokesman for products including Ford, Nike, and Coke Zero. And we haven't even mentioned the most surprising credit on his resume.

Hart is the owner of a professional sports franchise. That would be the Philadelphia Hitmen, the Professional Bowlers Association League team that stars Bill O'Neill, the four-time PBA tour champion from Langhorne.

One last thing before we stop bragging on the guy: he's a baller, a remarkable accomplishment for a 5-foot-5 entertainer who started his career with the stage name Lil' Kev the Bastard at the Laff House on South Street.

Longtime friend and opening act Will "Spank" Horton, who can be seen as part of the star's entourage in Let Me Explain, met Hart on a basketball court when they were both teens.

Horton, a Nicetown native, maintains that Hart could always play. "He was fast. I'll leave it at that," he says, laughing.

Another indigenous comic, TuRae Gordon, gave Lil' Kev a slot on his talent showcase, Thursday Night Hype, at the Laff House. He confirms that Hart's comedic potential emerged early as well.

"He was funny. Raw, but he always had charisma," says Gordon. At the time, Hart was a student at the Community College of Philadelphia, and he brought along a number of classmates as a rooting section. "He got reinforcements," says Gordon. "It probably encouraged him to go further."

It's a steep climb from the Laff House to sold-out shows at London's O2 Arena. But according to Hart, the main difference between playing those venues is acoustic.

"In a comedy club, it's very intimate and immediate," he says. "In an arena, the laugh comes from far away and takes some time to get to you. You have to get used to how the waves come in."

Come out to the Parkway on July 4 and be a part of the tide.

Movie

Let Me Explain

Opens Wednesday in area theaters

Contact David Hiltbrand at 215-854-4552, www.inquirer.com/daveondemand, or follow on Twitter @daveondemand_TV.

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