November 15, 2023
Comedian and actor Kevin Hart will be honored next spring with the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, an award that recognizes figures who carry on the legacy of its literary namesake.
Hart, 44, grew up in North Philadelphia and tested the waters of his stand-up act at the Laff House Comedy Club in Kensington. He performed there under the stage name Lil Kev, sometimes getting booed off the stage. He has occasionally recalled memorable moments of failure during his early career on the East Coast, including getting a phone book thrown at him for an admittedly "awful" joke and having a crowd at a New York crab festival chant in unison for him to shut up so they could eat their seafood in peace.
But after settling in Los Angeles in his mid-twenties, Hart began to emerge as one of the most promising and prolific comedic talents of his generation. He's since gone on to star in numerous blockbuster films — including several that he's produced — and has a steady stream of stand-up tours and specials that probe topics like race, parenthood and realizations that come with fame.
Hart will be the 25th winner of the Mark Twain Prize, which is awarded by the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Past recipients of the award include Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tina Fey and Dave Chappelle. The last to win it was Adam Sandler. Hart is the award's youngest-ever winner.
“To be honored in this commemorative year feels surreal," Hart said. "Comedy is my outlet for social commentary and observations on life — I am grateful to the Kennedy Center for recognizing my voice and impact on culture. I can’t wait to celebrate!”
The Kennedy Center noted Hart's accomplishments as a writer, producer, actor and comedian. He's opened 11 films at number one at the box office and grossed more than $4.23 billion in global revenue, the Kennedy Center said.
“For over three decades, Kevin Hart has been a source of laughter across America and throughout the world with his iconic characters, inimitable physical comedy, and relatable narratives ... he has made lasting contributions to the comedic landscape and represents our celebration of American humor," said Kennedy Center president Deborah F. Rutter.
Hart has spoken candidly about how breaking into comedy in Philly shaped his character.
"I don't think there's a better environment to grind from," he said during an appearance last year on the "Million Dollaz Worth of Game" podcast, which is hosted by Philly hip-hop veteran Gillie Da Kid and influencer Wallo267. "When you compare Philadelphia to other places, it's tough because the support that the city gives to you only comes after you have proven yourself. It is not automatic."
When he was getting started on amateur nights, Hart said he felt like people were rooting for him to fail. Many would "come for the boo" because that was part of the culture of testing the mettle of young, wannabe comics.
"That s*** was tough," Hart said. "You're performing in front of the people whose idea of laughing, in the beginning, is laughing at your demise. Our idea of laughing isn't laughing at you being funny. It's in hopes of you going up and not being funny, because that's what we find funny."
After years of success, Hart now has a mural on the wall of Max's Cheesesteaks along Germantown and Erie avenues, not far from where he recalled being held up at gunpoint while returning from a laundromat with his mom.
Although he now lives on the West Coast, Hart still visits Philly periodically and remains active in philanthropic endeavors in the city. He remains a diehard Eagles and 76ers fan. The trailer for his upcoming heist movie on Netflix, "Lift," premiered during the broadcast of a recent Eagles-Cowboys game.
Hart has founded several companies, including his Hartbeat media network and the tequila brand Gran Coramino. He's become become a tour de force in the branding world, appearing in seemingly every other commercial, and has maintained an endearing relationship with frequent movie costar Dwayne Johnson.
Hart will be awarded the prize at the Kennedy Center gala on March 24, 2024.