It makes no sense to be as famous as Kevin Hart is and still not be that famous. In 2011, Hart, 32, was the top-grossing touring comedian, having sold-out back-to-back nights at the Staples Center and Madison Square Garden. Last year's Think Like a Man, which he starred in, made more than $90 million in the U.S. Laugh at My Pain became the first hit stand-up film in years and Seriously Funny debuted as Comedy Central's highest-rated stand-up special of 2010. And yet there are agents, studio execs and a whole lot of moviegoers who don't know who he is. As Chris Rock improvised to Hart during a scene they shot for the next season of Hart's BET mockumentary series, The Real Husbands of Hollywood (as yet unscheduled), "I'm like Prince. You're like Trey Songz ... I'm famous. You're black famous."
Black famous isn't quite right. Hart's stand-up audiences are racially diverse. He has purposely split his fame between audiences, making sure he does an indie movie with a predominantly white cast for every indie movie with a predominantly black cast, a mainstream film for every indie, a TV show for every movie. After hosting the 2011 BET Awards, he hosted the 2012 MTV Video Music Awards. He's been a longtime regular in Judd Apatow projects, starting with the 2002 TV series Undeclared and appearing in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. He's been a pitchman for eBay, Air Jordan, Ford and Xbox. But Hart, despite all those films, stadium shows and commercials, is Internet famous.
Not on the Internet but from the Internet. Copying the successful model built by his friend comedian Dane Cook, Hart collected the e-mail addresses of people who went to his shows and then invited them back to hear new material next time he arrived in town. He built a rabid audience slowly and by himself. With more than 7.5 million followers, he's now the 82nd most popular person on Twitter--four spots above the NBA. When he's in a city, he'll sometimes tweet that he'll buy popcorn for anyone who shows up for a screening of a film he's in. He tweets and Instagrams about 10 times a day. "You want your fans to always be able to reach you," says Hart from his trailer on the set of Real Husbands of Hollywood, a scripted parody of reality shows based on a sketch he shot for the 2011 BET Awards. "That's where I struck gold. I don't ever want to feel like I'm way above my fans, that I can't talk to them."
You're either a hardcore Kevin Hart fan--and there are a lot of them--or you vaguely recognize him. "My agent said, 'A guy by the name of Kevin Hart wants to get in touch with you,' and I said, 'Absolutely. Give him my number right now.' My agent didn't even know who he was," says Tim Story of first meeting Hart in 2010, before going on to direct him in Think Like a Man. To get Sony executives to realize how big the movie could be for marketing purposes, producer Will Packer took them to see Hart live. After the film's crew saw him command an Atlanta arena, they treated him differently.