Watch CBS News

Kevin Hart's journey from stand-up comedy sets in bowling alleys to global tours

Kevin Hart: The 60 Minutes Interview
Kevin Hart: The 60 Minutes Interview 13:34

Kevin Hart, now one of the most successful comics out there, struggled to find places to perform when he first started out as a stand-up comedian, so he picked some very unexpected venues.

The 44-year-old entertainer took gigs wherever he could get them: bowling alleys, cabarets and strip clubs. He doesn't "know who thought that comedy and strippers mix," but a strip club performance led to one of the most heartbreaking moments of his career on stage. Hart remembers hearing a woman say, "Oh, baby" during his set. 

"[She was] so disgusted and heartbroken that this is what I chose to do with my life," Hart said. 

But things turned around for him. Hart is the highest-grossing comedian today. His last comedy tour made grossed more than $122 million and, last month, he was awarded the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor — as close to a lifetime achievement award as you can get.

Becoming a comedian 

Hart has always been confident, friends said. Comedian Na'im Lynn, who's known Hart since Kevin was a teenager, didn't get it at first. 

"I mean, it was perplexing in the beginning," Lynn said. "Like, 'Why does this little ugly dude have this much confidence?'"

Hart grew up in a rough neighborhood in North Philadelphia. Home movies made by his mom, Nancy Hart, show he was always the family entertainer. Hart lived in a in a one-bedroom apartment with his brother and mom, who kept a close eye on him.

Kevin Hart
Kevin Hart 60 Minutes

She planned every moment of his day, making sure he went to swim practice and did his school work, even quizzing him to make sure he didn't rush through his assignments. Hart credits her with his drive. 

Nancy Hart also kept Hart's dad, Henry Witherspoon, at a distance. Witherspoon was in and out of prison. He was addicted to drugs, which Hart talked about in a 2011 stand-up special called "Laugh at my Pain." Hart describes his dad showing up at spelling bees and debates and treating them as if they were athletic events.

"First of all, you can't cheer for no kid at a spelling bee. It's a spelling bee. It's quiet, I'm focused. I'm in the middle of spelling a very difficult word," Hart said during the special. "My dad shows up late. Busts through the back door high as hell making cokehead noises, alright. Once again, I cannot make this up. Aright, this is all I heard. I'm in the middle of spelling some s–t. Out of nowhere all I heard was: 'Alright, alright, alright. Yeah!'"

The details are heartbreaking, but Hart finds the humor in it. 

"I see it for what it was," he said. "But as a kid, that's dad."

Hart's path to success 

For a long time, Hart struggled to make it big.

Hart had to contend with the sound of pins being knocked over during his early performances at bowling alleys. He would start jokes over if someone bowled a strike while he was telling a punchline. 

Having a strong drive is a huge portion of making it as a comic, Hart said. Comedians who can't get gigs on actual stages need to create their own wherever they can perform. 

"It's one of the most hustled entities that exists today," Hart said.

He thought he'd made it when he shot a sitcom for ABC called "The Big House" in 2003. The network flew him out to what's known as the Upfronts to present the show to advertisers and the media. As he waited backstage, the "guy with the microphone" who was directing everyone told Hart his show wasn't being picked up. No one from the network told him — just "a guy named Barry in the back, holding the curtain." 

That rejection pushed Hart. He didn't want his career determined by people he didn't know. 

"I might be sitting here all day if I don't go grab it and I don't go make what I feel should be mine," Hart said.

Kevin Hart and Anderson Cooper
Kevin Hart shows Anderson Cooper notes on his phone 60 Minutes

And that's what he did. He started a small production company, now called Hartbeat, and began developing his own stand-up specials. Hart also marketed himself relentlessly through social media — and Hollywood studios took notice, hiring him for a slew of movies.

From highpoint to controversy 

When Hart was picked in 2018 to host the Oscars, it seemed like a highpoint in his career.

"I am blown away simply because this has been a goal on my list for a long time. ... To be able to join the legendary list of host[s] that have graced this stage is unbelievable," Hart wrote on his Instagram at the time. "I know my mom is smiling from ear to ear right now."

But then comments he made about LGBTQ+ individuals years earlier onstage and on Twitter caused controversy. 

Hart stepped down as the Oscars host. He initially didn't apologize for his comments, but then posted an apology the next day on Twitter.

Hart said he spoke with comedian Wanda Sykes and said she explained to him that there were people hurting because of comments like the ones he'd made. 

"It was presented to me in a way where I couldn't ignore that," Hart said. "So in those moments of despair, great understanding and education can come out of it if you're given the opportunity."

Bouncing back and developing material for an upcoming tour 

Hart has since bounced back. He seems to be constantly in motion, starting with a daily pre-dawn workout. Hart owns a nutrition supplement company. He's also got a fast-food chain, a tequila brand and a $100 million venture capital fund. His entertainment company, Hartbeat, is now worth more than $650 million.

"I'm no longer just the comedian. I'm an investment. I'm a studio," Hart said. "I'm a partner looking for partnerships. Work for hire is not in my best interest if it's a one and done situation."

Kevin Hart and Anderson Cooper work out
Anderson Cooper joined Kevin Hart for his daily workout. 60 Minutes

He's also working on new material for an upcoming comedy tour called "Acting My Age." He doesn't work with his team in a room to develop his ideas; Hart takes them to small comedy clubs to try them out. Friends and collaborators Harry Ratchford and Joey Wells act as his writing consultants.  

Hart doesn't write down his material, instead sticking to bullet points on his phone. He said he wants to make sure the story he's telling is understandable and focused on relationships, friends and aging. 

"All things that, no matter where you are and who you are, you can go, 'Aha,'" Hart said. 

60 Minutes correspondent Anderson Cooper watched Kevin Hart work out his notes on stage in front of 3,000 people in Pasadena, California. Everyone had to hand over their phones so the material wouldn't leak.

"Like 90% of what I'm going to do tonight I feel like is really good," Hart explained to the audience. "The reason why I took your phones is because of the other 10%. Right? Like just in case. Just in case some of it's not, you don't have no proof."

Wells and Ratchford took notes as Hart performed. Ratchford focuses on structure, where jokes should go in the set, Wells said. Wells focuses on how to make Hart's set just a little bit funnier. 

"He might get a standing ovation. I'd go 'That was great. That was great. What if you tried this?'" Wells said. 

Hart's sets include embarrassingly revealing stories about his wife and four kids, his insecurities and his many shortcomings. 

"It's talking about the things that you aren't afraid to laugh at about yourself," Hart said. "I'm really confident that the laugh that I'm getting, you're not laughing necessarily at me, as if I'm a joke. You're laughing at the experience."

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.