"Laugh at My Pain," Hart's stand-up movie opening at area AMC theaters today, is the first of his specials to premiere in movie theaters, rather than on DVD, putting him in the elite company of Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor and Martin Lawrence.
In "Laugh at My Pain," Hart revisits the familiar environs of North Philly, bringing his legion of loyal fans back to his old 'hood with him. In one scene, he yells "What up, baby! I'm home!" to an empty block.
But that scene, played for comedy, isn't indicative of Hart's reach. He opened and periodically appeared throughout the MTV Video Music Awards last month and hosted the 2011 BET Awards. His imprint on social media is gigantic with Twitter followers numbering in the millions, and he recently released a mobile app called Little Jumpman." His 90-city "Laugh at My Pain" tour earned $15 million.
Hart said he worked hard for this level of fame. With only minor movie roles to date (unless you consider his turn in "Soul Plane" or his scene-stealing fight with Romany Malco in "40-Year-Old Virgin" Oscar-worthy), Hart has largely cultivated his fan network through Twitter and Facebook. But unlike many celebs, Hart's social-media prowess doesn't seem to be the result of focus group research, nor does it appear fueled by the fingertips of an assistant. Rather, his Twitter feed consists of observational humor ("I just saw a kid with a unibrow lmao.......he's like 7yrs old......he's fat & light skin!!! He looks like a baby 'Al B sure' " read a recent Tweet) and fan interaction.
Hart credits the size of his fan network in getting "Laugh at My Pain" into theaters. "That's the reason for me being here," he said.
Those fans are the same reason Hart left the fanfare behind and took cameras back to the old block where he grew up, where he's not officially home until he has a cheesesteak from Max's Steaks at Broad and Erie or a turkey hoagie from Wawa. "That's home to me. That's the city that made me," Hart said. "It basically put me in the position where I said, 'My fans will appreciate this. They'll get to know me as a deeper individual than just what's in my stand-up comedy.' I want to show them more about me and my life."
That thinking bleeds over into his intensely personal stand-up. While some bits are admittedly exaggerated, "Laugh at My Pain" delves into issues such as Hart's drug-addicted father, the death of his mother and his own divorce. "It's the only thing that I know that I can talk about that has substance, my point of view," Hart said. "My life in full is what I talk about, whether it's good or bad, there is no holding back. That's when I get the best from my audience."
Millwood said he influenced this aspect of Hart's career. He would often coach young comedians to read the newspaper and discuss their own lives. Talk about your parents, Millwood instructed, because each person in the audience has parents. Talk about your subway ride, because they all take the subway.
"Everyone - black, white, Chinese, Indian - can relate to what he's talking about," Millwood observed.
Hart often says he got his start in stand-up after friends dared him to get onstage, but Millwood remembered it differently. "He would do it with me at the club and talk with me. 'Mr. Rod,' he would say, 'I'm funny!' One day our host was late and I said, 'Boy, you have five minutes.' I was surprised how funny he was.' "
Millwood's shock isn't hard to understand. When he's on stage, Hart adapts a raucous persona, complete with an exaggerated Napoleon complex that only a 5-foot-4 comedian can affect, but he's considerably calmer offstage, both thoughtful and ambitious.
"Mona [Wilkerson, the Laff House business administrator] and I are like proud parents right now watching our little child grow up. We're still saying, 'That's our Little Kev,' " Millwood said. "But you have to give him his props. The boy done grown up. He never forgets where he came from."
Millwood should know. Wednesday morning, Millwood got on a plane bound for Los Angeles so he could be Hart's guest at the "Laugh at My Pain" premiere. "I don't care how busy Kevin is, if I called him said, 'I need you to do a show at the Laff House,' he would just say, 'When do you need me and for how long?' " Millwood said.
Hart's ties to home may also be influenced by another piece of advice from Millwood. He tells comedians that whoever they meet on the way up are the same people they'll meet on the way down.
"If you want to get to a higher place in life, you have to understand how hard it is to get there, not only get there but stay there. I want to stay there," Hart said.
"My goals are set really, really high. The minute that you become content with things or the minute you stop looking forward or saying, 'What's next?' is a feeling I don't want."