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Kevin Hart Toasted — And Roasted — At Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain Prize Ceremony

As Kevin Hart sat in the audience with family and friends for The Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize, there were many jokes about his height, quips about his wealth and jabs at his productivity.

What there was very little of was anything political, reflecting Hart’s own style that tends to avoid such topical humor.

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Chris Rock did have one moment, though.

“The Mark Twain Award this year. If Trump wins, next year will be the Mark Fuhrman award,” Rock said.

As the audience laughed, Rock added, “It’s going to be nothing but banjos up there.”

He also was among the comics who did a bit of roasting of Hart. “Look at that smile,” Rock said. “You got that second wife happiness.” Hart, surrounded by his wife and kids, laughed.

Like others, though, Rock talked of Hart’s rise to become one of the most successful comedians of all time, filling concert halls and stadiums, starring in dozens of movies and starting a number of business ventures. (Audience members actually did a plastic cup toast with Hart’s tequila brand, as he was honored by The Plastic Cup Boyz).

Rock recalled that once, when he was doing a special for Showtime featuring young comedians, Hart came to him for advice. “He’s the only guy that ever listened to me, and he literally did exactly what the f— I told him. I looked at him, and I said, ‘Man you are really funny, but your problem is you are competing with these other comedians. They are not your peers. You are better than all of them. But you need to get out of their circle, and develop your own voice.”

Kevin Hart with family at this year’s Mark Twain Prize ceremony at The Kennedy Center.
Kevin Hart with family at this year’s Mark Twain Prize ceremony at The Kennedy Center.

“I swear to God, within 800 days, Kevin Hart was a bigger star than me. Within 800 days. He was taking parts from me. He was in a movie with The Rock. My last name’s Rock!”

Others who appeared at the ceremony included Jerry Seinfeld, Jimmy Fallon, Dave Burd, aka ‘Lil Dicky,’ Tiffany Haddish, Regina Hall, Nelly, Keith Robinson, J.B. Smoove and Robin Thicke. Adam Blackstone was the musical director. Chelsea Handler riffed on Hart’s penchant for coming to her aid, telling her, “I got you.” “And then you can count on never hearing from him again,” she joked.

But Hart actually did help her, as she pointed to a Netflix documentary that Hart agreed to participate in at the last minute. “Like always, he delivered,” she said.

Hart, 44, was selected as the recipient for the ceremony’s 25th anniversary, for the first time to be shown on Netflix as part of a multiyear deal. Deborah Rutter, the president of the Kennedy Center, cited Hart’s influence “as a comedian and all of these other businesses, and the way he uses his persona to be influencing. … I think it’s really positive.”

One gig Hart did not do: The Oscars. He was to have hosted the 2019 ceremony, but backed out after past antigay tweets and old jokes resurfaced, including ones on how he would react violently if he learned his son was gay. He apologized, and recently told The Wall Street Journal that he looked back at the controversy as a “come-to-Jesus moment.” “Sometimes it’s OK to take a step back and to be educated I got a crash course. It was one that was necessary and needed.”

Rutter said that in selecting Hart, “We take it into consideration to say, ‘Are we OK?’ And certainly in the world of comedy there are always going to be time when people say things. Dave Chappelle [ a previous award recipient], I love the man, and Dave Chappelle has said things that don’t land with everybody either. But that is what comedy is also about. It makes us all laugh. Sometimes it makes us feel a little itchy as well.”

Rutter said that they had not gotten any pushback on the choice. “Not a single person,” she said.

“We try and understand all sides of a circumstance, and what individuals say,” she said. “And if we chose to look at every single artist who ever came into the Kennedy Center, what they said and how they handled it — at what point do you say, ‘They have done what they need, and this is who they stand for and we believe in who they are as well.'”

During the ceremony, there was no mention of the Oscars controversy. Chappelle noted Hart’s rise from poverty and a difficult childhood. “He’s always optimistic,” Chappelle said, before adding, “Comedy is tough, and comedians are awful, awful human beings.” That drew laughs.

Speaking directly to Hart, he said, ‘You always come into any situation, and make us feel levity and light. And you remind me personally, every time I see, why I love comedy so much.”

He gave a heartfelt tribute to Hart, before quipping, “I am honored to know somebody like you. I really wish you would have come when I won this award.”

“You did earn this,” Chappelle said. “What you have done for this genre is unmistakeable. For the first time in my life, I played arenas. … And I would never play an arena before I saw you do it. You made me dream bigger, and you are younger than me. It’s humiliating.”

When Hart took to the stage to accept the award, he did not do his material, but thanked family, friends and his team, even his security detail, as well as to his parents and to God.

He also talked of how he “fell in love with comedy.” “I fell in love with something I can adapt to, I can grab on to, and I can keep. I got good at it, and being good at it, I think I have more ways to amplify and get bigger and better.”

“I committed to comedy,” he continued. “I committed to saying, ‘It’s either this or nothing else. All my eggs are in this basket.’ Whether it works or not, I am happy with my choice.”

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