Considering how proud Kevin Hart is of the headquarters of his company, you’d think the place would be downright palatial. But it’s not. It’s simple, almost austere. It’s a series of small offices, a reception area and a conference room, and it takes up a floor of a nondescript building in downtown Encino, Calif., on Ventura Boulevard, across from a Korean BBQ joint. The rooms are sparsely furnished. There are a lot of photos and posters of Hart, of course, but otherwise there is no expensive art, no designer tchotchkes on the credenzas, no tasteful floor coverings that could fund a motion picture production.
No, the thing about this office that fills Kevin Hart with such pride isn’t its appearance. It’s the fact that it’s still his.
Back in 2009, when he took out a two-year lease on just a small portion of the space to house his startup, HartBeat Productions, Hart was worried he wasn’t going to be able to afford it. This was before his comedy specials became some of the highest-grossing of all time. Before his social media profile grew to near record-setting proportions. Before Kevin Hart Day was declared in Philadelphia. Before he became one of the biggest stars on Earth.
“When I first got here,” he says, “and this is before the money was where it is now, this was the dream. Every day I get to see this and I get to go, ‘Oh my God, how am I going to do it, man? Shit. I done took out the two-year goddamn lease on this place!’ ’”
But he loved the “aspirational” view from what is still his personal office, and he had a plan, drawn from a hard-earned epiphany. Historically, comedians and actors, even very successful ones, are simply cogs in a very large machine. For all the fame, and the money and the glamour, they are essentially powerless against the whims of that machine. They are the product. They do their best, work their hardest, earn what they can and at the end of the day, they’re left with fading fame and whatever money they were able to bank along the way.
Hart saw this state of affairs early in his stand-up comedy career and decided to try something different. Something risky. The idea was this: Create something lasting. Something that will go on when you’re done. Don’t just show up, do your best and then go away. Don’t make money mostly for other people. Own what you do. Perfect your craft, of course, but in so doing, create a sustainable, revenue-generating enterprise that can run profitably long after the world has had enough of seeing your face and hearing your jokes.
In short, the idea Kevin Hart had, as he stood nervously in that office in 2009, was this: Don’t be the cog. Be the machine.
And so he is.
For much of comedy’s history, someone else was making more off the jokes than the comedian. An entire infrastructure — agents, managers, promoters, producers, investors, club owners, theater owners — made bank off the backs of these entertainers. Comedians were traditionally paid a flat fee to perform, meaning they didn’t see a cut of the ticket sales. They did not own the rights to their stand-up specials, films or TV shows. Someone else, usually the producer, made money licensing the rights to those works in perpetuity. Comedians generally didn’t get any “back-end participation,” a percentage of the revenue generated by a film.
To make it big, to be seen and heard, comedians had to go through someone else, and that someone else wrote the rules, and those rules were not favorable to them. Even though this is no longer entirely the case, trappings of that old system remain. Most comedians are still in it.
Kevin Hart wanted out.
Born and raised by his single mom, Nancy Hart, in Philadelphia, Hart had worked out his unique mix of self-deprecating yet boastful comedy on the East Coast club circuit. In 1999, he caught the eye of legendary comedy manager Dave Becky, who has helped plot the careers of some of the most famous comedians in the world, including Amy Poehler, Louis CK and Aziz Ansari. Becky signed him, and Hart came to Hollywood in 2000 and landed TV pilots and movie roles almost immediately. But none of them really hit, so Hart decided to try a different approach, Becky tells me. “He said, ‘I’m going to go and become the greatest, biggest comedian in the world, and then Hollywood will start calling me up and not making me audition.’ ”
Hart went to the woodshed. He studied and toured and worked and got better. He started booking bigger and bigger comedy shows. He built a fan base and did a couple of stand-up comedy specials, all under the traditional rules where someone else owned all the rights.
The turning point came one night back in 2007, when Hart walked out on stage and saw the room wasn’t full. He’d been paid a nice fee — as always — but this time something nagged him. “The comedians go in and they get the money and go on the show,” he says. “Maybe it’s full or maybe not. The big thing is we got the money.” For Hart, that mentality was self-defeating over the long term. “I thought, How am I ever going to grow as a talent if every show I go to isn’t full? How’s my fan base going to grow?I thought, I’m not doing this.”
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