Backstage in the funhouse green room at Jimmy Kimmel Live!, you might expect to find Kevin Hart sipping a drink or jamming the joy stick on Donkey Kong Junior. Instead, with just minutes to go before he appears on national TV, the 34-year-old comedian is pacing around a private dressing room, hard at work on a script—Ballers—about a fantasy basketball camp. I pull up a chair as Hart, in black jeans and a grey t-shirt, bounces back and forth, his weight on the balls of his feet. “Multitasking!” he explains, as his friend Chris Spencer—an actor/comedian who co-created the BET spoof show Real Husbands of Hollywood with Hartholds up an iPad, videotaping Hart’s every word.
Hart and Spencer are writing the movie together—a comedy about two brothers, one very tall, the other very short, which will star LeBron James and, maybe, Hart himself “depending on schedules.” They’ve been at it all day, spitballing dialogue and story beats as they roll around Los Angeles in what Hart’s publicist calls his “mobile command center”: a customized Mercedes Benz Sprinter. They’re wrestling with the mid-point of the movie—whether “some shit that looks bad ends up good,” as Spencer puts it, “or some shit that’s good is really bad.” They need “a Dodgeball moment,” they both agree, like the one when Vince Vaughan fails to show up for the championship game, jeopardizing his team’s chance at the title. Not long after I arrive—and just minutes before Hart is due on Kimmel’s couch—they hit on an idea, swearing me to secrecy. “Dude, we knocked down some major walls,” Hart tells Spencer, reaching for his ringing phone. It’s Etan Cohen, the director of Get Hard, a movie he’s about to start shooting with Will Ferrell.
“More multitasking,” Hart whispers to me, then gives Cohen a few notes on the script, about a wealthy banker (Ferrell) who prepares to do prison time with help from the guy (Hart) who washes his car. Hart is hoping his “thuggish” character can behave in ways the audience won’t expect: giving investment advice, for example. “That’s not the stale, typical way that you’ve seen thugs interact with the quote-unquote white guy in a comedy,” Hart tells Cohen.
Hart is a tireless promoter of his projects, which is why he’s here tonight: to convince Kimmel’s viewers to go see About Last Night, a remake of the 1986 dramedy, which will open 24 hours later, making a solid $48 million ($36 million more than it cost to produce). It will be Hart’s second box-office win of 2014 (in January, his and Ice Cube’s buddy-cop movie Ride Along had the biggest opening of the month, and pulled in a total of $127 million). Now, glancing at a TV monitor, Hart notices that Kimmel’s show has begun. “Listen,” he tells Cohen politely, “I got to get dressed.” He hangs up and unbuttons his fly.
“I’m going to drop my pants,” he says to me. “Don’t get scared.” And off come his clothes, which he hangs neatly on a hanger. Before me in Calvin Klein briefs is a taut, tat-covered man who hits the gym at 5:30 every morning. I must go mute for a second because suddenly Hart is laughing. “You can still talk,” he teases, urging me not to waste valuable interview time as he slips into a Paul Smith suit that looks like it was sewn onto him.
“Maximize!” he commands. “Maximize!”

Last year, when Hart released his fourth stand-up “concert” movie, Kevin Hart: Let Me Explain, it included testimonials from people around the world who’d seen his sold-out 2012 tour. One by one, fans in Vancouver, Montreal, Oslo, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Amsterdam, Birmingham and London told how they’d discovered Hart on YouTube. They quoted his signature lines—“You goin’ learn today!” and “Real, Rap, Raw!” —and squealed that they loved him. You can’t get much whiter than the audiences in Scandinavia, and Hart acknowledges that at many arenas on that comedic marathon, he “didn’t see a single black soul.” He says he has internalized something Chris Rock once told him: the only thing all people have in common, regardless of race, gender, faith, politics or sexual preference, is that they like to laugh. Hart wants a core audience of everyone.
“You make yourself broad,” he says. “You make yourself appealing. ‘Hey, y’all, I’m cool with everybody.’ That’s my message.”
“Kevin is an original,” Rock says. “Not derivative of Pryor, not like me or [Eddie] Murphy. He’s his own guy, like a black George Costanza.”
Wait, what?
“They call it Seinfeld,” Rock explains, “but it’s really Costanza that makes it funny. You know, he’s put upon, but he makes it cool.”
Same with Hart, whose best material is rooted in vulnerability. Often he uses his height – he’s five feet five – as a springboard into his phobias, which include ostriches (“big-ass man-pigeons”), women who go from being frantic to calm “real fast,” and getting knocked out in front of his children. Self-deprecating in the extreme, he’s always tapping into an emotional undercurrent that makes him relatable. “Kevin has a great relationship with the audience. Like, he is the audience,” says Rock, who cast him in the upcoming comedy Finally Famous, which Rock wrote and directed.
When you talk to people who know Hart well, one thing that always comes up is his hyper-focused approach to stardom. Tim Story, who’s directed Hart in Ride Along and two other comedies (2012’s Think Like a Man and its sequel, which premieres June 20), agrees. He says Hart “speaks to the everyman, and I think it transcends race. As people become more familiar with his work, they just go, ‘I get this guy.’ ” (That goes for women, too; unexpectedly, 57 percent of the audience for Ride Along was female). The two men met in 2010, after Hart reached out to see if Story might direct his third concert movie, Laugh at My Pain. When the two men sat down, Story was struck by Hart’s studious approach to stardom. “He’s studied the business of film and, more specifically, the route that a comedian takes—not just the successes, but the failures,” Story says. “The guy has a plan.”