Before embarking on his first major overseas tour, Kevin Hart learned that he would need immunizations to protect him from hepatitis B and other diseases.
But the thought that he would be injected with small amounts of the viruses to produce antibodies to fight them sounded counter-intuitive to the comedian. Hart, as he recounts in his recent memoir, I Can’t Make This Up: Life Lessons (Simon & Schuster), fought his doctor on the idea.
“So you’re saying that you’re gonna give me yellow fever now, so if I catch it over there, I’m immune to it cause I got it?” Hart asks his doctor. “It doesn’t make sense. If I let you give me the shot, I have a hundred percent chance of getting the disease. But if I don’t get the shot, there’s still a chance I might not get it, right? It’s like telling me you’re gonna break my leg so when I go play soccer, I’ll be used to getting a broken leg…”
Hart’s life is strung together by a series of poignant observations, so much so that he saw fit to put them in a memoir. As its title suggests, however, Hart’s book is not just about the comic turns in his life, but the lessons he learned from them. Hart follows the comical exchange between doctor and patient with a more somber note, recounting how his trip to Africa and the Middle East taught him that the fears and stereotypes he had about other countries were “nonsense.”
Funny, But with an Edge
If all you’re looking for in Hart’s memoir is an aphorism to sum up the way the comedian has steered his own way, you need look no further than the introduction to Hart’s book: “In life, you can choose to cry about the [stuff] that happens to you or you can choose to laugh about it,” Hart writes. “I chose laughter.”
But stopping there, you would deprive yourself of some valuable insights wrapped in more than a few belly laughs. Hart’s memoir alternates between eliciting broad smiles to being laugh-out-loud funny. Cover to cover, from the image of the comedian adorned with puppies to the exchange with a doctor trying to prevent him from contracting malaria to the testimonials on the back, Hart delivers laughs with the skill that has made him one of today’s top standup comedians and an A-list box-office draw.
Oh, and Hart’s story is also deadly serious.
He was born in North Philadelphia to a drug-addicted father who was in and out of jail and an overbearing, strict mother who beat him with belts, frying pans and his own toys. His brother dealt crack and was a petty thief. Hart himself was born by accident, unwanted by his parents; Hart’s mother wouldn’t talk to his father for three weeks after she found out she was pregnant with him.
Yet Hart overcame challenge after challenge, and it becomes abundantly clear how—through humor— from the first pages of I Can’t Make This Up, as he describes how he handled his parents’ shortcomings.
For Hart, Fitness is Top of Mind
Kevin Hart attacks emotional trials with laughter, but he tackles physical challenges with hardcore exercise. YouTube videos of the buff comedian training and pushing a bodybuilding routine to the limit abound on social media. There are also videos of Hart taking a more comic turn, working the major muscle groups with the likes of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Conan O’Brien, or turning a treadmill into a dance routine.
“My life began as a lie,” he writes. “I was unwanted. My mother cried when she found out I existed. And I sat there stewing in her anger for months in the womb.
“At least, that’s one way to look at it. Here’s another way.
“My life began with passion, with my father’s unrelenting desire for my mother. Even though I was unplanned, my mother made the commitment to having me and raising me right. And I inherited her commitment to hard work, and my father’s unique sense of humor, bottomless optimism and ability to get his way.”
Hart is as deft a storyteller as he is a comedian, evidenced by his ability to seamlessly navigate between the somber and the comical.
During a gathering at the family home as Hart’s mother was dying of ovarian cancer, there are moments that read like a slapstick scene, albeit a sweetly sad one, in a dark comedy. Their mother had recited dozens of superstitions to Hart and his brother as they were growing up, so when Hart was told there was a bird in the basement, he saw it as an opportunity to help heal her.
One of his mother’s superstitions had been that a bird flying into a house is a sign of death; logic dictated that removing it meant life. Armed with a mop and broom, Hart and his brother spiritedly tried urging the bird out of the house; when that didn’t work, Hart called the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to do the job. “That still counts, right?” Hart asked his cousin.
Returning to an Australia film set after his mother’s funeral, Hart observed how “everything was different for me,” even as the world around him—from airport security to kissing couples and a hurried movie crew—remained the same. He concluded that, after a loved one dies, “it may feel like a void has opened up in your universe. But in the universe, energy can never be destroyed. So if the pain and the absence existed only in my mind, then it wasn’t real…There was nothing I could do except let go of a tragic story and embrace one that served me—and her—better. So I did.”
Hart says he “chose not to lose my mom, and instead to gain an angel. In my mind, my heart and my life, she is still completely present to this day—and as wise, compassionate and stubborn as ever.”
It was another woman in Hart’s life, his first wife Torrei, who was a catalyst for Hart finding his true voice as a comedian. At a friend’s urging, Hart began eschewing written jokes in favor of candid talk to his audiences about his marital problems, including fights and late-night police visits. His heart pounded the first night he used the material, but it worked. The audience laughed through it all. “It wasn’t the loudest laughter I’d ever received, but it was deep, rich belly laughter,” Hart writes.
“All along, I’d been trying to write jokes. This was another level: I was finding my pain points and transforming them into something that could touch and maybe even help other people. An entertainer makes you laugh, I realized, but an artist makes you understand.”
A Sampling of Life Lessons
Life Lessons from Work: “People with calluses work hard, but some people with soft hands work even harder because they got themselves to a level where they can take care of their hands.”
It’s important to Hart to remain grounded. In his penthouse suite before a show in Detroit once, he ironed the custom-made leather T-shirt he planned to wear onstage that night, telling Rolling Stone that if he assigned such tasks to others he would risk losing touch.
In contrast to the way personal details of his life have enriched his standup act, tabloid coverage of his offstage life has been a source of some anguish, like when he began seeing his current wife, Eniko Parrish. Here, too, he eventually learned how to rise above the challenge. Hart decided that, no matter what was reported, he would make choices “that serve my happiness, not their expectations,” he says in I Can’t Make This Up. “I soon got to the point where I could shoulder-shrug it.”
I Can’t Make This Up makes clear that Hart has a keen eye for the intricacies of human nature, which explains his success with observational humor. Despite his wealth and fame, the lessons Hart imparts are universal; but his wealth and fame are also testimony to the credibility of those lessons.
As Hart writes, “Life is a story. It’s full of chapters. And the beauty of life is that not only do you get to choose how you interpret each chapter, but your interpretation writes the next chapter. It determines whether it’s comedy or tragedy, fairy tale or horror story, rags-to-riches or riches-to-rags.”