'No one can do this except me'
Fresh from hosting the VMAs where Miley Cyrus made ‘twerking’ go global, comedian and movie star Kevin Hart flew into London to promote his new self-funded concert film, Let Me Explain, which opens in the UK today. As part of his visit, he yesterday spoke to students at London’s Comedy School about how he got started in stand-up, how he built up a fan base including 8million Twitter followers, how he kept control of his career and what advice he would give to new comedians starting out today. Chortle was there, and here is some of what he had to say...
I've been doing stand-up comedy since I was 18; I really don't have many options now. This is it for me. I fell into it because I was funny and someone said: 'You should be a comedian.' I wanted to work in entertainment, I just didn't know how to go about it. I didn't have any comedy schools.
But having the opportunity to pursue something I genuinely had a love for, which is to make people laugh, is what set my alarm off. Once you find you're thing that you truly love, you put all your eggs into that basket. At the age of 18 is when I found I wanted to be a comedian.
I had a conversation with my mother and said I wanted to do stand-up comedy, and because my mum's such an amazing woman, she didn't judge me and just said, 'How are you going to make money doing it?' 'I don't know'. She said, 'Well, how do you start doing it.' I said, 'I don't know I just have to start going around these amateur nights.'
My mom helped me pay rent for the first year when I was 18. She said, 'You have one year to show me this is going to be profitable.' I wasn't making great money - I was making $50, $60. But she saw this is what I put my passion into.
After a year, I told her, ‘Cut me off, I gotta figure it out.’ Because I had the comfort of someone supporting me, I probably didn't work as hard as I should have. I thought I could goof around and half-ass it. Once she cut me off things had to go to a different level because I had no choice. I moved to New York City, and worked there for four to five years.
But you didn't get any money, they paid you in food. I was getting fat! But once I got into a certain number of comedy clubs, I started to meeting other comedians, and they helped me find a path, then it was up to me to make smart decisions and put myself in a position to win.
Hence instead of going the easy route, I went the mainstream route. I took less money but learned the craft, I watched great comedians and just got better. I figured that eventually my time will come to show my talent, when that time did come I got into all the comedy clubs. I then started to tour, and do opening spots, wherever I could and I did that for about ten years. I've been doing comedy for 18 years. I didn't start making good money until the last four years.
I started touring the comedy clubs with maybe 100 seats, but I did it for four years in a row. What I did is I got everybody's email address, and when I came back to the city next year I sent a few emails. So I took a database and built it up, so for four years I went to the same places over and over and over and then it got to the point when I started to sell out comedy clubs.
So I said, ‘Wow. Instead of trying to do theatres, I'm going to do it again.’ So I did comedy clubs and started adding shows, so then people saw I was selling tickets and said, "Let's put him in theatres." But I didn't want to do theatres, I wanted to do comedy clubs. So I took about six or seven years of just doing the same thing over and over again.
Once you start doing theatres and arenas, now all these Hollywood execs think, "He's selling tickets. We've got to put him in movies. We need to do something with this guy." So it took me learning my craft to get their attention because it's all about dollar signs to them.
It's a long hard road to any kind of success but the light at the end of the tunnel is so amazing when you get there, and the stories that you have about how hard it was, makes it all worthwhile, because that's where the comedy comes from.
The platform that stand-up comedy gives you opens up so many different doors: If you want to be a personality on air, a personality on TV, or you want to be an author, or a comedic actor or writer, or behind the scenes... there is so much you can do just for having funny bones. For me comedy opened up the acting world, the writing world, the producing world, the directing world, just because I can create funny content.
Stand-up comedy is a different thing. That's me talking and making people laugh. I control that. Nobody can tell me what to do or tell me how to do it. I've built a fan base myself, so if I want to tour, my fans are going to come and see me. A producer, a studio, nobody dictates how that's run. So nothing comes in front of stand-up comedy for me, because that's what I do on my own, and that's going to be here for years on from now.
You look at people like Bill Cosby, who's probably close to 80 years old [he's 76]. Bill Cosby still tours. He doesn't need the money. It's the love of telling jokes, the love of keeping people laughing. Jerry Seinfeld is worth, I don't know, $400million, but he doesn't have to do it. Yet he still goes out, he still does comedy clubs, he does small theatres because he's in love with the craft.
I'm in person who's in love with the craft because I create it, I build it, and I'm in love with the fact that I can set goals and actually achieve my goals. That's a huge thing. You hear people talk, "I'm gonna do this; I'm gonna do that." It's good to hear. It's good to say. But to execute it you have to work hard, and put the time and effort in. I'm in love with the fact if I say I'm going to do something, I'll get it done.
Because of that nothing takes precedent over stand-up comedy. Everything I've got comes from that.
For me social media takes a large part [of my success]. The reason I do so many things myself is because the brand I built for myself stands alone because of the direct connection with my fans. On Twitter I have almost 8.5million followers, Facebook 8million, Instagram 4million, and YouTube we're at 750,000 subscribers but overall we've something like 70million, 80million views.
It's all free. You spend no money promoting yourself. No one can promote you better than you can. These fans that I have have been growing with me and I've developed this large fanbase but I interact with them. I talk back and forth. I post things. I show that I'm a real guy, to get people to think, 'Yeah, I like this guy.'
A studio can't promote like I can. I recently did a [concert] movie called Let Me Explain, I funded it myself. It's my project. I took $2.5million of my own money, spent it all on my movie, gambled on myself. To promote this film I said I'm only going to take $4million from the studio for billboards and TV commercials, and I'll do the rest myself through social media. I did pop-ups in movie theatres in about ten different cities. I tweeted that I'll be in such-and-such with a camcorder, come and tell me what you think about the movie. The studio can't do that. Once you spend your own money, you are going to do everything you can to make it work.
The movie in the States is at $33million gross right now on 800 screens. It's a concert film. It's unheard of. And movie studios and producers go 'How the fuck is he doing this? Oh my god, here's a guy who doesn't need us.' It’s like Jay-Z, he doesn't need studios. He does things on his own.
At the end it all comes back, and you can hold you head high and say, ‘I did it myself.’
So that's why I do all this [social media], and it's a smart approach, and no one can do this except me. We're making business-like decision now because we're a brand and we have to protect the brand. Serious. So don't take the social media for granted it's your greatest tool. Build your fanbase now.
Now we’ve set up this company, Hartbeat Digital Media, so studios have to pay us to use that social media presence that we have.
I think a mistake that certain comedians make is having so much material at the beginning of their comedy career instead of perfecting the small amount that they have and making it amazing.
At the beginning you're only getting seven minutes, maybe ten minutes, but you get these young comics who go, 'Man, I change my shit up every day.' All this material that you are doing is pointless because what you should do is perfect this ten minutes, or this seven minutes, so you can flip it inside and out.
It takes me a year and a half to get my material where I want it. I've been doing comedy now for 18 years now, and I've had four specials and a half-hour for Comedy Central, so you are looking at five hours of content in 18 years. It takes a long time to get jokes to a point where they are tight.
If I'm performing to 18,000 people, I can't be half-assed. I take so much time to perfect a new hour. I’m just starting work on a new hour, and it'll probably take two years, the amount of pressure I put on myself for it to be better than the last one. It' s a process watching myself over and over again. So focus on that small time you have, and get that shit right so every time you go out you are slaying – that's the first part.
• Let Me Explain opens tonight in limited screens, with Hart introducing as screening at London’s O2 Cineworld, followed by a Q&A session which will be beamed live into the UK cinemas showing the film. The Comedy School has a special emphasis on using comedy teaching as a social and a rehabilitation tool. Click here for more information.
Published: 30 Aug 2013