Kevin Hart doesn't look like someone who belongs on the floor of Rupp Arena. At 5 feet, 4 inches tall, he certainly won't be mistaken for some of the towering college basketball players who have given tremendous performances within the arena's walls, most wearing the correct shade of blue.
But his persona ... well, that's another story.
"My personality's huge. My personality's 6-foot-9."
This is what Hart told me when I interviewed him in 2009, before he performed at Stanford & Sons Comedy Club in Kansas City, Kan., a venue fairly similar in size to Lexington's Comedy Off Broadway. He would go out on the road to perform at comedy clubs like this in between taking very minor acting parts here and there. At that point, his most prominent role was one of the leads in the little-seen 2004 comedy Soul Plane opposite Tom Arnold and Snoop Dogg.
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Things have changed a lot since then.
Hart is currently, and arguably, the biggest and most popular stand-up comic on the planet. He has attained millions of followers on social media. His original reality TV spoof, Real Husbands of Hollywood, which Hart executive produces and stars in, is one of BET's biggest hits. And the films he is involved with now are definitely not "little-seen" anymore. If anything, he's a box-office draw, whether you're talking about the Think Like a Man franchise, the 2014 action-comedy Ride Along opposite Ice Cube or more flicks like this year's The Wedding Ringer and Get Hard with fellow comedic superstar Will Ferrell.
While Hart's successes on the big and small screens are noteworthy, what he has done this decade as a stand-up comic is practically unheard of.
Hart has gone from cracking up clubs to filling arenas across the country and the world. This was well-documented over the course of two stand-up films, 2011's Laugh at My Pain and 2013's Let Me Explain, which were released in movie theaters. But as Hart's star has risen, so have his stand-up ambitions.
According to Billboard Magazine, his current What Now? tour is on track to become the most successful comedy tour of all time. He recently played for a crowd of about 53,000 in his hometown of Philadelphia at Lincoln Financial Field. With crowds like this, his claims of being a "comedic rock star" don't seem that far-fetched.
But while his outsize personality, exaggerated facial expressions and energetic delivery could be seen and heard from the nosebleeds, the reason for Hart's insane popularity is that his stadium-size shows are centered around material that's personal and intimate.
Through his storyteller approach, he lets you in. Over the course of his career, his fans feel as if they don't just know him, they know those closest to him. Some of his most popular callbacks/taglines, like "Say It With Your Chest" and "Alright, Alright, Alriiiight," are not his expressions, but those from family members whose wild stories have made it into his act. A lot of his best material is rooted in times when he's been his most vulnerable or flawed, like when he expounded on his mother's death in Laugh at My Pain or his infidelity in Let Me Explain. Even in his earliest stand-up specials, such as the first one, I'm a Grown Little Man in 2009, the people he loves most, and their various shortcomings were fair game.
"I'm very personal. I love to paint pictures and I love to tell stories," Hart said back in 2009. "When (my kids) get older, they're definitely going to hate me."
Hart will again play for thousands of people when he performs at Rupp Arena on Friday night, and his star power, as a comedian and an actor, shows no signs of fading. Among the reasons for that, why Hart has maintained and grown his fan base, are not only his familiarity with audiences, his work ethic and his drive to be successful, but he's doing something that's always worked.
"The way I make (stand-up comedy) my own is by telling the truth ... nobody can take the truth away from you," Hart explained, a sentiment he echoed recently on The Daily Show last week as new host Trevor Noah's first guest. "I think it makes people respect you so much more. That's what I love about it."