Kevin Hart gets choked up as he accepts the Twain Prize for humor

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Comedian Kevin Hart has it all — movie stardom, millions and millions of dollars — except for maybe one thing.

“The triumph of tonight is we found something Kevin Hart doesn’t already have: the Mark Twain Award,” joked Jerry Seinfeld on Sunday at the 25th Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

Hart accepted the award in the Kennedy Center’s 2,465-seat concert hall, capping a raucous 2.5-hour night filmed by Netflix.

In an emotional speech, Hart, 44, thanked God, his mother, his wife, his children, his publicist, his agent, his financial advisers, his security team, the CEO of one of his companies, his “partnerships and investments,” his friends and colleagues, the evening’s presenters — and just about everyone else in his orbit.

“Take my mom away, and I don’t have an idea of what I want or who I want to be,” Hart said. Later, he addressed his children, visibly choked up: “I breathe for you. I live for you.”

He reflected on his journey from taking a gamble on comedy to becoming global superstar.

“Sometimes, a gamble is the best way to define what will be you or ultimately become the best version of you,” Hart said. And over the years, as he honed his comedy, he said, “I found more ways to amplify it and get bigger and better.”

The award, named for author Samuel Langhorne Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain), is given to someone whose humor “has impacted American society,” according to the Kennedy Center. With it, Hart joins the ranks of 20th-century legends Richard Pryor, Carol Burnett and George Carlin and more recent honorees such as Tina Fey, Dave Chappelle, Jon Stewart and last year’s recipient, Adam Sandler.

Hart’s friends, colleagues and mentors toasted and roasted Hart throughout the evening. Among them were TV host Nick Cannon, “Curb Your Enthusiasm” star J.B. Smoove, rapper Nelly, singer Robin Thicke and “Night School” co-star Tiffany Haddish — all of whom appeared in “Real Husbands of Hollywood,” the parody of reality TV that Hart co-created.

Other speakers included Jimmy Fallon, Chelsea Handler, Regina Hall, Keith Robinson, a veteran stand-up comedian who mentored Hart early in his career, and Chris Rock, whose stand-up tour with Hart was captured in the 2023 documentary “Kevin Hart & Chris Rock: Headliners Only.”

Thicke and Nelly kicked the show off with a rollicking performance of the rapper’s 2002 hit “Hot in Here” as canisters shot up six columns of flames behind them — a reference to Hart’s special “Let Me Explain,” which included similar pyrotechnics.

While Hart is best known for comedy, in recent years he has created an empire of commerce in hopes of building generational wealth. He owns fast-casual restaurants, a tequila brand, a protein shake line, a production company and an investment firm.

He has openly stated he hopes to be a billionaire by the time he turns 45 in July.

This ambition wasn’t lost on the comics Sunday night.

Rock said his favorite Hart movie was “The Upside” because “he had to act like he had less money than Bryan Cranston.” Smoove, puffing on a cigar, said Hart changed “the business of comedy.” Seinfeld recalled seeing Hart speak to a room of billionaires at a financial summit.

“Do you know how many tickets you’ve sold?” Chapelle asked. He said he researched it: half a billion.

“Kevin really cares about the quality of the check,” said Regina Hall, who has appeared in eight movies with Hart. “Not the project.”

At one point, attendants handed out small red cups that contained shots of Hart’s tequila.

The night’s standout performer — and recipient of a rare standing ovation — was Hart’s mentor Keith Robinson, who has had two strokes.

“My New Year’s resolution: No more strokes,” he joked. “Chris Rock calls me Strokey Robinson. He’s an a–hole, man.”

Two other standing O’s: when Kennedy Center chairman David Rubenstein spoke about his upcoming retirement, making this his last Twain Prize, and when audio filled the room announcing Eddie Murphy as a surprise guest. It was a misdirect. Nick Cannon came out instead, laughing at the prank as the audience sat back down.

Hart grinned throughout the show, watching from the dress circle with his family, as his young children crawled over his lap. He seemed particularly tickled by Jimmy Fallon’s song.

Unlike the other comedians, Fallon didn’t speak. Donning a black cowboy hat, he sang a country tune, with a twangy Southern accent, about Hart’s height — with lyrics such as “He buys his clothes at Build-a-Bear” and “We would be so heartbroken if he got carried away by an eagle” and:

We all love this famous Kevin,

Even though he’s 2′11″.

He’s the boss in any room,

But from behind he looks like he’s seven.

Hart was born in North Philadelphia in 1979 to a strict mother and a largely absentee father. He began stand-up comedy after dropping out of the Community College of Philadelphia before the end of the first semester.

“If surviving had a mascot, it would be him,” Chappelle said Sunday night. “He looks like ‘Stayin’ Alive.’ A little guy growing up in North Philadelphia. Strong, but he probably can’t fight.”

Despite numerous controversies — which include Hart cheating on his pregnant wife in 2017, and his resignation as host of the Oscars after old homophobic tweets and stand-up bits resurfaced — three of his stand-up specials are among the top 10 highest grossing of all time, and his movies have made more than $4 billion at the global box office.

“I really wish you would have come when I won this award,” said Chapelle, who received the Twain Prize in 2009. Then he pivoted to sincerity: “My God, Kevin Hart. You are a very powerful dreamer.”

The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor ceremony will stream on Netflix on May 11.

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