Kevin Hart is standing on stage in front of hundreds of people in the lavishly appointed backyard of a Beverly Hills mansion, but he is not here to perform stand-up. The highest-paid comedian in the world is here to celebrate the launch of Laugh Out Loud, a new joint venture with Lionsgate Entertainment that calls itself “the future of funny.”
“Where’s Snoop at?” Hart asks from the stage. “If you smell weed, you’re probably near Snoop.”
In addition to Snoop, Chris Paul, in a maroon suit that matches Hart’s, and Niecy Nash, hot off her critical hit series Claws, could both be spotted in the crowd, many of whom are sipping on the margaritas that were flowing from the bar in the center of the vast outdoor space.
It was more than a decade ago that JAY-Z rapped, “I’m not a businessman; I’m a business, man!” With Laugh Out Loud, Hart is following the same path that led JAY-Z to focus less on creating music and more on running business operations like Tidal, the subscription-based streaming service he launched in 2015. It has since been described by critics as a “complete disaster,” leading to far too many “99 Problems” headlines.
So, what is Laugh Out Loud? And perhaps even more importantly, how will Hart avoid the same problems that have plagued services like Tidal and NBC’s recently shelved comedy platform Seeso from the start?
Right now at least, Laugh Out Loud is a mobile app featuring comedy content that stars Hart and a bevy of lesser-known names, including social media stars like King Bach and GloZell. Its biggest draw at the moment is probably all seven seasons of HBO’s Def Comedy Jam featuring classic performances from Chris Tucker, Martin Lawrence, Bernie Mac, and more.
“There’s not one destination for any and all of comedy. It’s segregated, it’s all over the place,” Hart tells a group of reporters before taking the stage. “The vision is having a place where anybody and everybody can feel comfortable coming to laugh.”
It is not only Hart’s talent, but also his massive social media presence—53.9 million on Instagram, 34.5 million on Twitter—that made Lionsgate CEO Jon Feltheimer want to team up with him in the first place.
“He is not an individual, he is an organization. He is a force of nature,” Feltheimer, who first worked with Hart on his hit 2013 stand-up concert movie Let Me Explain, says. Most of the money for the new venture is coming from Lionsgate, but as the CEO revealed, without anybody asking him to, Hart went and built an entire studio for Laugh Out Loud in the San Fernando Valley using his own funds.
“When there’s an opportunity, sometimes you have to seize that moment,” Hart says. For him, Laugh Out Loud is all about giving the next generation of comedy voices those same types of opportunities.
“When you think about comedy specials, you think about HBO and Comedy Central, at one point, those were very few and far between individuals who got that opportunity,” Hart said. These days, Netflix is the biggest player in the stand-up special space, giving multimillion-dollar deals to comics like Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, and Jerry Seinfeld.
“We’re searching for the new and hungry,” he continues. “I think that’s a different cadence than any of these platforms have ever had. I don’t think they’ve ever had that energy or insight or have ever been that artist-friendly. That’s what separates us, ultimately.”
In terms of learning from similar services that have tried and failed to succeed in the streaming space, Hart says he “would be a fool” not to look at those that came before, whether it’s something like Will Ferrell and Adam McKay’s Funny or Die in the comedy space or JAY-Z’s Tidal for music.
“That biggest advice was to not be afraid to do the thing that you want to do,” Hart says of personal conversations he had with JAY-Z in the lead-up to the launch. “Be bold and go against what people would call the grain. The ones that aren’t afraid to do that win. A lot of people are simply scared to stand up and stand out. We’re not, and we won’t be.”
An obvious use for Laugh Out Loud would be as a destination for Hart to premiere his new stand-up specials, just as JAY-Z and Beyoncé have put their music and videos on Tidal before making them available to a wider audience. But Hart is not ready to commit to that quite yet.
“I don’t want to say that in the near future that couldn’t happen,” Hart says. But, he adds, “As you’ve seen in the past, my stand-up comedy specials aren’t specials, they’re theatrical films. Of course, I’m an attraction. And I think maintaining some exclusivity to what levels of that attraction will be conversations that we’ll have.”
“We’re not pushing Kevin to be on all the time,” Feltheimer adds. “Frankly, the greatest part of Kevin is his ability to attract other people. We want him to stay exclusive and precious, so we’re not going to overexpose him.”
And instead of going out with a subscription model right off the bat, as Tidal did, Laugh Out Loud will be mostly ad-supported at the beginning.
“We didn’t want to put Kevin behind a paywall,” Julie Uhrman, who runs streaming ventures for Lionsgate, says. “We didn’t want to say we have this incredible talent, but then you have to pay to see him, which happens very often. We wanted to have him front and center.”
“I don’t want to oversaturate myself,” Hart adds.
When I reach Hart by phone a few days after the launch party, he’s at the gym in New York. It’s the day after he popped in and brought the house down as a surprise guest during Dave Chappelle’s Radio City Music Hall residency. He’s no longer in the subdued businessman mode he was a few days earlier, sounding more like his onstage persona, still hyped up from the show—which also featured Chris Rock and Amy Schumer.
“Aw, man, it was unbelievable,” he tells me, describing Chappelle and Rock as two of his comedy “mentors” during the beginning of his career. “So to be able to go up and share the stage with both of them was an unreal feeling. It definitely won’t be forgotten, at all.”
“The crowd went crazy when I came out, of course, because I was a surprise,” he adds, setting aside the momentarily humble posture. “They literally lost their minds and we gave them a hell of a show. The audience definitely got a treat.”
There’s a reason why Hart led the recently released Forbes highest-paid comedians list by a wide margin at $87.5 million in 2016, dethroning decade-long champ Jerry Seinfeld. And it’s not just that he is hilarious. He is also an expert at avoiding the type of backlash that has threatened comedians like Chappelle, who just this week got hammered in the press for what have been described as transphobic jokes.
While some comedians, like Chappelle or even Jon Stewart—“one of my favorites”—are “risk-takers” who “live on the edge,” Hart says he avoids controversy “at all costs, every way that I possibly can.” For instance, when rumors began to swirl that he had cheated on his pregnant wife, Hart posted a photo on Instagram with the caption, “At the end of the day, you just gotta laugh at the BS.”
“I walk a nice line, man,” he tells me. “I’m a people lover and I’m not trying to change anytime soon.”
That’s why Hart won’t even joke about Donald Trump.
Hart made a lot of waves earlier this year when he told Variety he had no interest in piling on the new president. “When you jump into that political realm you’re alienating some of your audience,” he said at the time. “The world today, it’s really not a laughing matter. It’s serious. I don’t want to draw attention to things I don’t have nice things to say about.”
“When I used the word ‘alienate,’ here’s why,” Hart says now. “The way that I see it, my job as a comedian is to spread positivity. To make people laugh. And I don’t want to draw attention to what’s already pissing us as a people off.”
“I want to be a bright spot,” he continues. “I want to take your mind off of whatever may be going on in your life that could be wrong and give you a reason to say, you know what? It’s going to be OK. That’s being the positive, motivating, inspiring person that I am, that I always will be.”
Hart sees politics as something that only divides people. “Everybody’s not going to see things the way I want to see them. And they shouldn’t,” he says. “That’s what makes us individuals. In that particular realm, I keep my opinions to myself. And like I said, if I don’t have anything nice to say, I shouldn’t say it at all. I’m not in the business of trashing people.”
What will that mean for Laugh Out Loud? Will the diverse array of comedians there be free to speak out against the president or any other political figure with whom they disagree?
“Yes, of course!” Hart says, unequivocally. “As a comedian, you have a choice to do what you want to do. That’s the beauty of comedy.”
“There’s people that have a take on that like no other. That’s just not where my strength lies, which is why I avoid it,” he says. “But we are definitely supportive of any comedian and their craft on my network. So nobody’s turned away, nobody’s frowned upon. We want to be a destination for comedy. All comedy. All races, shapes and sizes.”
For all those young comedians out there “pretty much trying to figure out ways to do it themselves,” Hart sees Laugh Out Loud as their “clear-cut destination.”
“I want them to say, oh my god, the opportunities are large at Laugh Out Loud, because of what Kevin Hart is trying to do,” he says, of himself. “He is a comedian’s comedian. And being that he is, he’s looking out for us and doing something in a way that nobody else has.”
Now, it’s just a question of whether or not it will work.