Philly's Kevin Hart packs the Linc on biggest comedy tour ever

Kevin Hart is bringing his What Now tour to Philadelphia in front of a 53,000-plus sold-out crowd, a first for a comedian. (ERIC CHARBONNEAU)

Lincoln Financial Field doesn't usually sell out for a guy so short.

Next Sunday, 53,000 people will head to Chip Kelly's house to see Kevin Hart - the diminutive comedian, standing tall at a reported 5 feet, 4 inches, who was born and raised in North Philadelphia - become the first comedian to headline, and sell out, an NFL stadium.

(Not just any NFL stadium, but the stadium of his hometown team. "Here's the good thing about being an Eagles fan: It can only get better," Hart said by phone. "I'm riding with Chip and hopefully we'll be better than we were last year.")

Other comedians have sold out arenas in Philadelphia. Aziz Ansari played the Wells Fargo Center last September, and Bill Burr, who famously railed against Philly fans, will take to that same stage Nov. 6. But the Wells Fargo's 15,000 tickets, while a huge crowd for a comedian, cannot compare to the 53,000-plus (the number for a show as opposed to a football game) Hart has sold for the Linc.

"There are a handful of comedians out there who can sell out an arena, but I don't think there is anyone as big as Kevin Hart right now that can sell out a football stadium," said John Page, president of Wells Fargo Center. "I'm sure being from Philadelphia helps, but his popularity continues to build through his TV specials and hit movies."

The show is part of his What Now tour. It will be filmed and released in theaters Oct. 14, 2016, by Universal Pictures. The last time Hart did this, with his Let Me Explain tour, he self-financed the movie, and it grossed $32.3 million, opening on July 4 weekend 2013.

What Now already is being called the most successful comedy tour in history. Earlier in the run, he played three nights at Madison Square Garden, then hopped over to Brooklyn for a night at the Barclays Center.

It took him two years to gather the material for What Now. "Pound for pound, it's my best work," Hart said in a phone interview.

He said he sees a defined evolution through all of this comedy specials. With What Now, "I'm a man," he said. "My approach to life is completely different." (Hart lives in Los Angeles with his fiancée, Eniko Parrish, and shares custody of his children, Heaven, 10, and Hendrix, 7.)

That's the thing about Hart: He doesn't need to do this. He doesn't need to crisscross the country and stand in front of a mike anymore. Then again, he doesn't really stand. He glides around his large stages, pairing long strides with a kinetic stillness that makes it feel like he's in motion even when he's in one place.

The two movies he top-billed this year - The Wedding Ringer and Get Hard - have a combined gross of $154.87 million. In 2014, the year he became a box-office draw, four movies in which he was involved grossed $274 million. He has 21 million Twitter followers and 20.7 million Instagram followers, and he gets paid a pretty penny for products he promotes through those channels. If he wanted to sit at home and count his money, he could.

But he doesn't. Part of Hart's lure as a celebrity is his willingness to connect with fans. He built up his stand-up following through his social-media presence before that was a requirement. Even now, he goes on runs with fans. Literally. He puts out a call on Twitter saying where he's going to be, so fans can go for a jog with him.

For Hart, it's all about getting to the next step.

The first step was getting on stage at South Street's now-shuttered Laff House in 1998. He was 19, and it was amateur night. "I wasn't really as sharp as I am now," Hart said, laughing. He offered funny thoughts, rather than punch lines, Hart remembered, but it was his personality that carried him through.

Hart has a well-defined persona. He plays up the comparisons between himself and Napoleon. He's short, so he's literally always punching up, yet he also allows himself to be the punch line. One great anecdote is about riding a runaway horse he can't stop because his feet couldn't reach the stirrups.

That combination of Napoleon complex and self-deprecation has transferred over into his movie and TV stardom, namely in the Think Like a Man franchise and his BET sitcom Real Husbands of Hollywood, a funnier-than-it-should-be send-up of the Real Housewives that began its fourth season Aug. 18. TV is yet another thing Hart could consider himself too big for, yet he continues to do Real Husbands.

But he's right: He's also evolving. His set used to revolve primarily around growing up in Philadelphia, with his mom and brother (his father, a drug addict, is also a character in his set). "I am who I am because of Philadelphia." he said. "It's one of the toughest cities to make it. I grew up in the heart of North Philadelphia courtesy of [mother] Nancy Hart. There's nothing I'm not prepared for."

Speaking of being prepared, next Sunday he will be just one small guy in the middle of 53,000 people. How do you tell a joke to an arena?

"It's not about performing in a big room and screaming and shouting. It's about making the audience pay attention. My job is to turn those big environments into comedy clubs," Hart said. "I don't change a thing. You do the same thing that got you to where you are. You don't try to become something that you aren't. You solely take advantage of what you got."

Maybe not solely - Hart brings with him a whole production every time he goes out on stage. In a recent Rolling Stone cover story, he estimated the production cost about $7 million to $8 million for the whole tour. "At my last special, I had fire," he said. "I can't do that again. I have to go beyond that."

There was likely no fire in his Laff House days.

He could just go out onstage with a microphone and stand in front of a curtain. People bought tickets for the man, not the spectacle, right? But a guy like Kevin Hart doesn't want to do that.

"When you see people that are special, why are they stars? They want it more than everyone else, and they go above and beyond to get it. It's about wanting to be in the history books, in the conversation. It's about having a bigger goal. I could have stopped at Madison Square Garden, but let's go get it. Instead of talking about, let's accomplish these goals. That's why I put all the bells and whistles in it."

A couple of times in the interview, Hart mentioned wanting his name to live on. For a guy like Kevin Hart, it's not just about Twitter followers, or the next movie, it's about that something bigger.

"I want to become the best version of myself that I can be. I can't do that just sitting in my house enjoying life. I'm only 36, I have a lot I have left to do," Hart said. "The name Hart means something, but if I don't do my due diligence, putting the time into my craft, my name won't mean as much. That's why I grind the way I grind."


meichel@phillynews.com

215-854-5909@mollyeichel