TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Kevin Hart is doing interviews to promote his new film "The Upside" at a time when he's in the news for a totally different reason. After being asked to host the Oscars, he was called out for homophobic jokes from earlier in his career. The Academy asked him to apologize. He insisted he'd already apologized and declined to apologize again, although he's since reiterated apologies. He stepped down from hosting, saying he didn't want to be a distraction. Then it briefly looked like maybe he'd host after all.
But he said yesterday, it's definitely not going to happen. He also said he was done talking about it. So where does that leave the interview I recorded with him yesterday afternoon? Well, we started by talking about the new movie and moved on to talking about what makes a joke funny as opposed to what just makes the person telling the joke sound clueless and insulting. We also talked about a few chapters of his life.
Let's start with a clip from his new film "The Upside." Hart plays someone who's just gotten out of prison on parole. His wife and son are angry with how irresponsible he's been. The terms of parole require that he look for a job. He accidentally stumbles into a job interview as the assistant to a very wealthy man, Phillip Lacasse, played by Bryan Cranston, who now has quadriplegia as a result of an accident and needs full-time care.
Hart's character, Dell Scott, has zero qualifications for this job. But Phillip, who barely has the will to live after the accident, kind of likes Dell and wants to give him a shot. In many ways, they're totally mismatched. You'll hear one example of that in this clip when Dell, Hart's character, walks into Phillip's room and finds him listening to opera.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE UPSIDE")
KEVIN HART: (As Dell) Alexa, stop.
BRYAN CRANSTON: (As Phillip) Hey.
HART: (As Dell) What?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I'll get the shower ready.
CRANSTON: (As Phillip) I want that on.
HART: (As Dell) No, man. Look. I get you trying to block out the world. But can you at least do it to better music?
CRANSTON: (As Phillip) Have you ever listened to opera?
HART: (As Dell) Yeah. Opera's really big in prison. You could hardly get a seat on opera night. Why can't we listen to Aretha? You want to feed your soul, then listen to its queen. Think about it. Yeah, you better think, think, think about what you're trying to do to me - think, think. It's amazing, isn't it? I sound just like her.
CRANSTON: (As Phillip) Yeah. When I closed my eyes, which I needed to, it's uncanny. It's like identity theft.
GROSS: Kevin Hart, welcome to FRESH AIR. So your occasion for your visit to our show is your new movie "The Upside." So let's start with that. It was good to see you in a movie that's part drama, part comedy. You know, like, your character is funny, but there's a lot of drama in the story. Were you interested in taking this role because it opened up a new opportunity in terms of your career as an actor?
HART: Absolutely. You know, I think that this was an opportunity for me to take a step in a direction of doing something a little more serious. You know, for my fanbase, I wouldn't want to go and just throw a complete curveball at them and, you know, them see me in, like, the most serious of serious roles right away. I want to make sure that I'm gradually building to that space, so this was a good role. This was a role where I got to play a grounded version of a character, you know?
You see me high-energy. You see me be the guy that's responsible for the funny and, you know, keeping the movie at a high pace. In this particular case, it was a little different. It was about me embracing the life of somebody that's real and making sure that I gave a performance that made people invest in the relationship between the two characters. Of course, I'm talking about my character and Bryan Cranston's character.
GROSS: You know, Bryan Cranston has said when you were first considered for the role, he was concerned that you were too broad, that you'd be more like the comic - like, the, you know, the broad comic and not get the drama right. So he wanted to meet with you, and he did. What was that meeting like?
HART: Me and Bryan had an amazing meeting. You know, it was - I understood where his concerns came from. And I understood why he would have them in general. He wanted to make sure that I just understood what type of movie this was and what it could be. And after that conversation, you know, he walked away with it, understanding, OK. Wow. You know what, Kev? You not only are right for the part, but I love that you're taking this as serious that you're taking it. I love that you're looking at this as an opportunity to really show the world what you're capable of.
GROSS: So your character is somebody who has just gotten out of prison. You're out on parole. You've known people like your character, in that respect, who've gotten out. Like, your father, I think, did four years. And I think your brother was in prison for a time.
HART: My brother did a little bit of time, yes.
GROSS: So were there things that you could draw on from people you knew, family or outside of family, that you were able to incorporate into the character?
HART: Yeah. I mean, listen. You have - you got to take from real life, you know? I think the biggest thing that I could take from the character is that this is a guy who wants to change. This is a guy who's been through some really dark times in his life. And getting locked up, being incarcerated, definitely was one of the darkest times. But in him trying to change, he feels like society won't allow him to. He feels like, you know, they say that you want people to be different and learn from their mistakes. But now that I've made the mistakes, I'm trying to come out and do better. But I still feel like I'm being held back.
And he's holding a grudge against society because he feels like that - he feels like the white world won't allow him to succeed. And it's not till the friendship evolves with Bryan Cranston's character and my character that my eyes are open. And some things that I thought I now realize aren't true. But it's because I had no idea about the truth of the other side, nor did he to my side.
So what I love is that these two guys basically educate one another on their sides of the world. And they show each other that you can't judge a book by its cover and assume. It's better to assess and understand the situation fully, and that's what happens with these guys. They understand each other. And they understand each other's background and situation, which allows them to develop this friendship and also look at each other and each other's struggles a little more different.
GROSS: Your father was imprisoned for four years when you were - I think he - you were 8 when he...
HART: I was young. I was young.
GROSS: Is 8 right?
HART: Between - around about that time. You're not far off.
GROSS: So did you ever visit him in prison?
HART: My dad went when I was younger. When I was really, really young, he went one time. And my mom took me to visit him then. When I was older and he went back, no. I didn't visit him that time. But I mean, at that point, he was in and out.
GROSS: I see.
HART: You know, his longer stint, I was younger. My mom wanted to make sure that he saw us. But then the other times, it was like that was a - that became a ritual, so my mom was kind of frustrated with it. So it was more, you know, I'll see him when he gets out.
GROSS: So what...
HART: It was just never brought up.
GROSS: What kind of idea did that give you about how easy it was to be in and out of prison? Do you know what I mean? Like, because, like, your father was in and out, so did it seem like prison was just, like, a possibility that could happen?
HART: Well, for me, I think when you really, really, really know that that's a reality - when you really, really know that this is life and this can happen and become your life if you follow suit and really take part in stupid activity, these stupid moments can become life-changing - I guess you could say - situations. Jail was something that I saw firsthand. And it's something that I just didn't want to be a part of my life. And seeing my dad go through all of the turmoil that he went through basically put me in a position to just say, that's not for me. That's not the life that I want.
GROSS: You know, I had read your memoir before seeing the movie. And there's a part of the memoir I thought about, like, your character. This isn't a big giveaway. But your character steals a book that turns out to be a rare, precious book worth a lot of money. And he gives it to his son as a gift. Your father gave you several gifts that he didn't steal but somebody probably stole them (laughter). They were hot goods.
HART: Yeah, my mom was under that impression.
GROSS: Yeah, yeah.
HART: My mom 100 percent was under that impression. You know, look. I can say that my dad has definitely made some of the stupidest mistakes ever. But, you know, like anybody in life, he's learned from them. And I think that's the beauty of wrong. After wrong, you can get to right if you choose to. It's just understanding how to grow and evolve from it.
So the man that he is today is much better than the man that he was then. And my mom - rest in peace - you know, before she passed away, saw that as well, you know? He was always just a work in progress. And some people are just that. But eventually, if you're patient, they get to the place that they're supposed to be and have a different understanding and appreciation for life and the hard road that they took to get to that polished point of being an adult.
GROSS: So I know you've said you don't want to talk about the Oscars anymore. It's the kind of elephant in the room. So I'll ask you a question about it, which I realize you might not answer. But I'm going to ask it.
GROSS: So no one, I think - no one is happy with how this worked out. The people in whatever Oscars committee it is that decides who the host is going to be - I'm sure they're not happy with how it worked out. They don't even have a host now. There's not going to be a host. And I'm sure you're not happy with how all of this has blown up. Like, what went wrong? Like, what was mishandled along the way? How did this happen?
HART: Well, I mean, you know, I think things were just - I think things caught on fire very quickly, and everybody reacted instead of really assessing the situation properly. And you know, in return, decisions were made on my part, and it's something that I felt that I should do. And I didn't want to sway and go back and forth with that decision, so I decided to stick with it. You know, there's no ill will or gripe between me and the Academy. We're fine. But it just didn't work out this year. You know, it wasn't in God's plan. That's how I look at it.
GROSS: OK. Is there anything you wish had been handled differently along the way?
HART: I mean, you can go and say those things but, you know, it's - it serves no purpose, you know, just talking about the hypothetical. I think the positive that comes out of this is, you know, what happened happened. More apologies were given after I stepped down. I made sure that it was very clear where I stood and that the LGBTQ community understood my position within my apology. And after doing that several times, I just kind of saw a back and forth that I didn't know if it was being received or not.
And I said, you know, it's just a game that I'm not going to keep playing, you know? Ultimately I have 10 years of separation in between the time that was brought back up and now, and I think those 10 years acted as a great example of just change. And in order for people to evolve, you have to accept their change. That's how you get to the place of equality. And I think that for me to understand that and know that and see that and for others to ignore that 10-year gap where you can clearly see that this is a person that's made the effort to change was kind of tough.
So I chose to just kind of leave it in the past where it is, you know. I don't think that you can make everyone happy. And you know, my apology was sincere when it was given, and I made it sincere when I gave it again. And my effort after that when I gave another one was just as sincere. But it just seemed as if it was a never-ending cycle. So I chose to just shut it down and say that I'm done with it and move on from it.
GROSS: So I don't want to...
HART: You're fine. You can...
HART: ...Ask the stuff. You're OK.
GROSS: So I'm not going to run through, like, every tweet that was questioned or every joke that was questioned. But what I would like to talk about is how you evolved. I mean, you just said a couple of minutes ago that understanding how to grow and evolve is really important. And for me as an interviewer, I always find it really interesting to hear how people became who they are, how they grew and evolved and how they open themselves up to new ideas and experiences.
So with - in that spirit, I'd like to ask you some questions about how you evolved. And I'll say, like, I'm really - like you, I'm really glad people can change. That is a really positive thing. When you were growing up, what did it mean to be gay in your neighborhood?
HART: Well, it wasn't something that was talked about or seen, you know? You have to understand; you're a product of your environment. Yeah, you've heard about it, and I know what the term means. I know what gay is. That doesn't mean that I'm around to see it. So from my upbringing, it wasn't around. So the things that I was brought up and the comedy that I watched and the way that my dad talked and my cousins talked and my brother talked - that's all I know. So you're a product of that.
Now, because my life took me in a different direction, I travel. I travel the world. When you travel the world, you get to see things you never saw before. You get to see that other things exist, that other people exist. You get to be around all kinds of people. And when you go and you experience different things and different people, you become cultured. Your level of understanding and your knowledge grows to where now you are aware of things that you may not have been aware of before. Because of that, you're able to adapt, and you're able to change and take bad habits away.
GROSS: My guest is Kevin Hart. He stars in the new movie "The Upside." We'll pick up where we left off after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF NAOMI MOON SIEGEL SONG, "IT'S NOT SAFE")
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Kevin Hart, and he stars with Bryan Cranston in the new film "The Upside."
You're saying that, like, when you're growing up - like, when you were growing up, you didn't know people who were gay. They probably had to stay in the closet if they were.
HART: Yeah. I mean, it wasn't...
GROSS: But - and you knew...
HART: It wasn't something that I was around.
GROSS: Yeah. And you knew your father's attitude and other people's attitudes, and that's what you thought was gay. So what were those - when you saw the image of what gay was reflected at you by people who weren't gay, like, what was the image? What was your concept of what it meant to be gay then?
HART: Oh, they didn't - it didn't bother me either way.
GROSS: I'm not asking if it bothered you. But what was it? What did you think gay was before you'd actually met...
HART: There was no thought...
GROSS: ...Someone who was gay?
HART: There was no thought behind it. It was - I know what it is. That means that you like someone of the same sex. That's what it is. But the terms that are used from where I'm from - when you say things like, oh, stop. That's gay. Or you say things and you're playing around - you're not saying it as a term or phrase to offend gay people. You're saying it within the context of how you and the people that you're closest to talk. That's a - it's a - it becomes a slang, almost - not appropriate slang because of now what I know, but back then, it's all you knew.
When you watch Richard Pryor, when you watch Eddie Murphy, who were the heroes - when you watch Martin Lawrence, all these people, joke, you see how they joked. It seemed as if this was OK to joke about. So if that's what you're coming up on and that's what you know, you're following suit. You're just doing what you think is OK. Once you're aware and once you now understand is when you can put a halt to it. But you don't know unless you know. You can't assume that everyone knows - because they don't. That's the crazy thing about today. People assume that everybody has the same knowledge and understanding that they have. They don't.
GROSS: So judging from your memoir, your father had a very macho and very aggressive idea of what it meant to be a man. You write that, like, when you were shedding tears at your mother's funeral in 2006, your father punched you in the back of your head and told you...
HART: Punched me in the back of my head.
GROSS: And told you to be...
HART: True story.
GROSS: ...Be a man and stop being a bitch.
HART: Stop being a bitch.
GROSS: Yeah. How did that affect your vision of manhood?
HART: Didn't affect it at all. That's what I knew. That was my dad. All right, Dad. All right. I guess I'm bitching. Let me stop. OK.
GROSS: But you were brought up with this. You were already...
GROSS: ...Kind of formed in 2006, when your mother died. But when you were a child and, you know, your father gave you all kinds of signs of what it meant to be a man. You know, like, throwing you into a pool or a lake when you couldn't swim, and telling you that he was disappointed in you because you weren't as deep into sports as he wanted you to be. Do you think he was ever afraid that you weren't going to be, like, manly?
HART: I don't think that there was a fear. I think that my dad's vision and goal was for me to be a replica of him. I think that, you know, any man, when you have a child, your first will and want is for your child to be a version of you. If your child chooses not to, your child chooses to love or do anything else, that's fine. You're going to love your child, regardless. My dad loved me, regardless. But my dad wanted to see me take on some of his loves and likes. He wanted to see me have some of his personality traits and characteristics that he - you want to see that.
As my mom. I'm quite sure my mom wanted to see certain things rub off on me that she could say, that's me, I put that in my child. That's just a parent.
GROSS: So one of the things he told you - in terms of wanting you to be like him - one of the things he told you was the pleasures of having sex when you're high on crack. I mean, (laughter), this isn't the guy you wanted to become. So it must have been hard for you...
HART: But you have to...
GROSS: ...To be trained in how to be your father. (Laughter).
HART: You have to make that decision yourself. You can start - as things unfold, you are smart enough now. You're becoming a young adult. You know? The version of me that now is at an age where I'm processing information and I'm seeing what's going on, I'm like, wait a minute. This may not be the right side for me. I don't need to take after this. I'm going to go and focus a little bit more on my mom and what she's handed down. I don't think the things that my dad have given are necessarily the gems in life that I need to hold onto.
GROSS: My guest is Kevin Hart. He stars in the new movie, "The Upside." We'll talk about the line between jokes that are funny and jokes that are offensive after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview I recorded with comedian and actor Kevin Hart yesterday afternoon. He stars in the new movie, "The Upside." Yesterday before we recorded our interview, Hart said he was done talking about stepping down from hosting the Oscars and the controversy surrounding jokes that he told or tweeted earlier in his career that many people consider homophobic. A little later in this half of the interview, we talk about the line between jokes that are funny and jokes that are offensive.
You're 5'6" now. So as a 4'11" person...
GROSS: ...You seem tall to me. I know you think of yourself as short. What did being short mean growing up in your neighborhood? And you say until eighth grade, you were, you know, kind of tall but then you stopped growing. So did that put you at a disadvantage in terms of self-protection, in terms of how other people saw you or related to you?
HART: No. You know, I was always, (laughter) - I was always a little, scrappy kid so I didn't have any worries when it came to that. I think the one thing that I always had was just confidence. You know, my mother made sure that I understood, you know, who I was and what my potential was. So I never felt like being short was a flaw. I mean, that's why I've always addressed it and talked about it. I've embraced it. You know? It's not something that, you know, I feel like had a stigma behind it when I was coming up, like, oh, my God, I'm so small. People aren't going to like me. Oh, God, I'm the smallest person here. I'm embarrassed. I've never had that. I never experienced that. I've always embraced it.
GROSS: Of course you make a lot of jokes about it in your films...
GROSS: ...And in your standup.
HART: Self-deprecation - self-deprecation is always good. Say it before other people can.
GROSS: Right. So, you know, we've talked about your father and the influence he had on your life. In terms of you being a father, two of the most, like, famous things you've said about being a father are, you know - one's a tweet, and one's in one of your comedy specials - these are two of the things that have been under such discussion lately.
In 2010, on your comedy special "Seriously Funny," you said, as a heterosexual male, if I can prevent my son from being gay, I will. Every kid has a gay moment, but you have to stop it right there. And in 2012, you tweeted, If my son comes home and tries to play with my daughter's dollhouse, I'm going to break it over his head and say, in my voice, stop. That's gay.
So getting back to the first statement that, if I can prevent my son from being gay, I will, we've talked a little bit earlier about your image of what it meant to be gay and how you didn't know gay people from growing up - but this sounds like when you had a son, you were afraid that your son was going to be gay. So what did gay mean to you then? What is it you were afraid of?
HART: Well, I think that's taking a joking and putting a context that you're determining it should be on it. You know, the joke was made with light intentions. It's not that deep-rooted, but because of the time of today, people look at it, and they dissect it, and they want it to be. The part that's always left out of that joke which I think is so convenient for those that dig it up is the joke starts off by saying, I don't have a homophobic bone in my body. I love gay people. If you want to be gay, be gay. I have no problem with gay people at all. And that's how the joke starts off.
And then I say, but as a heterosexual male, if I can prevent my son from being gay, I would. It's a joke. It's called a segue. The segue was to get into the joke about something that really happened at a party where my son was playing, and there was another boy playing with him. And I was like, hey, all right, that's enough of that. It was a real moment, and that's where comedy comes from. It comes from real moments.
But because times today are so sensitive, we forget the jokes are made with the intensive purpose of making people laugh, not to hurt. That's not the purpose behind the joke. So when you say, you know, is that a fear? No, it's not a fear. I don't care what my child decides to grow up and be. I'm not a monster. You going to stop loving your kid? You're going to stop being there for your child? Not me. What have I done to show that I'm that person - nothing. This is a moment in 2008 that I thought was funny.
GROSS: This is...
HART: After that, I go...
GROSS: ...2010, I think (laughter). It's just...
HART: 2010 - the special - that special was done in 2008. It aired in '10.
GROSS: Oh, I see.
HART: That's material for...
GROSS: I see. I see.
HART: ..."Seriously Funny."
GROSS: I see.
HART: That's material from 2008.
HART: That's when the special aired. So once again, you're looking at 10-plus years where after...
GROSS: No, no, no, I know. I accept that you've evolved. I'm not - but I'm just thinking that - I understand what you're saying, but jokes are funny 'cause they're based on truth, and...
HART: They're based off of moments that you've had.
GROSS: Right, but...
HART: That's what comedy is. That's where it comes from.
GROSS: But saying that you're going to break the dollhouse over your son's head if you think he's gay or that you have to stop it, you have to prevent your son from being gay - there's no - like, it - the reason why it's not funny to a lot of us is - you know, a lot of people - is that it's not - like, there's no truth in that. You can't - if someone is gay, you're not going to prevent them from doing it, from being gay. You can break a dollhouse over their head. It's just going to hurt, but it's not going to change their sexual orientation. And...
HART: Here's what - but here's what's being done. You're taking a moment that was done with the intensive purpose of trying to be funny. The bad part about being a comedian is that sometimes you just aren't funny. The bad part about trying to make people laugh is that there's a chance sometimes that people may not laugh. That tweet was done with the intensive purpose to try to make people laugh.
GROSS: What was the joke part?
HART: Didn't work.
GROSS: What was the funny part?
HART: The fun - there is no funny part to you. To me, when I did it, I thought that it would be funny. So if people choose to take offense to something, then that's a choice. It's very easy to say, I don't like that joke; I didn't think that was funny. Then it's very easy for me to go, oh, well, that was a stupid joke and then move on from the joke. That doesn't mean that it has to be a personal vendetta towards people, which is why, once I was made aware, I said, OK, I'm done with that. That's stupid. I'm not even going to try to joke like that. All right, I'm done. And then you go and be done. It's called trying to be funny.
It's stupid. It's Twitter. Man, let me try to put this tweet out. Let me try to do a dumb tweet. I did a tweet years ago where I said, dark-skinned women got bad credit. Light-skinned women don't. Dark-skinned woman went crazy. Black woman went crazy. It was a stupid tweet where I tried to be funny. Doesn't mean that I hate dark-skinned women. My daughter is dark-skinned. My ex-wife was dark-skinned. It was me trying to make a joke, but people take these jokes, and they want them to be so much more.
We've lost the thought that comedians try to be edgy and funny. That's what comedians do. It doesn't mean that you get it right all the time. It doesn't mean that you're going to knock that ball out the park all the time, and sometimes to grow as a comedian, you got to go through the stupid part, and you got to go through the dumb phases. It's within the attempt to be funny. It doesn't mean there's a malicious piece to it. You're just trying to make people laugh.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Kevin Hart. We'll continue this conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded with Kevin Hart yesterday afternoon. When we left off, we were talking about the line between funny and offensive in comedy and why many people found some of his earlier jokes homophobic and offensive.
You know what I think we're going through? I think we're going through a period when, like, African-Americans refused to accept jokes that have, like, racist undertones. Women have stopped accepting jokes that are misogynist. Gay people don't want to hear jokes that are homophobic.
And I think we kind of all need to agree that to be funny, you don't insult other people. Like, an attempt to be funny isn't about, like, insulting a race, an ethnic group, a religion or people of a certain sexual orientation or gender. Do you know what I'm saying?
HART: I can understand that. But I can agree with it and disagree at the same time - because you have to look at what comedy was built off of. Stand-up comedy is built off of edgy, courageous individuals that will say what other people think. What you think, I'm going to say because I'm a comedian. That's what comedians - that's what comedians do. Now, once again, in doing that some stuff can be tacky. Some stuff can be tasteless. Some stuff can just be outright demeaning and wrong.
In that case, those comedians today will just have a hard time being successful. The comedians that are good, the comedians that can adapt and that no matter what can still deliver the messages that they want but do it in a classy, mature way - are the comedians that will still evolve and go through even these sensitive times.
GROSS: No, but the thing is, like, there are, like, plenty of jokes you can make about gender or sex or sexual orientation...
HART: I agree.
GROSS: ...Without them being derogatory.
HART: I agree.
GROSS: And so I think all subjects, you know, should be safe for comics but not coming from a position of demeaning. As - as you said, not - not demeaning people. And it takes...
HART: I can 100 percent agree with that. But that's - that's coming from me. There's other comedians that would debate that and say they don't care. I - I can agree because I don't need to do that to be funny. I've shown that, once again, in the past 10 years. I've shown that by not going back and joking like that. So when you know that, as a comedian, you are a certain type of comic and you have matured to fit even the times of today, then I'm alienated from that conversation because I've already made the change.
But there are other comedians that aren't going to make the change because comedians get off on being edgy. Comedians get off on saying the things that other people think, that they will say. And that's what people have to realize. You know, it's like what state of the world do you want comedy to go to? Because ultimately, if we keep pushing in this direction, you're going to have comics that don't know what's safe to talk about.
And now - now the conversation's changed to people aren't funny anymore because everybody's afraid to be funny. So at what level can they be funny? Wait, can I - uh-oh, wait, does this - hold on - is this - ah, uh-oh, can I - man, all right, shoot. I don't know. Oh, let me try this. No, wait. I think I'm going to offend - now you're not even comfortable. You're not even comfortable.
GROSS: I know what you're saying. And, you know, as an audience member (laughter), when it comes to comedy, I want comics to be able to be cutting edge and to push boundaries. But, like, you know, in a way that's coming from an enlightened position. But - but - but also, like, as a woman, I know, like, in the early - in the '90s and '80s and - I was auditioning a lot of comedy, trying to see, like, do we want to have this comic on? Do we want to have that comic on? And my God, there were so many comedy sets that were all, like, sex jokes about women and really just - really demeaning in how the comics talked about women.
And I was just like, wow, that's, like, not funny. Like, if you're a woman, there's, like, absolutely nothing funny about that. It's just obnoxious and annoying. And so I didn't want to, like, shut down people from being funny. But I'm sure you can relate as somebody who's African-American, like, if somebody who is telling a joke that they think is hilarious that you think is, like, wow, that's really racist. They don't even know how racist that is. You wouldn't think, like, wow, but they're being cutting edge. You'd probably think, like, they just don't get it. They don't get it.
HART: I can give you - I can give you a great example - Don Rickles, right? I'm at a Vanity Fair party. This is a very true story. (Unintelligible) says, Don Rickles wants to meet you. He's a huge fan. I said, oh, man, Don Rickles - comedian, legend. This man is unbelievable, right? He's just a legend, just for who he is and what he's done for comedy. I go meet Don Rickles. Don Rickles, he sees me, gives me a hug, taps my cheek and said, look at you. You're just like a cute little monkey, right?
Don Rickles was always known for edgy, crazy material. He always said crazy things out of his mouth. At this moment, I said, wow, you just called me a monkey. All right, man, let me just get out of here. Let me just leave. Hey, good meeting you, man. I don't want to sit here and tell these people that Don Rickles just pissed me off. I'm just going to go and leave. It's very easy for me to leave. It's very easy for me to say, at that moment, hey, this ain't for me. I'm out.
GROSS: Well, but that raises an interesting question. If people like really sexist humor or really racist humor, or really homophobic...
HART: Well, there's an audience for it.
GROSS: ...Like, so do you go, like, well, I'm going to cater to that audience? Or, like, that's fine. They like racist jokes, so fine. Or do you say, like, no, it's not fine. It's not OK to make jokes like that. It's not OK to talk that way about black people or gay people or women or Muslims or whatever group you're telling jokes on when it's just, like, not funny if you're...
GROSS: If you're, like, enlightened...
HART: So have you asked yourself...
GROSS: ...About that kind of thing. Yeah, go ahead.
HART: Have you asked yourself the question, then, when you think that moment to yourself and you go, this is not funny - and there's a group of people laughing - do you think why they're laughing? Do you think why that group of people found it funny? Because to them, it was - it was humorous. That means that that person has found a niche in whatever they're talking about and found an audience that supports it.
GROSS: I hear it...
HART: If that's the case...
GROSS: I hear it as an endorsement of that kind of perception. Like, if I hear a homophobic joke, I don't go, like, well, those people think it's funny, so this is great. I think, like, those people don't get it - those people endorse the homophobia in that joke - ditto for, like, a misogynist joke. Like, those people don't get what it means to be a woman and why women are offended. So, like....
HART: So is it OK...
GROSS: They're laughing, but they don't get it.
HART: If a woman - so if a woman is up there and a woman is giving those jokes - if a woman is delivering the same jokes that you don't think is funny that the man was doing and people are laughing, is it OK if it's coming from a woman?
GROSS: Well, it depends on what the joke is. I mean...
HART: I'm saying - the same jokes that you're saying you...
GROSS: I can't answer that because the woman might be doing it with ironic spin on it. It might be a joke about a certain kind of joke, like the kind of thing Sarah Silverman does. Like, Sarah Silverman sometimes says, like, sexist or even racist things, and the joke is on that racism isn't funny and that sexism isn't funny because she knows how to spin things around and turn them on their head.
HART: There's a clever spin to it.
GROSS: Yeah. And she's commenting that these are bad views. I'm telling this joke because these are bad views not because I endorse these views. So that's why it's hard for me to comment on that.
HART: Well, the only reason why I ask you that is because I've seen people from different races, you know, bash their race. For example...
GROSS: Oh, sure. Now I know what you're saying. Yeah, right.
HART: If a black comedian is going and talking about...
HART: ...You know, a bunch of black stereotypes.
HART: Is it OK? If a white person is talking about all the crazy things that white people go through, is it OK? If it's an Asian person, Indian - if it's a gay person, male or female, and their talking about their own and they're saying the things that they would complain about if someone else says it, is it ok? When - what's the line in what's OK and what's not? - because now it becomes such a foggy - it's such a foggy place because it's, well, that's OK because they're allowed to. It's just like black people using the N word.
GROSS: I was just going to say that.
HART: We can say it.
GROSS: I was just going to say that.
HART: We can say it.
GROSS: Yeah, yeah.
HART: But then if a white person says it, you better not say it.
GROSS: Exactly, exactly. No, right.
GROSS: It's complicated.
HART: When you do that...
HART: When you do that, you're now making it complicated because it's either you can or you can't, but that's never going to be the case.
GROSS: But there's a...
HART: This is where...
GROSS: There's always a context for humor. You know, so...
GROSS: So you know...
GROSS: You know where the joke is coming from, and that changes the context. So that's a factor in it. My guest is Kevin Hart. He stars with Bryan Cranston in the new movie "The Upside." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Kevin Hart. He stars in the new movie "The Upside." We've been talking about what makes a joke funny and what makes it offensive and if the meaning of a joke changes depending on who's telling it and what the context is.
I'm going to change the subject.
GROSS: Is there anything you want to add before we move on?
HART: I mean, no. In reference to everything that we're talking about, I just - you know, I think that you brought up, you know, good points. I think that you, within asking about the joke side of it, shed light just, hopefully, that your listeners can hear and understand - just that the world of a comedian, it's a real complicated world. And just understand where it started, you know?
And if you were raised on comedy, that means that you were raised on all the greats to come before you. And when you look at the greats, when you look at George Carlin, when you look at Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor, when you look at - I mean, God, the list goes on and on. I can go down - Redd Foxx, Robin Harris, Bernie Mac. You know, when you look at all these comedians, edgy was funny. Racy, cutting edge was funny.
And now today that's not funny. It's deemed unfunny. So the change that comedians are having to make is one that, A - they never thought they would have to do, that they never saw coming. And that change is going to be a change that takes time for every comedian to grasp and understand, some slower than others.
I'm different. I'm different. It took me nothing to adapt and change. But everybody's not going to get it. Everybody's not going to understand it. But you have to have patience within the time for growth. You got to have patience. And there is no world where we shouldn't be able to laugh at ourselves. We're all flawed.
HART: Flaws are funny.
GROSS: And that's the thing. There's a difference between laughing at yourself and laughing at somebody else who you think...
GROSS: ...Isn't equal to you or - you know what I mean? Like...
GROSS: And that's where the, you know, the misogynistic jokes and the anti-gay jokes come in. You're not laughing at yourself. You're laughing at someone else and demeaning them in the process.
GROSS: Well, all right.
HART: I can agree.
GROSS: (Laughter) OK.
HART: I can agree.
GROSS: Great. I want to just get in a few words about your late mother. It sounds like she was a tough woman who became (laughter) very religious. And I think in so many ways - we - you know, we talked some about your father. But I think your mother worked so hard to keep you - and you say this in the book - to keep you off the streets and out of trouble and to work hard.
And you're known as - like, you have so many things going on professionally. You're obviously, like, really hard-working. But she sounds like in many ways she was the opposite of your father. She didn't believe in fighting. She couldn't stand the smell of cigarettes, weed or alcohol. She believed sex was a sacred thing. And she found every way to schedule your time - I mean, like spelling bees and a community swim team. You were on the basketball team.
So were you grateful at the time that she made sure that every minute (laughter) was scheduled when it could be to keep you off the streets and out of trouble, or did you resent that at the time? And in retrospect, are you grateful for it?
HART: I think 100 percent that right now, I am so thankful for the fact that my mother did so much for me with the time that I had. I'm so happy and so appreciative and thankful that she was willing to put the time in to make sure that I stayed constructive, you know?
My mom never wanted there to be an idle hour of my day. She just wanted me to basically make use of my time and just always understand that those hours are valuable, you know? An idle mind is a wasted mind, you know? Just a mind with nothing to think about and nothing to do is just being wasted. So she just made sure that I was always busy. And I loved that because until this day, that's something that I've taken and that I've applied to my life.
GROSS: Kevin Hart, I want to thank you so much for this interview. I've enjoyed getting to know you a little bit, and I feel...
HART: Thank you.
GROSS: ...Like I already knew you a little bit from your work and from your memoir, which I should mention is called "I Can't Make This Up." And I'm glad that you're getting new opportunities in movies. So thank you very much. I really appreciate this conversation.
HART: Thank you so much. I appreciate it as well. I know that there'll be more. I'm looking forward to talking to you again.
GROSS: My interview with Kevin Hart was recorded yesterday afternoon. He stars in the new movie "The Upside."
If you want to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like our interview with Ben Stiller about his Showtime series "Escape From Dannemora" (ph) or our interview with Rachel Maddow and Mike Yarvitz about their podcast "Bag Man" about how Nixon's vice president, Spiro Agnew, was forced out of office, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.