“My name is Kevin Hart and I WORK HARD!!!” reads the Twitter bio of comedian Kevin Hart. You can’t deny the hustle: Hart consistently ranks among the highest-paid comedians, collaborates with big names on high-profile movie projects and, through his two separate production companies, maintains a dizzying number of partnerships and development deals. Oh, and last year, he launched a tequila brand.
The upshot of all this labor is that Hart is more than famous — he’s omnipresent, perhaps one of the most recognizable faces in American culture today. Which helps to explain how he became a meme.
By now there are almost as many tweets from people expressing confusion at the Kevin Hart reactions as there are images of the man himself. Still, the Kevins keep coming. “No way Kevin Hart got this many pictures,” commented one Twitter user at the end of February. This month, another tweeted that “these are like the new age stock photos.” A third noted that “there’s a picture of him doing everything??”
Anyone who complains that the concept isn’t funny can expect to be bombarded with Hart pics in their replies. Truly, there is no escape. Even Hart himself was at a loss to explain his virality.
“Can somebody tell me why I am trending,” he asked on Instagram. “I got endless memes being sent to my damn phone from a bunch of my dumbass friends.” He shared some of his favorites in that post. In a separate tweet, he confirmed that he has “no idea what’s going on.” The internet simply decided this was his moment, having discovered that the vast Kevin Hart archive reveals a man for all seasons.
How to account for this sudden eruption in Kevin Hart content — or, more accurately, this excavation of so many portraits that have quietly piled up in the course of his massive career? The frenzy seems to have begun as far back as December, with a picture where Hart raises his hands to the camera as if to say, “Don’t blame me,” or “Take it easy.” That’s a useful response to have in your back pocket if you like to get a little spicy online, but it also lends itself to reinterpretation, a quality inherent in any great meme.
That we might automatically laugh at this picture has to do with our preexisting relationship with comics like Hart, according to body language and emotional intelligence expert Dr. Jack Brown. “A comedian will use melodramatic/hyperbolic body language as a way to prime their fans’ tendency to default into laughter,” he tells Rolling Stone. This can heighten “our tendency to feel what they feel,” which in turn makes us feel that what they’re doing and saying is funnier.
“This has the additional effect of being self-deprecating (thus endearing), rapport-building, and empathy-generating,” Brown says, “which will make us feel as if we know Hart personally — when really we don’t.” Such false intimacy is key to his success on stage, and it seems, moreover, to characterize our response to these photos.
Once the hands-up posture grew familiar (it had certainly made the rounds in years past), a curiosity as to other permutations of Hart was awakened. If adaptability is crucial to the life of a meme, then equally important is relatability: we want it to capture a feeling, a mood, that is unmistakable and possibly universal. And since, as Brown points out, comedy functions when the audience’s attitude mirrors the performer’s, we are already disposed to view Hart’s stance as a reflection of ours.
Plus, all the hard work Hart put in over the past couple decades landed him in countless photoshoots, each calling for slightly different styles, poses and expressions. Whatever he needed to promote at a given moment, he was really selling himself: high-end clothes and accessories, penetrating gazes and gestures that make him appear deep in thought. This all adds up to a carefully curated image of who Hart really is, a major player in the Hollywood machine who made it to the top by telling jokes but is utterly serious about the business of being a showbiz mogul. The majority of the pictures have the polish and poise of a glossy magazine spread, presenting him as possessed by a certain wisdom.
While the depth of this visual trove speaks to Hart’s busy schedule (you start wondering whether he sits for a photographer every day), it also conveys the importance of being seen, and repeatedly ingrained in the public consciousness, to preserve A-list celebrity status. It makes perfect sense that Hart is everywhere, because he has endeavored to be exactly that kind of presence. The only difference now is that his audience is spamming his likeness across social media in both a continuation of that effort and a winking commentary on it. This is fame as a self-reinforcing fact, untethered from any context. Here, Hart is not performing in the usual sense, but a manifestation of his own grind.
Though Hart’s publicity team didn’t answer a request for comment, the puzzled delight he’s already voiced is the perfect response, as it matches what everyone else is saying — we’re in the midst of a phenomenon that’s probably more entertaining if you don’t try too hard to understand it. And, according to Brown, the upside for Hart is considerable. “The greater the variety/scenarios of these images,” he says, “increases the likelihood that anyone seeing them has common life experiences, common world-views, and increases Hart’s likability.”
Perhaps that’s how you know you’ve really made it as one of the most popular comedians alive: people are amused just to be reminded of you.