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Kevin Hart takes home his Mark Twain Prize for American humor

Kevin Hart received the 25th annual Mark Twain Prize for American Humor at The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. on March 24th, 2024.
The Kennedy Center
Kevin Hart received the 25th annual Mark Twain Prize for American Humor at The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. on March 24th, 2024.

Updated March 25, 2024 at 9:20 AM ET

Comedians love to rib each other. It's almost a requirement for the job and there was plenty of it for Kevin Hart Sunday night as he received the 25th Mark Twain Prize for American Humor at The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Tiffany Haddish called him a "leprechaun." Jerry Seinfeld joked that, "If you look at Kevin Hart's career, it doesn't look like it was that hard to do." Chris Rock, Regina Hall, Keith Robinson, Chelsea Handler, Dave Chappelle and others kept the roast going.

Younger comedians were more charitable. Kevin Hart is known for championing undiscovered talent, like Dave Burd, a rapper who goes by the name Lil Dicky. Hart has invested in his music and helped him create a new sitcom. Like Hart, Burd grew up in Philadelphia.

Tiffany Haddish was one of several comedians who thanked Kevin Hart for his help early in her career.
/ The Kennedy Center
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The Kennedy Center
Tiffany Haddish was one of several comedians who thanked Kevin Hart for his help early in her career.

"To like grow up looking at a screen seeing a guy that you think is the funniest guy in the world and then to have that guy pull you and be like 'Let me help and let me tell you everything I know about this industry.' It is the stuff of dreams if I'm being honest with you," Burd gushed before the show.

The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor is considered the highest honor in comedy. Past winners include Richard Pryor, Bob Newhart, Whoopi Goldberg and Eddie Murphy.

Like any big honor, some comedy lovers believe there have been oversights. Neither Seinfeld nor Chris Rock has received the award. Mel Brooks turned it down. The Kennedy Center says he didn't say why.

From L to R, Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld at The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. to honor Kevin Hart as he received The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor on March 24th, 2024.
/ The Kennedy Center
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The Kennedy Center
From L to R, Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld at The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. to honor Kevin Hart as he received The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor on March 24th, 2024.

Sean McCarthy, who writes about comedy for The Daily Beast and Decider, says it's striking that people such as Don Rickles, Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers have not received the award. A number of recent winners, including Hart, have been in their 40s when they won the prize. McCarthy would like to see the Twain Prize honor older comedians who've inspired younger generations.

"I used to think that The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor was a lifetime achievement award, kind of like The Kennedy Center Honors," McCarthy says. "And it certainly felt that way until about 2010, when they began awarding the prize to people who were in their 40s, like Tina Fey and Will Ferrell. And now I don't really know what the prize means."

During the ceremony, comedian after comedian praised Kevin Hart for his talents as a performer and an entrepreneur. In addition to his standup and movies, he's involved in several businesses including his own production company, a tequila brand and restaurants.

Growing up, Hart's dad was in and out of jail. He says he got his work ethic from his mom. She died in 2007. Had she been here, Hart believes she'd be proud to see him receive comedy's most prestigious award.

"My mom is a firm believer that what you put into something you get out of it," Hart reflected, "So, because of my effort, knowing my effort, she'd go, 'It's supposed to happen.'"

The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor premieres on Netflix on May 11.

This audio and digital versions of this story were edited by Kevin Drew.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: March 24, 2024 at 10:00 PM MDT
Previous audio and web versions of this story incorrectly said that Mel Brooks is dead.
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Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.