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Comedian Kevin Hart gets Mark Twain Prize

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Kevin Hart picked up his Mark Twain Prize for American Humor at the Kennedy Center last night. Now, the event is always a bit of a roast of the honoree. And among the comedians who told jokes at Hart's expense were Chris Rock, Tiffany Haddish and Chelsea Handler.

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CHELSEA HANDLER: If you ask Kevin for a favor, you can always count on hearing these three words - I got you. And then you can count on never hearing from him again.

KELLY: At the age of 44, Hart is among the youngest recipients of the honor. In the 25 years the Mark Twain Prize has been awarded, at least one critic thinks a good number of comedians have been overlooked, as NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Comedians love to rib each other. It's almost a requirement for the job. And there was plenty of that for Kevin Hart, starting with Jerry Seinfeld...

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JERRY SEINFELD: If you look at Kevin Hart's career, it doesn't look like it was that hard to do.

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BLAIR: ...And actor Regina Hall, who's played Hart's wife in several movies.

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REGINA HALL: Now, look, I love you. I know you're not the funniest. We all do, right?

BLAIR: Younger comedians were much 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.

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DAVID BURD: 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, like, pull you in and be like, let me, like, help and let me, like, tell you everything I know about this industry, it is the stuff of dreams, if I'm being honest with you.

BLAIR: Kevin Hart's comedy is super energetic and physical. He's known for joking about the stuff of everyday life.

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KEVIN HART: Kids play too rough. I do. Me and this boy got into it at Chuck E. Cheese. It wasn't a fight. It was an altercation. We got into a little altercation because my baby was in the balls, and he was throwing the balls at my daughter head. He was throwing the balls, hit my daughter right in the head. Bop (ph). My daughter so damn stupid, she thought it was a game. She playing.

BLAIR: This is the 25th year the Kennedy Center has given out the Mark Twain Prize. And 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. Sean McCarthy, who writes about comedy for The Daily Beast and Decider, says it's striking that people like Don Rickles, Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers never received the award. He'd like to see the Twain Prize honor older comedians who've inspired younger generations.

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SEAN MCCARTHY: I used to think that the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor was a lifetime achievement award, kind of like the Kennedy Center Honors. 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.

BLAIR: During the ceremony, comedian after comedian praised Kevin Hart for his talents as a performer and an entrepreneur. In addition to his stand-up and movies, he owns a production company and co-owns 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.

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HART: My mom was a firm believer that what you put into something, you get out of it. So because of my effort, because of my mom knowing my effort, she would go, it's supposed to happen.

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

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Elizabeth Blair
Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.