Ever heard of the name Kevin Hart? If not, it’s likely you soon will.

Before his hosting gig on the BET Awards, and serving as something of an emcee to MTV’s Video Music Awards, few people could claim to recognize the Philadelphia native by either name or face.

But in the space of less than a year, Hart has single-handedly and implausibly sent his stock skyrocketing. In one fell swoop, he’s simultaneously parlayed his stand-up comedy movie, Laugh at My Pain, to the top 10 of the box office charts and ascended to rarefied comedic air once occupied by Eddie Murphy.

Quite the feat for a comic hardly anyone had heard of just a few months ago. In the vernacular, Hart is blowing up.

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So how exactly does a relatively unknown performer, whose sole claim to fame is largely bit parts in films like Scary Movie 3 and a leading role in the atrocious Soul Plane, migrate from those dubious distinctions to the cusp of stardom? Social networking — otherwise known as word of mouth on steroids — certainly appears to have played a substantial role in promoting Laugh at My Pain. The end result is an impressive debut: approximately $2 million earned across nearly 100 theaters in 25 different markets.

Hart’s improbable success has some observers pondering whether the film can challenge the brisk figures seen in 2000 from The Original Kings of Comedy, or Martin Lawrence’s less-lucrative but still respectable haul in 2002’s Runteldat.

The accolades for Hart may be somewhat premature. Laugh at My Pain benefited from a sleepy September weekend at the box office, and the more cost-effective method of limited release distribution, which normally fares well with smaller audiences. That also translates into eye-popping per-screen grosses. That, however, can be a mixed bag. Depending on its genre and star power, the same film can either build on its momentum#, or fade once it expands to wider release.

Clearly it’s too soon to tell, but it will be difficult for Laugh at My Pain to reach the canonical status in pop culture that Raw once did. When he rose to fame, Eddie Murphy had a built-in audience he was able to carry over from Saturday Night Live, itself a cultural juggernaut.
Although his career eventually devolved into a facsimile of Bill Cosby’s — the same man whose wholesome patriarchy Murphy once mocked relentlessly — the SNL alum is still best remembered for his risqué brand of comedy.

And the comedy landscape is treacherous territory: it’s littered with the discarded careers of other black comedy upstarts that tried — and failed — to make it big in a tough genre. Others, like the once uproariously funny Dave Chappelle, simply imploded.

In the bigger picture, however, it may not matter much how well Laugh at My Pain might fare on the big (or small) screen. Given recent trends, Hart may have already made his mark by capitalizing on the growing renaissance of African-American humor. The Philly native’s success coincides with what can be considered (with some qualification) as a resurgence of black comedians, after a fallow period that began in earnest when Bernie Mac met with an untimely demise.

Funnyman Affion Crockett is earning plaudits — and lighting up the blogosphere — with his inventive sketch comedies. And though controversial, the mind of the industrious Tyler Perry continues to churn out bankable fare that gets audiences debating, if nothing else.

One thing that might help determine Hart’s staying power is the shock value embedded in his talent. His predecessors in black comedy, including Murphy and Richard Pryor, shared a predilection for foul language and sexually-explicit material that could make a sailor repentant.

To either his credit or disservice, Hart doesn’t shy away from his own expletive-laden anecdotes. His on-stage shtick is cringe worthy and certainly not for children or delicate ears. But that’s what often makes for the most memorable comedic grist. Truthfully, would audiences still remember Murphy were it not for the bursts of embarrassed and reluctant laughter he elicited with his sleazy monologues and salty one-liners?

Other formerly prominent names have taken to greener pastures. Steve Harvey, one of the Original Kings of Comedy, is now fully dedicated to his new career as a talk-show host and relationship counselor. In this sense, Hart’s arrival couldn’t be more fortuitous.

Are expectations lofty for a comedian who freely confesses to having been booed during his earlier appearances? Certainly.

Then again, what comedian hasn’t been subjected to unruly taunts or told bad jokes at some point in his career? At a time when black comedians of quality have grown increasingly scarce, the Laugh at My Pain comedian is showing the world that he at least has the potential to fill a void that’s been unoccupied for at least several years.