Comedian Kevin Hart joins an elite group honored with the Mark Twain Prize for American humor

Kevin Hart rose from the open mics and comedy clubs of his native Philadelphia to become one of his country’s most recognizable performers

Credit: Owen Sweeney/Invision/AP

Credit: Owen Sweeney/Invision/AP

WASHINGTON (AP) — Kevin Hart wiped away tears on stage as he looked up from the bronze bust on a pedestal to the trio of comedy legends who had come to witness his professional highlight.

In the VIP balcony of the Kennedy Center opera house, Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle sat side by side, watching Hart accept the Mark Twain Prize for lifetime achievement in comedy Sunday night.

“I didn't start doing what I was doing to get awards,” Hart said. “I just fell in love with the idea of comedy.”

Hart rose from the open mics and comedy clubs of his native Philadelphia to become one of his country's most recognizable performers — honing a signature style that combines his diminutive height, expressive face and motor-mouth delivery into an arena-packing stand-up act. He became the latest recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in a raucous ceremony at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Celebrities and prominent comedians joined in the tribute to Hart, with several specifically citing the comic's work ethic, positivity and relentless dedication to his art.

“He's just inspirational," said comic Nikki Glazer on the red carpet. ”He's one of the most naturally talented people I've met. But he also loves himself, which is not something you can say about every successful comic."

Comedic actor J.B. Smoove (Leon on “Curb Your Enthusiasm”) recalled a young up-and-coming Hart as almost problematically eager.

“Honestly, when he was first starting out, he was a pest,” Smoove said. “But he was always picking up pieces from here or there, always learning from people and never afraid to learn.”

The show kicked off with a high energy duet by Robin Thicke and Nelly. What followed was closer to a celebrity roast than an award presentation, as a parade of comedians took easy swipes at Hart's height while others poked at the sometimes uneven quality of his prolific output. According to IMDB, Hart has appeared in 93 movies and television shows with nine in development.

“Kevin really cares about the quality ... of the check,” said his frequent co-star Regina Hall. “Not the product — honestly some of that stuff is pretty bad — but the man knows how to get PAID!”

Rock referred to the very public breakup of Hart's first marriage by complimenting his appearance and saying Hart “has got that second wife happiness!”

Chappelle, who received his own Mark Twain Prize in 2019, kept his remarks serious — calling Hart “a very powerful dreamer.”

He spoke of Hart selling out a 53,000-seat football stadium — Philadelphia's Lincoln Financial Field in 2015 — as a level of ambition and achievement was inspirational to himself and Rock.

“You made me dream bigger, and you're younger than me," he told Hart.

In addition to his stand-up career, Hart made his movie debut in the 2002 film “Paper Soldiers” and came to mainstream fame through a string of scene-stealing cameos in hits such as 2005’s “The 40-Year-Old-Virgin.” His films have grossed more than $4.23 billion globally.

Now in its 25th year, the Mark Twain Prize annually honors performers who have made a lasting impact on humor and culture. Honorees receive a bronze bust of Twain, the iconic American writer and satirist whose real name was Samuel Clemens.

Mark Twain recipients are honored with a night of testimonials and video tributes, often featuring previous award winners. Other comedians who have received the lifetime achievement award include inaugural recipient Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Whoopi Goldberg, Bob Newhart, Carol Burnett and Dave Chapelle. Bill Cosby, the 2009 recipient, had his Mark Twain Prize rescinded in 2019 after allegations of sexual assault.

Sunday's ceremony will be broadcast on Netflix beginning May 11.

Credit: Owen Sweeney/Invision/AP

Credit: Owen Sweeney/Invision/AP

Credit: Owen Sweeney/Invision/AP

Credit: Owen Sweeney/Invision/AP

Credit: Owen Sweeney/Invision/AP

Credit: Owen Sweeney/Invision/AP

Credit: Owen Sweeney/Invision/AP

Credit: Owen Sweeney/Invision/AP

Credit: Owen Sweeney/Invision/AP

Credit: Owen Sweeney/Invision/AP

Credit: Owen Sweeney/Invision/AP

Credit: Owen Sweeney/Invision/AP

Credit: Owen Sweeney/Invision/AP

Credit: Owen Sweeney/Invision/AP

Credit: Owen Sweeney/Invision/AP

Credit: Owen Sweeney/Invision/AP

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Credit: Charles Sykes/Invision/AP

Credit: Owen Sweeney/Invision/AP

Credit: Owen Sweeney/Invision/AP

Credit: Owen Sweeney/Invision/AP

Credit: Owen Sweeney/Invision/AP

Credit: Owen Sweeney/Invision/AP

Credit: Owen Sweeney/Invision/AP

Credit: Owen Sweeney/Invision/AP

Credit: Owen Sweeney/Invision/AP

Credit: Owen Sweeney/Invision/AP

Credit: Owen Sweeney/Invision/AP

Credit: Owen Sweeney/Invision/AP

Credit: Owen Sweeney/Invision/AP