By every metric -- ticket sales, festival appearances, venue size and the sheer volume of comics doing strong business -- live comedy is at its highest-ever level, pulling in annual revenues of more than $300 million, Billboard estimates. But even by that standard, Hart is in a league of his own.
"The tour is truly remarkable," says Geof Wills, president of Live Nation Comedy (promoter of 60 of the nearly 70 shows on Hart's tour), citing the $70 average ticket price and the multiple shows in arenas -- often two sellouts in one night. While other comics often focus films and television at the expense of full-scale tours, Hart "wants to do the films, the specials and the concerts," says Wills. "Kevin is really going for it all."
Hart, who is booked by Mike Berkowitz at APA, has been touring nationally since 2009, and began adding arenas to his route a few years ago when doubles at performing arts centers and theaters were selling out quickly. On his last tour in 2012, Hart stepped up to arenas in "quite a few markets," Wills says. Numerous film roles, an active social media presence, and the non-polarizing nature of Hart's comedy continue to boost the comic's popularity.
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Still, the "biggest-ever comedy tour" is a relative term. Jeff Dunham owns the Guinness world record for ticket sales, with nearly 2 million for his 2007-2010 Spark of Insanity tour. In 2009, Dane Cook grossed $26,570,000with attendance of 436,000 from 45 shows -- a feat already trounced by Hart projections. (Decades ago, Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy put up big numbers, but abandoned concert tours relatively early.)
And while Wills says What Now? is "without question" the biggest comedy tour he's seen in more than 20 years of concert promotion, he notes that other elite comedians could meet Hart's numbers "if they really wanted to -- they just don't." Dave Chappelle can crush the box office but usually opts for a residency model. He sold out 10 Radio City Music Hall shows -- 60,000 tickets -- in 2014 "in his sleep," Wills says, for a gross of $5 million, according to Boxscore.
Still, Hart's success makes a statement about the overall health of live comedy. Acts such as Louis CK, Daniel Tosh, Amy Schumer, Brian Regan, Hannibal Buress, Patton Oswalt, Bill Burr and Aziz Ansari are "making real waves," Wills says. "And that's just tip-of-the-iceberg-ing it."
An edited version of this article first appeared in the March 14 issue of Billboard.