One area Comedy Central has always come up short is drawing attention to the hubs of comedy around North America. While it isn’t unheard of for a comedian from outside of Los Angeles or New York to get a spot on a show or even a Comedy Central Presents, the focus remains squarely on the big cities. If you just watched Comedy Central, you’d never have any idea about the vastness of the American comedy scene, with its regional quirks and unspoken history. That’s what draws me back season after season to Kevin Hart’s occasionally uneven, but incredibly valuable show Hart of the City.
Since 2016, Hart of the City has been traveling America, stopping in at local comedy spots and spotlighting local talent. Hosted by Kevin Hart himself, the format of the show mixes interviews, bits, and stand-up sets. Each episode opens with an explanation of the city they’re visiting that week, followed by an interview with the featured comedians. In almost every case these comics aren’t folks you’ve ever seen before. Hart of the City serves as both a love letter to small-town scenes and a launching pad for these comics to get a TV credit.
These interviews usually aren’t incredibly funny, but they provide an important context for what it’s like to develop in a smaller scene. Season three’s first two episodes, St. Louis and Dallas, explore everything from the racial demographics of comedy in each city to how everyone got their start. Occasionally, these moments are the best part of the show, like Dallas comedian Gerald Piper’s story about the unreasonable expectation he got after opening for Bernie Mac in front of 3500 people on his first set. For the most part, they provide a useful context for understanding the lives of comedians in each scene.
For comedians looking to learn at the feet of Kevin Hart, the show doesn’t offer much in the way of mentorship. However, Hart has a brief segment during each episode that explains the do’s and don’ts of getting started in stand-up. Thankfully these tips tend to be useful things, like to watch out for free drinks because often the venue will count them against your pay. You can’t teach funny necessarily, but by God, you can teach professionalism. It’s a small aspect of what makes Hart of the City what it is, but for new stand-ups looking to understand the business, it’s appreciated.
The real star of the show is the stand-up sets. Each episode showcases three comedians from each scene, with a particular focus on black comedians. Comedy can often be a segregated art form, even if it’s passive segregation, and the topic comes up throughout the show during interviews. However, the one upside of showing where these comics actually perform in real life, instead of in front of a studio audience, is seeing what a black comedy room can be like.
It’s surprising, given how many great comedians the black comedy scene has blessed America with, how rarely black comedy clubs have been featured on Comedy Central. Hart of the City brings the experience to your living room, leading to some of the best audiences you’ve ever seen on Comedy Central. It drives home just how quiet comedy a taping can sometimes be. A studio will never replace the energy of a comedy club, and hearing Dallas’ Blaq Ron or St. Louis’ Vincent B. Bryant bring audiences to tears will make you want to leave the living room and hit a live show.
Each of the six comics featured during this season’s first two episodes have incredible sets. Viewers are introduced to Vincent B. Bryant, Princeton Dew, and Tahir Moore from St. Louis, and Blaq Ron, Gerald Piper, and KeLanna Spiller from Dallas. It’s an interesting mix of styles, from high energy punchlines to personal stories to low key one-liners.
One of the few problems with the show is the lack of gender diversity. There are only two women featured across eight episodes of the show. Even if the producers were just focused on minority comedians, the idea that they could only find two women of color is, to put it gently, bonkers. Do better next season, Hart of the City. Currently, it’s fucking absurd for a voice like Kevin Hart to make the statement that there weren’t any more women worth selecting in these cites.
That being said, Hart of the City is a must watch on Comedy Central this summer. While it’s very much a boys club, to the degree where I feel like throwing something at the wall sometimes, it’s also a vital reflection of what’s going on in America’s underground scenes at the moment. Even if it’s limited in scope, it’s a window into a seldom seen aspect of comedy, the brilliant local voices that prop up and support headliners across the country every weekend night.
At any given moment there are tens of thousands of comedians hoping to make a living telling jokes in America. For four short weeks during the summer, Comedy Central gives a handful of those performers the chance to be seen on TV. Even with room still to grow Hart of the City is unlike anything else on TV. Do yourself a favor and learn a little bit about America’s comedy scene from Hart of the City.
John-Michael Bond is Paste’s assistant comedy editor. He’s on Twitter @BondJohnBond.