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Rochester comics featured on Comedy Central series

Joel James
Provided photo
Joel James

Rochester's comedy scene will get a rare spotlight on national TV this week, when Comedy Central airs the latest episode of "Hart of the City," comedian Kevin Hart's program showcasing vibrant comedy cities across the United States.

Flour City and the wider region is the focus at 11 p.m. Friday, as three comedians with local ties -- Rochesterian Joél James, Rochester-born Zack Johnson, and Travis Blunt from Syracuse -- are featured, with live performances filmed at Photo City Improv as well as an interview segment with Hart.

In addition to being an opportunity for the city of Rochester to enjoy national recognition, it's a big deal for the comedians as well.

"This is a life-changing moment, you know," says Blunt, who got his start in stand-up at the Sunday open mics at Boulder Coffee. "It's not just, 'I'm doing a show and then I'm going home.' No, you're doing a show, and then millions of people are going to see it."

Even before the Rochester episode airs, the experience has already affected the mindsets of all three featured comedians as they pursue their professional goals.

"It made me feel like the impossible was possible," Blunt says. "It made me feel like I'm closer."

James was a Best Comedian finalist in CITY's 2018 Best of Rochester ballot, and his comedy deals with everyday life observations, peppered with pop culture takes. He says he sees the TV appearance as a way to further develop his fan following. With a background in acting, James has found his niche both as a stand-up comedian and as an actor in web series such as the new show "Joél" — a lighthearted look at James and his family — which will have its premiere at the "Hart of the City" screening party that James is hosting Friday.

"People fall in love with your personality, you, when you're a comedian," James says. "So I'm starting to put that out there, and I think that the web series and 'Hart of the City' shows me to the fullest of my frustrations with everything. Because that's what my comedy is based off of: just me being frustrated with everything."

Johnson, who is originally from Rochester and now lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, said he came to a realization after being a part of "Hart of the City."

"I really enjoyed that experience," he said, "and I need to have that more."

All three comedians were initially approached by fellow comic Talent Harris -- who has worked with Hart in the past -- to audition for the show. Twenty-eight invitees were eventually whittled down to the final three by Hart and his producers for the Rochester episode. (Hart has weathered recent controversy after walking away as host of the 2019 Oscars following the resurfacing of homophobic tweets from 2011. But ultimately, "Hart of the City" is more about featuring each spotlighted city's comedians than it is about furthering the career of its host.)

If there's a common denominator between James, Blunt, and Johnson, it may be their individual drive to achieve success on their own terms and in their own time. Johnson skipped the open mic circuit entirely, and began hosting his own shows at venues such as Water Street Music Hall within months of starting to do comedy.

"I was like, why am I waiting around for somebody else to give me an opportunity?" Johnson says.

James echoes that approach: "I really wanna be able to do my own tours and do all that stuff and not really wait for the industry to decide what they wanna do with me."

In addition to his work as a stand-up, James works with students through career awareness seminars using vision boards at local high school and colleges. His mission is to inspire them to articulate their specific goals and meet them.

The third season of Comedy Central's "Hart of the City" also brings attention to the comedy scenes in Baltimore, Cleveland, Dallas, New Orleans, Oakland, San Diego, and St. Louis. "Hart of the City" predominantly features black comedians, an aspect of the show that Johnson doesn't think was coincidental.

"It probably was intentional," he says. "As it should be, because black comedians don't get the same opportunities that white comedians get. You have to be an extraordinary black comedian to reach that upper echelon, and you can be an OK white comedian and hit the same plateau. So it's cool that Kevin Hart, who is probably one of the biggest comedians in the world, decided to use his platform to elevate the stature of black comics."

Blunt says next week's "Hart of the City" episode will have a strong local emphasis.

"It's just really bringing attention to the Rochester comedy scene, and the comedians that represent it," he says.

As for the city's reputation as a destination for comedy, Johnson says that Rochester audiences are perceptive. "Rochester is a pretty comedy-savvy crowd," he says. "I don't find them just laughing at everything, or every and anything. I would almost say that they're a tough crowd, so if you can grind your teeth and get started in Rochester and have some level of success there, you'll be OK anywhere in the country."

Joél James will hold his Comedy Central Watch Party & Comedy Show, hosted by Yolanda Smilez, at 9 p.m. Friday at Photo City Improv, 543 Atlantic Ave. $20 general, $30 VIP. (585) 451-0047.; Zack Johnson will hold his "Hart of the City" Viewing Party & Comedy Show at 9 p.m. Saturday, July 6, at Photo City Improv. $20.

Kushner is CITY Newspaper's music editor.