A group of comedians walked in to Tacoma’s Southern Kitchen Restaurant last week for a meal of catfish, hush puppies and strawberry lemonade.
One of them was comedian superstar Kevin Hart.
That was not a punchline.
Hart was in town to film his Comedy Central show, “Hart of the City,” a show that shines a light on unknown or up-and-coming talented comics.
The show’s premise has Hart traveling around the country and visiting with several local comedians who have yet to break into the big time for whatever reason. He then watches them perform at a local venue.
He knows Hart and the show’s producers.
“I said it needs to be in Tacoma at my show,” Jackson told “Hart of the City” producers.
“I feel Tacoma is overshadowed a lot,” Jackson said, referring to a certain larger city to the north.
Given Hart’s popularity — his 2014 movie “Ride Along” grossed $134 million; he has 34 million Twitter followers — his visit was kept under wraps, Jackson said.
Still, word got out that Hart was at Southern Kitchen on Wednesday.
“Within 20 minutes there were 25 people with phones up trying to get a picture of Kevin,” Jackson said. He added there nearly was a pileup at Sprague and Sixth avenues when Hart stepped outside.
That evening Hart and Jackson brought the four comics — Ralph Porter, Kanisha Buss, Bo Johnson and Manny Martin — to Keys on Main to perform their stand-up acts for the cameras.
Hart watched the show at the piano bar from the audience.
Jackson invited 185 people to the show.
“We put Tacoma on the map,” Jackson said.
Hart used Keys’ dueling pianos to film a skit, Keys co-owner Jordan Stoneman said. It will be part of the episode.
“It was so cool,” Stoneman said of the experience and of Hart. “He was a total gentleman.”
Crews took two days to set up camera equipment and prepare Keys for the shoot.
“He had a great rapport with the crew he was working with,” Stoneman said of Hart.
Jackson estimates the Tacoma episode will air in October or November.
Like the others, she auditioned for the show last spring.
“I feel like I worked 10 years for this moment,” Buss said.
Hart gave Buss a little advice before her set.
“He encourages you to be who you are,” she said.
She was going to tone down her act for the television show but decided to keep it undiluted after speaking with Hart, she said.
Johnson, 25, was the newbie of the group. He’s been performing stand-up for just two years. He still has a day job.
Johnson saw his first stand-up show while watching Comedy Central during his middle school years.
“Getting to be on Comedy Central is a childhood dream come true,” he said.
When he got a call from the show’s producers he could hardly believe it.
“For the next couple of weeks I felt like it was a prank,” he said. “The day of the shoot I was prepared for it to be pulled or canceled.”
Hart interviewed the four comics over lunch at Southern Kitchen. He had little time for chitchat, Johnson said.
“His time is worth substantially more than mine is by the dollar,” Johnson said.
But the comic is as gregarious and friendly in person as he seems to be on screen, Johnson said.
Martin, 33, also lives in West Seattle. He started performing standup at 25. He said he’s tried out for several comedy shows over the years. A banker by day, he hosts the Parlor Live Comedy Club in Bellevue by night.
“It’s probably for the best,” Martin said of the long delay. “You’re just honing your craft and when you get in front of Kevin Hart you’re ready for it.”
Well, not quite ready.
“I was the one who freaked out … I’m sitting across from Kevin Hart!” he said.
Martin became a bit tongue-tied seated across from the superstar during the interview portion.
“He asked me my name and I was, ‘Oh, God, what is my name?’ ”
Porter, 51, a stand-up comic for 25 years, was host of the long-running “Haha Tuesday” at Jazzbones in Tacoma.
He’s worked with Hart at various venues for the past 15 years both opening and hosting for him.
Porter has kept his day job while raising four sons. Now, he’s about to quit that job and go into comedy full time.
“Hart of the City” came at the perfect time for Porter.
“One has to go for the other to blossom,” Porter said of his day job. “What I love to do is stand-up comedy.”