Building a Comedy Scene in Austin with Sure Thing
Popular Austin, Texas standup showcase, Sure Thing, packs the back-porch of the Austin Java coffeehouse every Saturday night, even in the January cold. I’d been warned that it filled up quickly after doors opened, but I hardly took that seriously. So when I arrived still a good 15 minutes before the show, I was surprised to find my saved seat was the only one left, with chair vultures circling ominously. Once I saw the show, it was understandable. Sure Thing delivers on its name, with terrific Austin comics like Casey Crawford, Katie Stone, and that night’s headliner, Brian Gutmann.
In recent years Austin’s comedy scene has absolutely exploded. It seems hard to go outside without tripping over a comedian, and harder still to choose between the dozens of offerings between improv, standup, and sketch. But in a city with tons of competition, Sure Thing’s founders and co-hosts Duncan Carson and Brendan K. O’Grady have done the unthinkable: built a popular weekly show whose only hook is the promise of a strong lineup and a good time. It’s done so well they stepped it up and started the record label Sure Thing Records.
In Sure Thing’s live shows, Carson and O’Grady have cultivated an excited, gung-ho energy, and crowds have clearly responded to the welcoming atmosphere. “There’s a tendency for standsups to want to be cool,” says O’Grady. “And I don’t think we’re cool. We don’t make any pretense toward that. We’re unabashed and enthusiastic about what we put forward.” As producers, the two create a broadly funny lineup that’s enticed new comedy fans. “I get the sense that we are often someone’s first standup show they’ve gone to,” says O’Grady. This approach spread their success through word of mouth, not to mention earned returning audiences. And that excited energy makes for a show comics want to return to. “The first couple of times I did the show, I thought, ‘Oh this is a really fun crowd who’ll stick with me through some real dorky shit,’” says Sure Thing favorite, Mac Blake. “Or if it gets a little dark or dirty, they’re not like, ‘Well my arms are folded forever.’ It’s a fun show.”
Of course, enthusiasm alone is only part of Sure Thing’s success. The other half comes in curating a quality lineup, a promise that’s right there in the name. “Some people make fun of us, say we’re arrogant to name it ‘Sure Thing,’ like, ‘Yeah, sure. You’re always gonna love it,’” says Carson. But, he says, the guaranteed fun is exactly the point. Since Sure Thing started in late 2012 (then with a different name), Carson and O’Grady have had hundreds of local and traveling comics on their stage. Both are active within the standup scene and invite the comedians they’ve looked up to, as well as those they see getting stronger every week. O’Grady explains, “We put on people that we’re excited about. I think the show works because we hold ourselves to that standard.” That can’t be easy considering they only repeat comics every few months and they book one 30-minute headliner every week. As a result, they’ve helped other comics grow by offering opportunities to folks who are ready but underecognized. Sure Thing was the first show where comic Mac Blake — who later went on to win the competitive Funniest Person in Austin contest in 2013 — did a 30-minute set.
But still, a record label? It’s an unexpected move, considering Austin’s not yet viewed as a serious comedy city, but it signals that the Live Music Capital is coming into its own in terms of comedy. And Carson and O’Grady hope their label will bring greater attention to Austin’s comedy scene. O’Grady explained, “Right now it’s hard to be a good comic and not think about, ‘How much longer can I afford to stay here? How many opportunities do I really get?’” But the hope is Sure Thing Records brings additional growth opportunities and a reason for Austin’s best talent to stay longer. “There’s so many talented people in the middle of the country without an opportunity for anyone to see them,” said Carson. And while many Austin comedians have self-released albums or sketch comedy videos, Sure Thing Records is looking to focus those energies into one giant bat signal calling audiences to Austin comedy. O’Grady says, “[Austin] has the talent. We wanted to do what independent record labels do all over America, which is: if the product’s really good, and you make it available to a bigger audience, people will find it.”
Last August, Sure Thing Records released their first record,a compilation featuring 15 Austin and New Orleans acts, and on March 3rd they’ll release their first album for Mac Blake. Later this year, Sure Thing Records has planned releases for comics Bryan Gutmann, Seth Cockfield, and Eric Krug.
Blake was the obvious choice for Sure Thing’s first full-length release. A performer equally talented in sketch and standup, he’s universally loved among Austin comedians. Blake has a gentle giant persona and an amiability that makes an audience willing to follow him, even when his material veers into darker territory. Carson explained their choice for STR’s debut, “[Mac’s] the most talented guy in town. There’s nobody else that’s that good at everything. You want somebody with a vision.” In fact, without Blake, Sure Thing may not have even started a label. “I was watching him do his first half hour set for us, and I thought, ‘This is why we’re as good as every other comedy scene,’” said O’Grady. “This guy could be anywhere in America and be an amazing comic. And he’s here.’ That’s where the germ of the label started.”
When I interviewed Blake, he explained that perhaps Austin hadn’t gotten much attention yet because, unlike cities with comparable comedy scenes like Denver or Seattle, no Austin comic has broken nationally yet. “A rising tide lifts all ships,” he said. “In a way, [having that person] legitimizes the scene.” He’s too humble to know it, but thanks in part to Sure Thing Records, Blake just might be talking about himself.
Photo by Erin Holsonback.
Erica Lies is a writer and improviser in Austin, Texas. Her work has appeared in Bitch, Rookie Mag, and The Hairpin.