On a Sunday night last December, standup comic Brently Heilbron, along with cohorts Mike Wilson and Chris Shea, put on a curated live comedy show at the Empire Control Room, where Heilbron had been hosting a weekly open mike since March. The bill featured 14 hand-picked comics and a performance by Austin musician Shakey Graves, who played for free to help out the trio.
When 500 people showed up, Heilbron and company were alarmed, afraid that they’d drawn 400 Graves fans and just a comparative handful of comedy devotees. Out of those 500, about 100 stuck around at the end of the night to listen to the music.
“They were there for comedy,” Wilson says, as if the realization still surprises him. “That’s when we really knew we had a thing.”
Wilson produced the event while Shea filmed the comics, a dozen of whom appear in the inaugural season of “Stand Up Empire,” a new series premiering June 5 on KLRU-Q. The comics were chosen by host and energetic promoter Heilbron, a comedy history geek who refers to himself as “a carny” and “a bit of a P. T. Barnum-type fella.” Stephen Sternschein, owner of Empire Control Room, is the show’s other founder and executive producer. The open mics that led to the creation of the show continue every Tuesday at Sternschein’s club, which also was the location for the live tapings.
The guys refer to the show, airing in six weekly installments featuring two comics each, as a snapshot of Austin’s exploding comedy scene. The premiere episode features the age- race- and every-other-which-way-diverse pairing of Chris Cubas and 10-year old Saffron Herndon.
“It’s like Hagrid and Hermione,” Heilbron says.
The trio shot for public television distribution for a number of reasons.
Heilbron grew up watching British comedies “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” and “The Young Ones” on Dallas PBS affiliate, KERA, and says he believes public television is important.
“There’s something proletariat about it, you know. It’s of the people and I love that,” he says, “It matches what we’re trying to do; it matches with the tone and scope of our show.”
Wilson knew someone at KLRU — “a kind ear” he says — and so he pitched the show.
“They said ‘good idea’ and then it was, ‘oh (expletive) … I guess we’re gonna make a TV show now,’” he recalls. They turned to Shea to transform the December footage into a series.
“Somebody has to be there loving (the series) as much as we loved the event,” Wilson says. “You can hire people, but you can’t make somebody care the way that Chris does.”
With its performances and host-less interview segments, the series is bound to draw comparisons to that other Austin public television show, “Austin City Limits.” In fact, “Stand Up Empire” now serves as a lead-in to rebroadcasts of that legendary series on KLRU-Q.
It’s not an accident.
“We want to do for the modern comedy scene in Austin what ‘Austin City Limits’ did for the music scene, and that is to present the true Austin vibe,” Heilbron says. “But, then, we also want to do for comedy what ‘Downton Abbey’ did for British period pieces.”
There are obvious differences between the shows beyond subject matter. While “Austin City Limits” features a mix of established and early buzz acts, “Stand Up Empire” hopes to showcase the stars of tomorrow.
“There’s a certain sweet spot in who we’re booking,” Heilbron says, “people that are ascending, but still get off their amazing show and go work as a bouncer or bartender.”
Shea compares the performers’ material to time capsules of what’s relevant.
“There are jokes in the shows about Jeb Bush and Uber and, y’know, these things have already changed in a matter of months,” he says. “The tongue-in-cheek archivist in me wants to always have that in a bottle forever.”
In addition to the stand-up sets and interviews, each installment will include a short segment on some other aspect of the local comedy scene. The Moontower Comedy Festival (booker Lietza Brass appears in the premiere episode), incubator Coldtowne Theater and LGBTQ live storytelling series “Greetings From Queer Mountain” have all made the cut.
“We promote our own show by promoting everybody else,” Heilbron says. “Because together, we’re heavy. If you support Austin comedy, we all win.”
Although the show reportedly pushes public television’s broadcast boundaries, the creators claim the mild language and subject matter restrictions resulted in tighter sets from the comics.
“It’s legally broadcast-able, but still edgy,” Wilson says.
For his part, Heilbron is impressed that broadcast language standards remain based on George Carlin’s famous “Seven Dirty Words.”
“They’re using a comedy bit from 40 years ago to enact a standard,” he says. “That’s like Major League Baseball going, ‘We’re basing our rules on “Who’s on First.”’ We haven’t broken the Bud Abbot rule since 1933!’”
A second season is already in production, set to air in the fall. Beyond that, there’s talk of taking the show on the road to spotlight comedy scenes in other cities.
“I’m also into feuds, and I’m working on getting some comedy feuds going,” Heilbron jokes. “Comedy doesn’t have feuds like music does and I’m working on it.”
Update: This story has been updated to add information about the producing partners.
“Stand Up Empire” premieres at 10:30 p.m. Sunday, June 5, on KLRU-Q.
More on the show: Hear Brently Heilbron and Chris Shea on a recent episode of our weekly podcast at statesman.com/shots.