Imperical Thinking: An Interview with Stand-up Empire's Brently Heilbron

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Austin’s unofficial slogan of “Keep Austin Weird” might make some people think of hippy-ish imagery, or jorts in the office, or some asshole who brings a Parrot to a bar. To others, it means a variation from the norm, more specifically, against the expected. Can that command to Keep Delivering the Unexpected live and grow on…PBS? It can if it’s stand-up comedy. It can if you’re Brently Heilbron. The inaugural six-episode season of Stand Up Empire debuted June 5th. Hosted by Heilbron and featuring extended sets from Texas comedians, intercut with interviews, and wrapped with snapshots of the greater Austin comedy scene. All of season 1 is available online for your viewing pleasure. Now that Season 1 is in the books we talked (emailed) with Brently about the show and its future.

Season 1 is in the books. Congratulations! Season 2 is already shot, right? When does it air?

Brently Heilbron: Thanks! Season 2 is coming in the Fall of 2016. It has been shot and we’re editing it now.

What did you learn from season 1?

Brently: Oh man, so much. This was the first series for all of us and everyone comes from a different background – film, comedy, gaming. One thing I learned was when to get the hell out of the way. Everyone has her/his own roles and brings their fullest to it. We got pretty lucky, honestly, in that we had great audience, weather, and sound for an outside taping. One night basically turned into 6 episodes. On that same note, we learned a lot about lighting for broadcast, etc, and I think you’ll see some of those changes reflected in Season 2. Also, learning to work with a broadcast company like PBS has been pretty interesting and balancing their standards and practices with the edge of most modern comics. A few cuts had to be made and adjustments. My favorite learning moment was when an entire episode’s airing was delayed by a day because of Daniel Webb’s cartoon penis was visible in a Danny Jock portrait. I still have that picture in my phone and it’s the only dick pick I’ll send out.

How did the show go from idea to “holy shit we’re going this”? Was there any part of you that thought stand-up on PBS wouldn’t work?

Brently: We had been running the Stand Up Empire open mic for about 6 months at the time. The venue had suggested putting up money to bring in a national headliner. I had a random trip out to LA and the more I thought about it, the idea of a series seemed right. Plus, if comics were to be paid, I’d want it to be local ones. Comics in Austin work harder than anyone I’ve met. So I put together a very early pitch and met with the partners, Mike Wilson of Devolver Digital and Steve Stephen Sternschein of Heard Entertainment – who owns the venue. Mike Wilson is one of those guys that has his own gravitational pull and he suggested PBS. I loved that idea right away. As a kid in Dallas, KERA was one of the first places in the country to air shows like Monty Python and The Young Ones, a very early source of sketch comedy for me in particular. PBS dug the idea and had two requirements: make it diverse and make it look good. The first, naturally, we could nail. The scene in Austin is breathtaking in its diversity and you never have to sacrifice talent. Women are really leading the way. So I never thought it couldn’t work. Honestly, I was probably a little too naive about the level of standards that a traditional PBS audience would expect in terms of content standards. I was told we really pushed it, and that’s putting it politely. But what you get with PBS is (with a few exceptions) total artistic control in terms of the style and direction of the show. You also foot the bill, ha. So there’s that. I remember the day we got the first “letter of acceptance” from them. It was a dream come true. But then it was like, holy shit, now we actually have to do it.

Any changes for season 2?

Brently: Yes, definitely. Starting with the production value. The set, designed and hand cut by Curious Customs, got a major upgrade. Ditto the overall sound and lighting. We all want the best product and we don’t put our ego into it, so we take a pretty critical look at most everything, my own presence in the show included!

The show has a unique format, parts stand-up, part interview, part showcase for the greater Austin comedy/creative scene. How did you land on that?

Brently: I really like the model that Austin City Limits set out in their series and I wanted to apply it to comedy. We wanted to paint the broader picture of the comedian. Most of us still work day jobs, so why hide from that? I’ve been doing comedy since I was a teenager and still love the medium. I’ve lost jobs due to being a comic. These days, I really dig curating comedy. I believe Austin is the epicenter of comedy’s new golden age and this series aimed to be a small snapshot of that. I can’t wait to see where these performers will be in 5 years. I really wanted to bake in the idea of supporting the community as a whole right from the beginning. It’s not unlike what you’re doing with Sketch Fest. Stand Up Empire isn’t the only game in town and why would we pretend otherwise? Alliances are important. Together we’re heavy.

The Stand Up Empire team: Christopher Shea, Brently, Mike Wilson
The Stand Up Empire team: Christopher Shea, Brently, Mike Wilson

Have any other PBS stations picked up the show yet?

Brently: That’s the next step and we’re in that process now. I want to be in as many markets as possibly but honestly, I think the majority of people will view the series digitally. There are a few other distribution partners we’re in talks with now that I’m very excited about! I don’t want to jinx anything. We will also be touring on the show and that’s thrilling to me. I can’t wait to showcase the talent we have in this town as we rollout to other markets.

Touring huh? That is exciting. Where all are you going?

Brently: Well first off, I want to test the format. We’ve done a scalable version of the show at a few local charity gigs for HAAM and CareBox Program that have both gone over well. Four comics and an MC. We have a gig coming up at the Comedy Central Stage in Los Angeles with this format as well. I’m talking with a few parties right now about some partnerships. Ideally, I’d like a mix of alternative venues like music halls and traditional comedy clubs. We’d probably start closer to home, regionally, and spread out from there. So I’m in spreadsheet land as we speak, budgeting this out.

Is it too soon to ask about a third season or future plans for the show?

Brently: If you ask anyone but me, yes, it’s probably too soon! Because the answer is we have to pay for it. For now, though, the plan is to do at least one more taping in Austin for a Season 3. There are so many great comics that are just killing it. After that, and I’m not sure this will be Season 3 or beyond, we’d like to travel to different towns and showcase those scenes. I’m very curious, for instance, what the scene in Boston or New Orleans is like. Does it tie a thread what the comics in Austin experience? We’ve got this show down at the moment to shooting a season in one night, so it’d be fun to break it up say, half in Austin, half in Detroit. I don’t know, I’m just a dumb dreamer.

But season 2 is in the can. Who’s on that?

Brently: We’re still in the process of pairing them up in individual episodes but Season 2 has Maggie Maye, Ella Gale, Pat Dean, Megan Simon, Ralphie Hardesty & Micheal Foulk, Sara June, Ramin Nazer, Matt Sadler, Abby Rosenquist, Danny Palumbo, Kath Barbadoro. Carina Magyar, Kat Ramzinski, and Andrew Dismukes. Comedy so good it hurts my feelings.

Stand-up Empire takes the Comedy Central Stage in LA this Wednesday, August 3rd. Check

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