UT alumnus to start TV series showcasing Austin comedy scene

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UT alumnus Brently Heilbron has been performing comedy for 20 years. His new show “Stand Up Empire” showcases the Austin comedy scene and premieres on PBS on June 5.

Photo Credit: Mike McGraw | Daily Texan Staff

UT alumnus Brently Heilbron’s career in comedy began the day he played hooky in the eighth grade. 

Instead of sitting in class, 14-year-old Heilbron spent the afternoon successfully auditioning for his first comedy gig. Four years later, in 1999, he was voted Best Stand-Up Comic in Austin by Austin Chronicle readers. Today, he is the co-creator and co-producer of “Stand Up Empire,” a television show on PBS that will showcase the Austin comedy scene. The pilot episode will be shot Dec. 13 in front of a live audience. 

“It feels like the beginning of something new, and that’s extremely exciting,” Heilbron said. “To be able to take others along and showcase comedians that I love and champion — what a great feeling.”

The show is based off the weekly open mic Heilbron and Mike Wilson, co-founder of Devolver Digital, a video game publisher and film distributor, started six months ago. Following the model of the television show “Austin City Limits,” each episode of “Stand Up Empire” will feature a set from two comedians taped in front of a live audience at Empire Control Room & Garage. 

A short profile that fleshes out each comedian will follow their set. Wilson said by talking about the comedian’s side job as a bartender or valet during the profile, he and Heilbron intend to show that the comics are just regular people. He said he hopes the short profiles will inspire people watching at home to give stand-up a try.

“[We want to] make people care about these comics that are on stage and be cheering for them like you would a friend who got the nerve to go up and do that,” Wilson said.

The show will feature comedians ranging from 10-year-old Saffron Herndon to 65-year-old Kerry Awn, who has been on the Austin comedy scene since the ’60s. Heilbron said when picking comics to feature on the show, he looked for a diverse cast in terms of gender, age, race and sexuality.

The third and final segment of each episode will attempt to capture the vibe of Austin. Heilbron said possible examples include a segment on Moontower Comedy & Oddity Festival, Kinky Friedman or Shakey Graves. The goal with this wildcard segment is to tie the Austin comedy scene to the local music scene and culture of the city as it is today. 

“In Austin, there is such a diverse, experimental flavor,” Heilbron said. “I think that everyone here has their sound down pat because they’ve been trying and failed, pushed themselves in different directions and explored.”

One of the comedians that will be featured on the show, UT alumnus Chip Pope, entered the Austin comedy scene in the early ’90s as a college student. Although his comedy career started in the Jester auditorium, over the years, Pope has written, produced and starred in TV pilots for HBO, ABC, FOX, Comedy Central and NBC. 

Considering the wealth of talent in Austin, Pope said he was surprised that no one had done a show like “Stand Up Empire” sooner.

“Everyone already knows that Austin is cool and everything, but they may not know that there is such a strong comedy scene there right now,” Pope said. 

Heilbron said he compares the Austin comedy scene today to the Seattle music scene in the ’90s. Heilbron said the goal of the show is simple — to highlight the scene as it is today, untapped resources and all. 

“This feels like a life’s work,” Heilbron said. “We have a really cool shot to do this right and do this well, and I couldn’t be more excited.”

Stand Up Empire Live Pilot Taping
Where: Empire Control Room & Garage, 606 E 7th St.
When: Dec. 13 at 5 p.m.
Admission: $5