When the lights go off and the audience settles in, all you can see inside a spacious back room at Austin Java is a brightly-lit stage and two neon arrows hanging from the ceiling. In the spotlight created by the arrows is a tall guy with a cup of coffee in one hand and a phone with notes open in the other. Brendan K. O’Grady is here every single Saturday. So is his best friend Duncan Carson who takes the stage next. The duo has been running a free comedy show called Sure Thing in the back of the coffee shop for five years now. Every Saturday, there’s a lineup of comics, from Austin and around the country.
When I met O’Grady to talk about Sure Thing, I wondered how many people ask him to tell a joke when they learn he’s a comedian. We sat down at Austin Java, the same place the show happens. He’s having coffee, per usual.
How It All Started
As with many endeavors in life, a chain of events unfolded that made Sure Thing happen. O’Grady and Carson met at an open mic night. O’Grady was taking his first steps in stand-up comedy while Carson had been doing it for over a year. Austin Java had open mic on Wednesdays at the time, and Carson was the host.
When a radio station approached Austin Java about doing a 10-week comedy show, the owners suggested Carson to run it. Together with O’Grady, Carson put on 10 shows that turned out to be great successes. When the project was over, the two comics decided to continue doing the show on their own.
With no advertising, the audience shrank to a dozen people the next week. It came to the point when a talented comedian named John Ramsey, who had just made an appearance on Conan, had to perform in front of only 10 people. “We thought it was our last show. But the next week more people showed up. And the week after that even more people came,” O’Grady shared.
It took about three months before the show really came alive again. Most of the comedy in Austin at the time had a lineup of comedians performing for 10 minutes each. The way Carson structured the show was similar to a comedy club, with several comics doing shorter performances and one headliner with a 30-minute set. The format became a draw for attendees.
Where Sure Thing’s Name Came From
“‘Sure Thing’–a little presumptuous, don’t you think?” is the sort of remark some people make when they hear the show’s name for the first time.
“How do you read the name ‘Sure Thing’? What do you get from it?” O’Grady asked me.
“I am promised to have a good time and laugh.”
“That’s great! But it’s only one way to read it…”
When the show started in collaboration with the radio station, it was called “Laugh Lounge of Austin Java,” not the most unique and original name. A few months after running the show on their own, O’Grady and Carson decided to rename it.
“We spent two months trying to come up with a name. All of our friends were annoyed because it was all we were talking about. But I always say that naming a comedy show is like naming your dog: nobody cares what you name your dog, but then you have to live with that name until you or your dog dies!” O’Grady puts emphasis on the word “dies” as if he was on stage, and I can’t help laughing.
The name “Sure Thing” ended up being inspired by a one-act play by David Ives, one of O’Grady’s favorite playwrights. “We like it because it guarantees a great time. But ‘sure thing’ can also mean ‘Yeah, you betcha!’ Some people say it’s a little presumptuous. We didn’t intend it to be like that, but if we can live up to it, great!”
Hosting Your Own Show
O’Grady and Carson are not only the founders of the show, but also its hosts. The two of them open the night with monologues of their own. Which means they have to write jokes non-stop because the show runs every single Saturday. “Yes, even when it rains. Yes, even during musical festivals.” But O’Grady sees this as a positive thing. “Neither myself nor Duncan would be nearly the comedians we are today, in terms of our development and growth, if we didn’t have the show every single week.”
Although there are many first-timers, a big part of the audience consists of people who come on a regular basis. Which means you can’t do the same joke time and again, you have to try something new. “It’s a lot of pressure because we want to make the best show possible.”
Witnessing how many local comedians perform on stage at Austin Java, I can’t help but wonder what Austin’s comedy scene is like. O’Grady explains that you can split the nation’s comedy scene into tiers with New York and Los Angeles being at the top and “some North Dakota dive bar in the middle of nowhere with two people in the room” at the very bottom.
New York and Los Angeles are where all the major media companies and television networks are. Next tier down would be cities like Denver, Austin, Boston, San Francisco and Chicago that have well-regarded comedy scenes, but not many comedy clubs. People who want to perform eventually open their own rooms and launch their own shows. And that’s how you wind up in a place like this: the back room of a coffee shop with four to five dozen people in the audience.
In the last five years, Austin has become one of the biggest scenes for original comedy in America. Back in 2011, a lot of great comedians either moved to Austin or started doing comedy here, which coincided with the launch of Sure Thing. “Austin has a fantastic comedy scene. We could do a show every week for a year featuring only Austin comics.”
What surprised me the most every time I came to see Sure Thing was the diversity of comedians in every possible way. The lineup always consists of people of different races, ages and sexes. Geographically, comedians come to the show from all over the county: Houston, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia–you name it!
Many comedians plan their travels around the show. Others are passing through town and take the opportunity to perform on the stage at Austin Java. By now, Sure Thing is an established name recognized beyond Austin. But, although many comics reach out to Carson and O’Grady hoping to perform in the show, the two are still constantly looking for talent. “We don’t want to be stuck in our little bubble. If we are excited about a new comedian, we will do our best to bring him to the show,” O’Grady said.
The founders of Sure Thing consider diversity to be one of the key components of a great show. “We can’t guarantee that you will like every comic in one night, but we do guarantee that you are going to see somebody who you will really like. It’s a lot like ice cream. There’s probably some flavor you don’t enjoy much, but it’s still ice cream. And there’s going to be somebody who will enjoy it.”
I’ve been going to the shows for almost a year now. To me, Sure Thing is not only a fun place with an amazing lineup of comics every single Saturday, but it’s also a kind place with a great audience that is game for anything. As O’Grady rightfully mentioned, the show takes on the personality of the hosts. “Our brand is enthusiasm. We love doing comedy. We love performing. We love Austin!”
Austin Java is located at 1206 Parkway in Austin. Shows take place every Saturday night at 8 p.m. (doors at 7:30 p.m.). Website
@thefoodiemiles wants to know:
In your opinion, what’s the key ingredient for a great comedy show?