Duncan Carson: Keeping the Lights On

February 18, 2020

Interview by

Valerie Lopez

Article by

Richard Goodwin

Listen

In the world of com­e­dy per­for­mance, cre­at­ing unpre­dictable expe­ri­ences is a cher­ished skill, crit­i­cal to delight audi­ences and main­tain a per­sis­tent lev­el of sur­prise. On the flip side, con­sis­ten­cy and reli­a­bil­i­ty are crit­i­cal for com­e­dy venues and shows, to pro­vide a space for those per­form­ers and their audiences. 

In Austin’s com­e­dy scene, few insti­tu­tions have proven their stay­ing pow­er like the show­case Sure Thing. For over 7 years, the icon­ic duo of Bren­dan K O’Grady and Dun­can Car­son have run a show that attracts tour­ing comics, local tal­ent, and new­com­ers alike, build­ing a rep­u­ta­tion as one of the city’s cher­ished com­e­dy pow­er­hous­es. Its name­sake record label, Sure Thing Records, has over 15 albums out now, the lat­est being the recent­ly released (and fan­tas­tic) Teen Mom by Amber Bix­by. Car­son him­self released his first album, Point­less, on the label in 2018.

It comes as no sur­prise, then, that Car­son and O’Grady appeared in the very first episode of our pod­cast over 4 years ago. The cel­e­bra­tion of our 4th anniver­sary start­ed with Mar­cus Wil­son, and it was a delight to book­end it by wel­com­ing Car­son back this week to catch up with Valerie Lopez and see where life has tak­en him. Splash­ing in a bit of unpre­dictabil­i­ty our­selves, Lopez’s son Travis joined the fray, as an ardent Car­son fan, bur­geon­ing com­e­dy geek, and spe­cial guest inter­view­er. O’Grady couldn’t make the episode, but his pres­ence is abun­dant in the many sto­ries Car­son had to share. 

When I get up [on stage], every time, it’s still there’s this ele­ment of like, Who did this to me?’,” jokes Car­son, when asked if time and expe­ri­ence have changed his expe­ri­ence of get­ting behind the mic. He’s uncom­fort­able with peo­ple who praise him for being brave” to con­tin­u­al­ly hit the stage, though he strong­ly sym­pa­thizes with the stage fright com­mon to per­form­ing. “[I know some peo­ple think it’s] a ter­ri­fy­ing thing to go speak in front of a group of peo­ple, but it does­n’t feel brave to me.”

When I get up [on stage], every time, it's still there's this element of like, ‘Who did this to me?’
Duncan Carson

Car­son orig­i­nal­ly majored in writ­ing, but found he didn’t want to for­ev­er be sit­ting at a com­put­er” so decid­ed to try stand up instead as a cre­ative out­let. A self starter, though admit­ted­ly dis­or­ga­nized (more on that lat­er), he also taught him­self to play key­board, and had a band for a spell. His con­tin­u­ing and var­ied endeav­ors seem to come to him, where he waits with open arms. I don’t real­ly know what’s next,” Car­son says, and the less you pin your hopes on one indi­vid­ual thing, the more ideas seem to occur.” 

It’s an open-mind­ed approach that has paid off. When Car­son moved to Austin in 2011, and met O’Grady, the two imme­di­ate­ly start­ed goof­ing around with projects”. Some peo­ple prob­a­bly have best friends, and have to like, think of things to do. That sounds exhaust­ing. We just had a stand­ing engage­ment.” There was a short-lived sketch show, then a pod­cast (nat­u­ral­ly), before being approached with an oppor­tu­ni­ty to start a week­ly com­e­dy show. The then-free Sure Thing kicked off at Austin Java, until – after a brief hia­tus in 2017 – it moved to its new home at Fall­out Theater. 

Why has Sure Thing, in an indus­try filled with cre­ative projects that often shine and dim in short order, per­sist­ed? It’s still a mys­tery to me why it is a suc­cess­ful thing,” Car­son admits, while at the same time heap­ing cred­it on the habits of O’Grady. “[He’s] one of the most orga­nized peo­ple I’ve ever met.” It turns out, one of the key ingre­di­ents in main­tain­ing this cre­ative enter­prise is mas­ter­ing mun­dan­i­ty: If you run a show out there, lis­ten­er, make a spread­sheet [to track your shows].” It’s, like, nerdy, the oppo­site of what you got into com­e­dy to do,” he advis­es, adding that it gives you super­pow­ers when build­ing a line­up, like reverse sort­ing” to see who hasn’t been on the show in a while. It was a skill Car­son also used when he first arrived in the Austin scene, track­ing shows and comics he saw per­form and liked, to be able to pick their brains” while he was still find­ing his footing.

The atten­tion to detail and con­sis­ten­cy kept Sure Thing–named after div­ing through old plays of David Ives, and a bit of word­play itself – mov­ing through the tran­si­tion in venues, and from a free to a paid show. Car­son and O’Grady weren’t sure whether tick­et sales would tank their project, but, delight­ful­ly, audi­ences didn’t skip a beat, instead grow­ing over time. Fall­out The­ater has been a great part­ner to the project, and Sure Thing con­tin­ues to run every Fri­day, opened by O’Grady and Car­son, fol­lowed by a var­ied, tal­ent­ed, and well-curat­ed parade of comics.

With that much tal­ent in Carson’s sphere, the cre­ation of Sure Thing Records almost sounds like an inevitabil­i­ty. 5 years and 16 com­e­dy albums lat­er, the label is going strong, and is the go-to for Austin (and vis­it­ing) comics to show­case their mate­r­i­al. For Car­son, and his project-lov­ing mind­set, “[Cre­at­ing the records doesn’t] feel like work…it does­n’t seem like a chal­lenge oth­er than I have to learn a skill or two.” He knew com­e­dy, so it became a task of mas­ter­ing (if you will) the process­es of man­ag­ing and manip­u­lat­ing the dig­i­tal files of record­ed per­for­mances, while also lever­ag­ing his insights to best arrange the con­tent to cap­ture the essence of the per­former. It’s quite the sta­ble already, but Car­son adds there’s def­i­nite­ly more to come: I think it’ll pick up…because we have oth­er peo­ple that record on their own, bring it to us and need a home”, and Car­son is hap­py to pro­vide one. 

You can’t shake what led you here, and I feel good about now
Duncan Carson

As for Carson’s life behind the projects, he con­tin­ues to describe it as a mix of non­com­mit­tal phras­es (like meh”), mixed with clear and devel­op­ing pos­i­tiv­i­ty. While he wast­ed a lot of [his] 20’s”, he rec­og­nizes that the past is a crit­i­cal part of where he is today. You can’t shake what led you here, and I feel good about now,” and, I feel bet­ter about get­ting older…I feel bet­ter about the past as a result.” He even hints he may get [his] band back togeth­er,” while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly seem­ing to jok­ing­ly dis­miss it as mere­ly a possibility. 

This jux­ta­po­si­tion of cer­tain­ty, vari­ety, and con­sis­ten­cy is how we’ve come to think of Dun­can Car­son (as well as a damned nice and fun­ny guy), and it con­tin­ues to pay off, not only for Car­son but for the entire Austin com­e­dy scene. Wher­ev­er his ambi­tions take him next, we can only assume it will be a…well, you know. 

See and hear more of Dun­can Car­son at: 

Fol­low Dun­can on the internets:

MORE ABOUT
Duncan Carson