I first walked into THE SECRET GROUP in April of last year to catch a TJ Miller set during Houston Whatever Fest. The headlining Miller was set to perform on an outdoor stage behind the recently opened venue, but the plan was scrapped due to bad weather. Instead, festivalgoers were treated to a more intimate performance in the main stage-room of what was then an obscure new club. Since that day I have been returning to The Secret Group for the occasional open mic or local talent showcase. In the year and a half since its opening, the unassuming Eado bar on the corner of St. Emanuel and Polk streets has established itself as the unofficial new home of Houston standup. Along the way, a handful of new artists have emerged as potential breakouts, reviving both the city’s passion for live comedy and reputation as a tough but intelligent crowd.
“At one point, Houston was a place that people moved to, to do comedy.” – Andrew Youngblood
ANDREW YOUNGBLOOD and STEPHEN BRANDAU, co-owners of The Secret Group, sat down with me to talk Houston standup, their personal history and the return of this city’s reputation as a comedy proving ground. Andrew and Stephen are veterans of the city’s comedy scene. From performing to booking, hosting podcasts and starting an open mic at Warehouse Live, the two have been vital aspects of the Houston comedy revival. As Stephen explains, Secret Group aims to take what was previously a scattered, perhaps “alt” comedy scene that was happening in random bars and obscure venues around town and give it a permanent home. Stephen and Andrew hope to give young and inexperienced comics a chance to perfect their craft in front of Houston’s notoriously demanding crowds, a role that was once played by a now-shuttered, iconic comedy venue: The Laff Stop operated from 1977–2009 and was a launching pad for legends like Bill Hicks, Ralphie May and Sam Kinison, but its decline after the 1990s saw Houston’s reputation as a comedy town fade.
“We’re a city now that people respect and want to come to for comedy,” says Dusti Rhoades, a promising comic who calls The Secret Group her home. Dusti credits the support and encouragement of Andrew Youngblood for her prominence in the local comedy scene. She believes that what the owners of The Secret Group are doing for local comics, by both scouting talent and providing opportunities for growth, has revived the city’s reputation as one of the nation’s great standup towns. Through her connection to the club, Dusti has had the opportunity to open for names like Maria Bamford as well as local breakout stars like Jaffer Khan and Dale Cheesman. Her own talent and celebrity have been nurtured by the venue’s massively supportive ownership, who understand the rigors of the comedy industry all too well.
Dusti and her peers, names like Seth Bullock, Katie McGee and Grady Pruitt, all perform regularly at The Secret Group on the venue’s various themed nights, or as openers for national acts that pass through the now beloved club. In recent years, after the decline of The Laff Stop and before the existence of The Secret Group, these comics may have found meager stage time in the back of Montrose bars or at a fellow comic’s house party. Today they have a home club, one that provides them the necessary stage time to perfect an art form and launch their careers. Look for their names on the national scene in the coming years and look for Houston to continue growing as a tough proving ground for some of the nation’s best and brightest performers.