The Secrets of BoomChicago–in book form
BoomChicago is an oddity: an English-language comedy club in Amsterdam founded in 1993 by a pair of Chicagoans, Andrew Moskos and Pep Rosenfeld, with shows modeled on the currently dominant American comedy-style (topical and relationship sketch comedy influenced by improv games) pioneered at Chicago’s Second City, and best exemplified on American TV by show produced live from New York City (Saturday Night Live). A remarkable number of currently hot American comic actors and writers have performed in shows over the years at BoomChicago: Seth Meyers, Jordan Peele, Amber Ruffin, Brendan Hunt, Ike Barinholtz, Kay Cannon, Jason Sudeikis. Many of them credit their time at BoomChicago with giving them the edge–confidence, experience, attitude– to make the leap to the show biz big leagues. Barinholtz: “There is zero chance I would’ve gotten hired on MADtv had I not been in BoomChicago.”
To discuss their oddity, BoomChicago founders Moskos and Rosenfeld (with help from Matt Diehl and Saskia Maas) have written another oddity, a not so little book (446 pages long) about their odd theater: BoomChicago: The 30 Most Important Years in Dutch History. Part oral history, part memoir, part guidebook on Dutch sports it defies easy description. They divide the book into 25 chapters. The first 24 chapters cover year by year the first 24 years of BoomChicago’s existence (1993 to 2017), the last, in a wild verbal sprint, covers the last five years.
What you will find in these chapters varies widely. Some chapters devote a lot of time to recounting the history of the theater. Chapters 1 and 2 (1993 and 1994) contain a lot of interesting stories about the early days of Boom Chicago–the founding of the company, the search for a performing space (a suitably sketchy backroom of a dive bar), the early performances. Chapter 3 (1994) discusses the theater a bit but then diverts into long discussion of soccer (or, as most of the world knows it, football).
The chapters that follow cover a wide variety of topics – theme parks in and around Amsterdam, drug use (a natural for improv actors in Amsterdam), clubbing, taxi cabs in Amsterdam, buying stolen bikes, sex clubs, Dutch dating rituals, The Dutch Royals – and on it goes. Moskos et al. always find space in each chapter for something about BoomChicago, usually served in the form of paragraph-sized comments by BoomChicago alum. But there is a lot here that is not about BoomChicago..
The book is, in a word, a gallimaufry. What is a gallimaufry? It is a farrago, a hash, a hodgepodge, a hotchpotch, a medley, a mélange, a mishmash, a mixture, a tangle, a welter; a mess, a muddle; a goulash, a grab bag, a mixed bag, a miscellany, a omnium-gatherum. It is a book that truly tries to deliver 30 years in the history of a comedy club in a way that totally defies expectation. Even as you read it, it defies your expectations.
For those who like to read about plucky, young theater companies that defy the odds and make it, you will find it here. The same for those who want to read current celebs talking about what it is like to be young, gifted, but unknown, actors finding themselves adrift in a tolerant city full of temptations they could not refuse, you will find that in abundance, too.
Large swatches of the book look and read like an oral history, in which prominent and not so prominent BookChicago alums prattle on, reminiscing about moments in BoomChicago’s rise from a ragtag group of improv comedians performing in 1993 in the back of dive bar to hothouse for creating future celebrities to a bone fide part of Dutch comedy world. As oral histories go, it’s not bad stuff. The stories are interesting. We learn that Seth Meyers had such a strong work ethic he would not go out immediately after a show to go clubbing with the rest of a cast, to write new material for BoomChicago. (Though he would eventually show up at whatever club they were at.) We also learn a fair amount of kinda interesting trivia. Like the fact that Barinholtz once got a terrible sunburn, but still performed that night.
There is not much pure gossip, but there is some, though the authors pull their punches, and do not always name names. Probably fear of lawsuit is one reason why they don’t disclose a in the filthy story in Chapter 8 about a young BoomChicago ensemble member–just recently arrived in Amsterdam from Chicago–who impulsively joined in at one of Amsterdam’s live sex shows, and would have done more, but her fellow ensemble members dragged her away.
But they often push the oral history part of the book aside for long discussions of Dutch politics, Dutch sports, or the ins and outs of being an American trying to adjust to Dutch life. Those who read the book for the material on The Netherlands will probably have an equal and opposite complaint about all the comedy theater stuff in the book.
Because the book is a gallimaufry, it has something for every reader. But because it is a gallimaufry it is also bound to contain passages that leave the reader cold. It is at once a book hard to put down, and hard to read straight through from start to finish. (I did a lot of skimming; you will, too.)
The book does validate one of the core myths of the Chicago theater scene: A group of young, talented, actors preferably recent grads (or dropouts) gather together right out of school and start a theater. They struggle a bit. Learn their craft. After a while they get good press, attract audiences, become established but never sell out. Ever. The fact that they don’t sell out makes them all the more attractive to the powers that be in Hollywood. With the result that the plucky, young actors get lots of work in TV and movies, but they never lose touch with the theater they helped found, and even, from time to time, they come back the Chicago to perform in a show, despite the fact they could be earning so so so much more in a movie or TV series – and they all lived happily ever after. This is the Myth of the Little Theatre Company that Could.
BoomChicago is very much a Little Theatre That Could by a pair of Chicago-based improv actors trying to get a foothold in Chicago’s crowded improv comedy scene: Moskos and Rosenfeld. They were, in Moskos’s words, “in the middle of the improv comedy scene.” Taking improv class at ImprovOlympic, performing with improv teams, and trying to find a way to get an in at the only comedy theater in Chicago to pay a living wage, The Second City. But there were a lot of other comic actors between them and a job that would pay more than they spent on improv classes, beer and weed.
So they created their own version of The Second City in Amsterdam. This book records how they survived and thrived, and even, in 2002, got a chance to return triumphantly to Chicago in 2002 to perform at The Second City (while The Second City sent one of their troupes to Amsterdam). Having seen them perform at Second City in 2002, I can tell you they killed. Peele, in particular, slayed as in drag, playing Uta, an insanely perky, upbeat Dutch woman who consistently won big laughs speaking a word salad version of English.
You would think theater, or improv, would be the main focus of this book. And there is a lot about both here. But it turns out that discussions of soccer, um, football, take up what seems to a theater fan, more than its fair share of the ebook. The authors return to the subject again and again. Not only is the sport a major obsession in The Netherlands. But it is also the obsession of specific BoomChicago performers (most notably Hunt.)
It all becomes clear why soccer has this outsized importance in the last chapter, which is a self-congratulatory lovefest for Ted Lasso, a fish out water TV series about an American football coach who suddenly finds himself coaching an English soccer team with no experience with the sport. Three BoomChicago alums (Sudeikis, Hunt and writer Joe Kelly), along with Bill Lawrence, created Ted Lasso, and it stars two alums (Sudeikis, again, and Hunt).
One wonders, now that the last episode of Ted Lasso has aired, how well this part of the book ages. On the other hand, the beauty of a witty, nearly 500-page-long gallimaufry is there is always something else in the book to savor. In that way the book is very much like a good sketch comedy revue. If you don’t like the current scene, or if, as happens all the time on SNL, it runs too long, it will be over soon, and the next bit may be more to your liking.