Boom Chicago started as a joke. In 1992, Andrew Moskos and Jon “Pep” Rosenfeld, two aimless Northwestern University grads who’d been in their college improv troupe, Mee-Ow—well, Rosenfeld was a member, Moskos was a superfan—were on vacation in Amsterdam when they had what Moskos now refers to as the “best stoner idea” ever. During the trip, they’d noticed how many people in Amsterdam spoke English. Why not open an improv theater in the city? Six months later, the two had quit their jobs at educational nonprofits in Illinois and were running Boom Chicago out of a dilapidated piano bar in the Leidseplein, a sketchy tourist district. Last month, Boom finally moved into a classy theater in Jordaan, a quiet residential neighborhood, solidifying its spot alongside Upright Citizens Brigade in New York, Second City in Chicago, and the Groundlings in Los Angeles as one of the world’s preeminent improv institutions. And it only took 20 years.
The improv comedy business model is built on cheap beer, cheaper tickets, and lowbrow humor, and as an investment opportunity, it’s a punch line. The Upright Citizens Brigade in New York has thrived in part by not paying performers. Ticket prices are kept low, and funny strivers sacrifice cash for onstage exposure. While more than 300,000 fans visit Second City in Chicago each year, even it’s had trouble expanding beyond its borders, closing its Las Vegas show in 2008 because of spotty ticket sales. Smaller outfits fare worse: In the last year, once-healthy improv clubs have shuttered in Louisville (Fourth Street Live!), Los Angeles (Hollywood Improv), and Tempe, Ariz. (the Tempe Improv, which had been open 20 years). Yet after two decades,Boom continues to grow. Moskos and Rosenfeld “went out there on a trip, saw a void, and professionally f---ing filled it. And now they serve dinner with it,” says past Boom performer (’00-’01) and current Saturday Night Live cast member Jason Sudeikis.
Boom might not have the name recognition of the Groundlings or the Harvard Lampoon, but its alumni certainly rate. There’s SNL’s head writer Seth Meyers and cast member Sudeikis, Jordan Peele, whose Key and Peele is the buzziest new show on Comedy Central (VIA), The Mindy Project’s Ike Barinholtz, Pitch Perfect screenwriter Kay Cannon, How I Met Your Mother’s Joe Kelly, and names from Veep and Portlandia. Attracting cast members wasn’t difficult even in the early days, says Rosenfeld; young comedians just wanted to be onstage. Allison Silverman (’97), later an Emmy winner for The Colbert Report, was one of Boom’s first hires. “At the time I was, honest to God, a receptionist at a sausage factory in Chicago,” she says. The job at Boom, which paid around €200 ($261) a week, came with the use of a bunk bed in the kitchen of a shared apartment.
The first Boom Chicago show drew around 25 customers, mostly drunk American co-eds recruited as they were leaving the Heineken factory tour. Tickets were 15 guilders (€7), and marketing was essential. To boost awareness, Rosenfeld and Moskos (whose father, Charles Moskos, was the military policy expert who wrote “don’t ask, don’t tell” for Bill Clinton) put together a tourist guide to Amsterdam that steered visitors to local restaurants and attractions. “One of the things the map was very hot for was Boom Chicago,” says Rosenfeld.
Attendance improved, but there were other challenges. “All those great social benefits you hear about in Europe?” says Ken Schaefle, the theater’s first technical director. “They’re paid for by the employer. This is going to sound like a joke, but Holland requires you to sign a lifetime contract with your employee.” It’s true: After a year, without a special provision, workers at Dutch companies automatically become permanent. Boom ended up having to buy out a lot of employee contracts. “I’m all for socialism. But it’s a pretty bad scene when the s----y bartender knows you’d fire him if you could but continues to be s----y,” says Meyers (’97-’99).
By 1997, Boom had enough money to move out of its first tiny home into a bigger space nearby with more seats and a restaurant. The food business brought in cash, but Boom’s performers had to contend with office holiday parties and drunk patrons who treated the show as background noise. In 2003 the theater was still struggling, Schaefle says, with the owners memorably canceling their Christmas vacations to meet payroll. “People ask me, ‘Oh, you live in Amsterdam, do you get high all the time?’ I say, ‘No, I get high all the time in Chicago. In Amsterdam I run a business,’ ” says Rosenfeld.
What kept Boom going was its belief in what it was selling—a mix of topical humor (early Facebook (FB) cracks, George W. Bush jokes) and silly European observations. “Dutch people will take you apart,” says Barinholtz (’99-’01). “They’ll say, ‘It was not my cup of tea. You were medium-funny. Your black friend was quite funny.’ ” When in doubt, Peele (’00-’03) says, “If you made a joke about Germans being a--holes or Belgians being stupid, that was money in the bank.”
Photograph by Raimond Wouda for Bloomberg Businessweek
Boom’s finances slowly began to stabilize. From 2007 to 2008, the troupe had its own show on Comedy Central Netherlands, which regularly beat SNL and The Daily Show in local ratings. As the theater’s reputation grew, celebrities would often show up to check out the scene. Sheryl Crow, Michael Chiklis, Ron Jeremy, Burt Reynolds, and Pink all attended performances. “We were sort of D-list celebs. It’s a small enough city that you could bump into people who knew you from the show,” says MadTV’s Josh Meyers (’98-’02), who very nearly spent the night with Brigitte Nielsen after a Boom show (long story). With alumni succeeding in Hollywood and in New York—Seth Meyers on SNL, Silverman and Peter Grocz with Colbert—Boom became a career steppingstone for comedians, as valid as doing time at ImprovOlympic in Chicago or at the Groundlings in L.A. Peele says he got a job at MadTV because he’d worked with Barinholtz and Josh Meyers at Boom. Peele’s paying it forward, having hired Boom alums Colton Dunn and Rebecca Drysdale to write for Key and Peele. “I think the biggest uses [of the alumni network] are still on the way,” he says.
Moskos, who married Boom’s first employee, Saskia Maas, is happy to report that the new space in Jordaan has showers for the performers and a bar, but no restaurant. “We sell a bucket of beer and you take it into the theater,” he says. He expects the bar to bring in €500,000 this year, and the top ticket price has reached €40. These days, two-thirds of Boom’s audience (which has reached about 50,000 paying customers yearly) is made up of locals, and the theater is now so ingrained in Dutch culture that AirFrance-KLM (AFLYY) airline executives recently hired the Boom cast to shoot their in-air promos. The comedians, who make a comfortable €30,000 a year, recently did their first full sketch in Dutch, a game show called Mogelijk of Niet Mogelijk, which translates roughly as “Possible or Not Possible”—the punch line had something to do with a much-delayed new Amsterdam train line.
A 20th anniversary party is planned for May, with many notable former cast members flying in to mark the occasion. Barinholtz waxes poetic about the alumni connection. “It’s that feeling when two vets run into each other. No matter if it’s a Korean War vet talking to a Gulf War vet—we all share this experience,” he says. “Yes, I am comparing me making pee-pee jokes to America’s greatest heroes,” he adds. “I want to make that clear.”