Fifteen Years of Jokes and Beers

Improv comedy troupe Boom Chicago on how the cops and the suds have changed in our fine town.

By Steve Korver, 17-04-2008, Amsterdam Weekly.


A couple of weeks ago Amsterdam Weekly reached out to the Hells Angels for some advice about trademarks and brand-building. This week we’re reaching out to another club. A comedy club. One that is celebrating its 15th anniversary this month as a highly successful, English-language-fuelled business. ‘Boom Chicago paid a million euros in taxes last year,’ says executive producer Andrew Moskos as we drink beer in the sunshine on the theatre’s Leidseplein terrace. ‘So it’s safe to say we’re totally ingeburgerd.’

It’s a heartwarming story—especially since Boom Chicago was founded by Moskos on a stoned whim, back when he and a friend were passing through Amsterdam on a holiday and noticed a hole in the improvisational comedy market. Today, Boom Chicago fills its 300-seat Leidseplein Theater most nights with smartass shows that incorporate suggestions from the audience. It’s a formula that Moskos learned back home in Chicago, Illinois, where he was inspired by Second City and trained at Improv Olympic.

‘We just started peddling these two basic things: beers and laughs,’ says Moskos. ‘And we were lucky that there was always an audience for the shows we wanted to do. We never had to go through any heavy inner battles about art versus commerce.’

‘Thank god for that,’ chimes in Rob AndristPlourde, a 12-year veteran Boom actor and improv teacher, who has joined us at the table.

Okay, beer is obviously always a good basis for a strong business model. But were they able to apply the laughs to the model as well? ‘Well, in a way,’ says AndristPlourde. ‘The basics of improv are to always remain positive and respond with a “Yes, and…” to whatever gets thrown your way, even if every fibre of your being is screaming Noooooooooo! And on a business level I think we’ve tried every idea that’s come along.’

‘But just as on stage, some business ideas work better than others,’ deadpans Moskos.

Meanwhile these two Boomers also busied themselves with saying ‘Yes, and…’ to Dutch society at large. While they began as purveyors of ‘cheese, pot and pussy jokes’, as AndristPlourde describes it, they have long escaped the tourist/expat ghetto, both personally and professionally.

‘Sure, we’re still welcoming to tourists, but our shows are now aimed at the Dutch,’ says Moskos. ‘It wasn’t a conscious decision. We learned the language, started reading the papers, had Dutch children and became part of the culture,’ Moskos goes on. ‘And now we’re the ones complaining about all the fucking tourists. Just call it natural evolution.’

Over the last five years, Boom’s audiences have also shifted slightly, going from half Dutch to two-thirds. That may have to do with the popularity of the TV show De Lama’s, which has brought improvisational comedy to the Lowland masses. ‘Although they are obviously influenced by us, we don’t feel ripped off at all,’ says Moskos of the show. ‘You could say we introduced the grammar, but we ripped that off from elsewhere as well.’ Indeed, good comedy is like folk music: it belongs to the world.

During a decade and a half of taking the piss out of Amsterdam, these two Boomers have watched the city change. ‘I’ve seen two big shifts,’ says Moskos. ‘In beer and in police. Fifteen years ago, the beer price ratio was one to two: the cheapest place might sell a beer for 1.75 guilders while in the most expensive place it went for 3.50. (I should say that I’m not including bars featuring naked women in this observation.) But now that ratio is one to three. A whole new level of quality establishments has been laid over the top. And that’s been at the expense of the city’s underground. And let’s be careful with that: you don’t want to become Switzerland.’

‘Meanwhile the cops have gotten more petty,’ continues Moskos. ‘Before, it was about mature policing that focussed on the lessening of troubles. Remember those parties where the cops warned about bad ecstasy going around? Now they spend their time busting kids at Sensation parties for smoking joints and people on the street for jaywalking.’

AndristPlourde professionally cuts the situation to its essence: ‘I totally agree. The counterculture is dead and the police have become the stereotyped pigs.’

‘I sometimes miss that Amsterdam,’ continues AndristPlourde. ‘I remember years ago seeing two men walking down the street arm in arm and going “Wow what a great city”. Okay, it turned out to be a cop and a guy in handcuffs, but my sentiment was real.’

‘Yes, and maybe they were just bondage sweeties,’ says Moskos, spinning it positive.

‘Actually, I knew we had really become part of the city when I got married a few years ago in the Filmmuseum,’ recalls Moskos. ‘My brother-in-law is a cop and was all smart in his uniform. Before the main event, he went for a walk in the park and was stopped by two undercover cops to check if he was for real. These cops were pretending to be tourists and part of their disguise was our tourist magazine stuffed into their back pockets.’

So Boom Chicago’s future in the marketplace seems secure. But what can save Amsterdam from becoming Switzerland? More cheap beer perhaps?

Both Boomers respond simultaneously: ‘We’d “Yes, and…” that!’

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