This Little Amsterdam Improv Club Launched Big American Careers

Seth Meyers had no idea what to expect when he got a job in 1997 performing at a fledgling comedy club in Amsterdam called Boom Chicago. He was in his early 20s, and had never traveled outside of the United States. He had to apply for a passport.

“I knew not one thing about the Netherlands,” he said in a recent interview. “My first thought was to get some good hiking shoes, I guess because I thought I was going to Switzerland. And then I showed up in literally the flattest place I ever lived.”

Meyers didn’t get much trekking in, but he did get plenty of comedy practice, performing improv shows four or five nights a week, and trying out tons of material in front of a live, and often skeptical, Dutch audience.

On the occasion of the company’s 30th anniversary, its current cast and famous alumni — including Meyers, the “Ted Lasso” co-creator Brendan Hunt and the comedian Amber Ruffin — are celebrating by staging a two week festival in Amsterdam next month. They’re also releasing a book, “Boom Chicago Presents: The 30 Most Important Years in Dutch History,” with book events and performances in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles throughout July.

The club, which now has its own theater in the center of Amsterdam, is still what it was at the beginning: a venue for a two-hour improv and sketch comedy show by five performers who engage in comedic games and stunts based on audience suggestions. Cast members make up scenes and songs on the spot, and ask the audience for names or words on which they riff and build a scenario.

Boom’s founders, Andrew Moskos and Pep Rosenfeld, met in elementary school in Evanston, Ill., and both attended Northwestern University. As aspiring comedians, they were in the right place at the right time: Chicago in the 1980s.

They attended late-night improv sets at the famous Second City club — where Joan Rivers, John Belushi, Bill Murray, Tina Fey and Stephen Colbert had all launched their careers — and took lots of improv classes and got onstage as much as possible.

But performing improv in Chicago wasn’t paying the rent, Moskos said. In 1992, the duo took a trip to Amsterdam, where, as many young tourists do, they visited a “coffeeshop,” one of the city’s legal marijuana cafes. “We had one of the best stoner ideas ever, which was to quit our jobs in America and come here and start a comedy club,” Moskos recalled.

The idea didn’t dissipate with the hangover. When they got home, they wrote a letter outlining a business plan to the City of Amsterdam. The response was nearly immediate, sent by fax.

“Your idea won’t work,” wrote a city clerk. “Dutch people do not want to see a show in English, and tourists don’t want to see a show at all. You will need a subsidy to do theater in the Netherlands but you won’t get a subsidy. Think twice about your plans.”

They kept the fax, which is now framed, thought twice, and decided to do it anyway, Moskos said.

They couldn’t have moved forward, however, without meeting Saskia Maas, an Amsterdam local who served as a liaison, translator and business partner. She and Moskos fell in love and got married; she, Moskos and Rosenfeld are Boom Chicago’s co-owners.

They held their first auditions for the club’s performers in Chicago, promising full-time paid employment. Meyers tried out with his friend, Peter Grosz, who later went on to win an Emmy for writing on “The Colbert Report.”

Meyers and Grosz were both accepted, and they shared an apartment in Amsterdam with Allison Silverman, who would later become an Emmy-winning comedy writer for “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” and “The Colbert Report.” Another member of the cast at the time was Jordan Peele, who later became a star of “MADtv,” and went on to win an Oscar for original screenplay for his film, “Get Out.”

“We got to be onstage four or five nights a week, and that was never happening for us in Chicago,” Meyers said, “Also, we got to be in Amsterdam in our early 20s, and surrounded by all these other talented people.”

Ruffin first joined the cast in 2004 and performed with it off and on through 2011. “At Boom Chicago the learning curve is steep, man, but once you get it, it is the most fun a person can have,” she said. “It was the perfect place for a young person to learn — the perfect mix of partying and then having to deliver.”

Performing for a Dutch audience presents a high comedy bar, Meyers explained. “They don’t give it away for free, the Dutch,” he added. “There’s not really a language barrier, but I just think they are discerning. I have a great affection for the audiences I had there, because it was the truest bounce you were ever going to get.”

Hunt, the “Ted Lasso” co-creator, who worked at Boom Chicago from 1999 to 2005, said “constantly working” helped him forget the tough audiences. “In Chicago, if you have a bad show you have to wait a week to get the taste of it out of your mouth,” he said. “At Boom, you have another show the next night.”

It was during these years that the seeds for “Ted Lasso” were also planted, he added. Jason Sudeikis overlapped with Hunt at Boom Chicago for six months in 2000, and the two stayed close afterward. Since it was hard to follow American sports from abroad in those years, Hunt said, he started to watch soccer, eventually becoming “a zealot,” for the game.

Hunt and Sudeikis came up with the concept for “Ted Lasso” — an earnest American football coach who accepts an offer to manage a British “football” team, knowing little about soccer — which has now won four Emmys. In homage to their time at Boom, Hunt said, he and Sudeikis set a Season 3 episode in Amsterdam, drawing on their affection for the city to avoid cliché pitfalls.

At the end of the episode, Hunt’s character, Coach Beard, emerges from a van wearing a 70s David Bowie costume and false pig snout — “Piggy Stardust” — and speaking Dutch, a skill Hunt also picked up while at Boom Chicago.

Hunt and Meyers will both return to Amsterdam next month for sold-out solo shows at the Boom Chicago Comedy Festival, a two- week festival of improv, stand-up, variety shows and cabaret in both Dutch and English, from July 5 through July 16. It’s a kind of victory lap.

“The hardest part about coming back to Amsterdam is how nostalgic it makes me,” said Meyers, who will perform at the festival on July 6. “It’s just achingly sad how much I miss that time there,” he added. “It felt like a time of ascension, not just for me but for everyone around me. It felt like a really special thing we were doing.”

Nina Siegal has been writing about European art, culture and history for The Times from Amsterdam since 2012. 

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