The final Levy Lecture of 2021 on Dec. 21 saw hundreds of registered attendees tune in online to listen to Andrew Moskos talk about how he and two friends (Pep Rosenfeld and Ken Schaefle) took a chance in the early 1990s and imported Chicago-style improvisation techniques to Amsterdam. The trio created the famed Boom Chicago, a thriving business which, pandemic restrictions notwithstanding, performs comedy shows across three different stages, teaches improvisation classes to hundreds of eager students and consults with businesses to spice up corporate events, presentations and communications with creativity and humor. Moskos’ Levy lecture is the first one to feature a speaker from outside the United States.
Moskos described his childhood in Evanston, attending and graduating from Evanston Township High School and Northwestern University, and visiting Amsterdam with his best friend, Rosenfeld. They fell in love with the city. (Plenty of legally available marijuana didn’t hurt, either.) They were joined in Amsterdam by Schaefle and one evening, after a night of merriment, they had what Moskos describes as “the best stoner idea ever”: Let’s introduce Chicago-style improv comedy shows to the Dutch!
After a good night’s sleep, it still seemed like a good idea. The three were optimistic it could work for several well-founded reasons. The Dutch are friendly, largely fluent in English and welcoming to tourists. Many multinational corporations are based in Amsterdam, providing a large influx of expats and foreign visitors.
They wrote to the Amsterdam Board of Tourism pitching their idea and asking for advice. Moskos said the head of the tourism board wrote back almost immediately and sent her typed reply via fax: “Your idea will not work. Dutch people do not want to see a show in English. Tourists do not want to see a show at all,” and listed additional reasons why they should reconsider.
Statistically, she may have been correct, but Moskos, Rosenfeld, and Schaefle were 23 years old, brimming with optimism and energy, and unencumbered with family or financial obligations. They were not dissuaded and proceeded to pursue their dream. The now-famous rejection letter is framed and hangs prominently in the Boom Chicago office. And the writer of the rejection letter? She’s now a vocal fan.
Today Moskos, as co-founder of Boom Chicago, is a semi-famous, successful entrepreneur who hosts, writes and performs at international conferences. Rosenfeld is a co-founder and Director of Content for Boom Chicago for Business; his TEDxAmsterdam talk on “The Power of Comedy” was presented in 2011. Schaefle left Boom Chicago in 2006. He graduated from Albert Einstein School of Medicine in 2014 where he is an Assistant Professor of Medicine and spends part of each year working at an Einstein-sponsored hospital in Uganda. A Levy Lecture from Oct. 14, 2020, about his work in Africa may be viewed here.
Now in its 28th year, Boom Chicago employs about 40 people and is run by CEO Saskia Maas, the company’s first official employee. She started helping by reading Dutch business documents for the team and handling administrative issues. Moskos said as the business grew, her skills became critical to its success and now she is indispensable.
Maas and Moskos got married and are the parents of two sons. Moskos genuinely appreciates and values Maas’ contributions to the business, fully aware that he works for her. (He also gleefully brags about having “slept his way to the top” of the company.) Today Boom Chicago resides in the center of Amsterdam in a former movie theater, which it renovated and reconfigured to meet the needs of the growing business. The new design holds three theaters (a 330-seat main stage, a 100-seat space and a 35-seat attic area for smaller productions) as well as classrooms, offices, studios and a large bar that can hold 200 people.
In addition to developing and putting on a full comedy show five days a week, Moskos said a large part of the business focuses on Boom Chicago for Business, which works with companies looking to incorporate humor and creativity into presentations, events and communications “to make their message more interesting and help them connect to their audience.” Services it provides could include creating videos, interviewing key corporate leaders, coaching, moderating or hosting, or anything else that will help the client connect with the audience it’s trying to reach.
Moskos spoke warmly about watching the numerous comedic talents that got their start on Boom Chicago’s Amsterdam stage. Famous alumni include Seth Meyers, Jordan Peele, Amber Ruffin, Jason Sudeikis and Kay Cannon. Boom Chicago is a great training ground because the performers who succeed learn how to make people laugh in a new environment where they are totally out of their comfort zone. They get to hone their craft five days a week. They write and perform and make strangers laugh – the perfect training ground for writing for television.
The Levy audience was engaged throughout the interview. One person wrote in the chat box, “I saw a [Boom Chicago] show in 2012. The international audience was wonderful. it was a great experience.” Numerous attendees expressed interest in visiting Amsterdam and Boom Chicago once travel restrictions are lifted and the pandemic is finally vanquished.
Moskos credits his parents for their unwavering support of his farfetched idea, even purchasing an apartment below his and Saskia’s apartment. It was Moskos’ mom, Ilca, who suggested her sons as possible Levy Lecture speakers. Both Andrew and Peter are subject matter experts in entirely different fields, comedy and policing, respectively. Peter Moskos’ Levy presentation took place on Oct. 12, 2021.
Andrew Moskos’ pithy summary of his level of public recognition in The Netherlands is, “Everyone will take my call. It doesn’t mean they’ll say yes to what I’m asking. They’ll briefly entertain my ideas, and that’s a nice position to be in.” Still, how many other comedy writers can say they coached and co-wrote the speech for Prime Minister Mark Rutte to give at the Dutch Correspondents’ Dinner? None.
Andrew Moskos’ Levy lecture is viewable online here.
By Wendi Kromash as published in the Evanston RoundTable. Ms. Kromash is a member of the Levy Center Foundation Board; she manages and moderates the Levy Lecture Series.