The Future Of Funny In Boise

Mar 21, 2018

The stage at Liquid Laughs in Boise, a Comedyfort venue.
Credit Tom Michael / Boise State Public Radio

Treefort Music Fest 2018 is underway. This annual Boise music event is also known for other activities, called forts, as in Storyfort, Yogafort and Alefort - and even Comedyfort.

The creators of Treefort have an office in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Boise, but a lot of planning occurs here, on the first floor of the Owyhee building downtown.

Emma Arnold, one of the Comedyfort organizers, described it as "a nice, tidy place to meet. I love the long tables. A lot of times there are 40 Treefort people working on their own thing, but then you can run over and ask the others, 'Hey, what about this marketing thing?'"

She has booked 22 comics for the festival. When Comedyfort first joined the Treefort lineup, there were concerns that music-lovers wouldn’t want to waste any time on stand-up.

Emma Arnold, Boise comedian.
Credit courtesy of the artist

"We didn’t have any trouble with shows," said Arnold." At a lot of our shows, we were turning people away last year."

She understands why people want to come in to sit down for a little bit. "I could tell last year that people appreciated the break of just coming in and sitting down and laughing. ‘OK, there. Now we can go out,' So, after 90 minutes they are ready to get back into the craziness of Treefort."

Her mission for Comedyfort is in line with the overall mission of the festival: discovery. Not booking big names, but sponsoring new talent.

"We try to bring in a lot of diversity," she explained, "and to bring in a lot of voices that maybe Boise wouldn’t otherwise hear. And we always try to book half women. We look for minority comics and gay and lesbian comics so that people see things they wouldn’t otherwise hear in our sweet little small town."

One of the headliners, Gina Yashere, checks all those boxes. She’s gay, she’s from an immigrant family, she’s black, British and about to break-out.

"I don’t mind," she said. "I’m enjoying the fact I’m an emerging talent. I like to be the new kid on the block. And blow people's minds."

This is a big week for Yashere. Her TV special comes out on Netflix. She tours constantly, claiming that "in the past two months, I’ve been to probably about 12 countries."

As far as identity politics, most audiences aren’t surprised that she’s gay but, according to Yashere, "probably the fact that I’m black and British. Because most Americans probably have no idea there’s a huge black community in the U.K."

Gina Yashere, British comic.

What's unusual is that she doesn’t really change her act, no matter if she’s in New York, Singapore or Paris.

"My comedy I think is very broad," she said. "It’s easy for everybody to enjoy and understand because I’m so well-traveled that I can tap into any audience and talk about pretty much anything."

So she won’t be changing her jokes for an Idaho audience. She's never been and has "no idea what to expect."

Sophie Hughes knows what to expect in Boise, because she’s been working in comedy here for about 15 years.

"From what I’ve seen around the country," she explained, "we’re very polite.  I’ve seen a lot of comics in Boise that have a style this is a polite, wholesome thing. So when they say something bad, it’s sort of forgivable - sort of light."

She works at Liquid Laughs, considered the biggest comedy club in the state. But according to Hughes, "Boise is still a baby, but pretty good for the size of our town. There’s about 45 people locally who are all working on being a comedian on various levels.  

Hughes is confident about that number - 45 local comics - and she should know. She joined Liquid as a 16-year-old, begging them for a box office job just to learn the trade. She performs comedy here now and sees the range: from political stand-up to personal story-telling to the male-dominated “bro” style of comedy. Whatever the approach, though, what’s most effective, she says, is the element of surprise.

Sophie Hughes on stage at Liquid in Boise.
Credit Tom Michael / Boise State Public Radio

"One of my jokes is about being attacked for using the women’s bathroom," she said. "Because I’m a transgendered person. The joke is very dark and it gets to the audience; they feel horrible. But then there’s a twist where I make light of it, all of the sudden out of nowhere. And that’s the sort of thing I like."

Back at the Owyhee, Emma Arnold says making light of a bad personal situation has a long history in comedy.

"I think you get into comedy usually because there’s some sort of tragedy in your life that made you funny. Whether it was that you were bullied or had a hard childhood. There’s a reason for it," Arnold says.

"People think that it’s a job that takes a lot of arrogance," she continued, "but I think it’s the opposite of that. It takes a huge well of self-loathing and self-doubt to get up there and be like 'please like me, please, please like me.'”

Arnold herself has made light of tough situations. She grew up in rural Idaho near Challis and has an autistic son who blurts out socially inappropriate things. Lines that, rather wickedly, find their way into her routine.

Along with Dylan Haas, she nurtures up-and-coming comics through festivals, like Comedyfort or 208 Comedy Fest, which she sees as a real proving ground for local talent.

"You know, my hope for the Boise comedy scene," Arnold mused, "is that people get good and then move. Boise’s a nice, sweet insular town to get a start. But then you need to move to Denver or Austin and get a little bigger and then move to one of the bigger cities and then you can come back. Then you can come back, and just tour."

And tour she does. Last year she hit 62 cities; the year before, 75. It’s a mixed bag being a professional comic based in Boise, but she predicts this "sweet little small town" will continue to grow and experiment with new ways to make people laugh.

Find Tom Michael on Twitter @tom2michael

Copyright 2017 Boise State Public Radio