It would be hard to believe for anyone squeezed elbow-to-elbow at The Quarter Barrel on a recent Tuesday open-mic comedy night that only six months ago, stand-up comedy in Boise had about as much life in it as an extra in a George Romero film. In January 2008, Boise's long-running comedy club, The Funny Bone, closed, leaving Boise's approximately 50 comedians without a club to call home.
"It was a bummer," said Danny Amspacher, a local comedian and host of two area open mics. "When Funny Bone was around, there was a pretty healthy comedy scene. When it closed, the more experienced comics went on the road. But the new comics weren't organized and things fell apart."
Though another club, Hijinx, opened several months later, it didn't stay open for long.
"It was just a bad partnership," said Brian Lee, one of the club's managers.
Since then, Amspacher said not much happened in Boise's comedy scene.
"Stand-up is like any other skill," he said. "You got to keep doing it to improve. And you need a stage. So without one, there wasn't any opportunity to grow."
Though scattered and disorganized, Boise comedians cobbled together one-off nights at music venues and did their best to convince bar owners to give comedy a shot.
"It's typical of what happens when there's no anchor comedy club in town," Lee said. "A lot of outfits pop up to throw something together."
Local comedian Gabe Dunn finds it strange that local comedy didn't have more support.
"In an atmosphere where everything is buy local, it's weird that local comedy struggles so much," he said. Dunn has been producing his own show, the Fueled By Desperation Tour, for the last several years.
Dunn booked shows into whatever bars would have him and called it a tour--his fellow comics joked that the "tour" was of five blocks in downtown Boise. None of it was ideal, but it was what the comedians had so they ran with it. And it worked--sort of.
"[In] a comedy club, they tell you, 'Shut off your cell phones, no talking.' [In] a regular bar, all those rules go out the window," said Dunn. "It's like doing a trapeze act without a net."
But after a few years of grappling with one-off gigs, local comedy is finally starting to get some traction again.
Open mics are now consistent events at three bars. China Blue has comedy before the club opens for dancing on weekends. A four-day comedy festival featuring national headliners is in the works for fall, and Lee said he is working on opening a full-time comedy club in town, possibly by summer's end.
Much of the credit for the revival should go to Amspacher. He showed up at what was scheduled to be a comedy open-mic night at The Quarter Barrel and found an empty stage. So he talked to the owner about throwing a few bucks behind the event with beer tabs, prizes and even paying headliners.
Less than six months later, Quarter Barrel's weekly open-mic night is busy. Garden City regulars, hip downtowners, bikers, college kids and a regular regiment of the Treasure Valley Rollergirls saddle up to slurp down drink specials and watch more than a dozen comics sharpen their wits on the two-foot-tall stage. The event draws an average of 40-50 people on a Tuesday, generally making it the bar's best night. The monthly open mic Amspacher hosts at Sockeye Grill and Brewery is standing room only. The success of those two spawned a third open mic at The Balcony Club, which is hosted by comedian Mikey Pullman on Sunday evenings. All three of those events feature a number of short opening slots, followed by a professional feature-length set.
"The older comics are starting to come back out," said Amspacher. "And that's getting new ones interested."
Amspacher said that new comics are important not only to keep thing fresh, but because they bring their friends to see them perform and get more people out to shows. And something else important happens.
"When people see that open stage, they suddenly realize they could give it a shot, too," he said.
Lee, a 17-year veteran of the comedy business who worked his way up from the door at The Funny Bone, is quick to admit it was a big mistake to eliminate the open mic at Hijinx--a mistake he plans to rectify with his new club. But Lee doesn't share the local comedians' enthusiasm for Boise's comedy renaissance. He plans on having an open mic for local comics at his new club, but less frequently.
"Open mics keep people interested in good comedy," he said. "But you just hope it doesn't burn them out on bad comics ... Once a month is really all it needs. It gives the comedians time to write new jokes and the audience time not to get burnt out."
Amspacher, on the other hand, is optimistic.
"Boise isn't a big enough market for a comedy night to fill a thousand seats at the Morrison Center," he said. "But if regulars fill up a bar and everyone brings one friend, that's 30-50 people," he said. "That's a good night."
To see that happen, Amspacher is starting a one-stop website for Boise comedy, where comedians can post profiles that will be searchable by fans, promoters and other comedians so that they can book shows together. For now, they're using Facebook to talk about performance opportunities to each other and to fans.
More than anything, what Amspacher and other local comedians want is to prove to venues that comedy is as viable an entertainment option as music and that it's worth paying for.
"I think bars shy away from stand-up unless it's someone famous," said Amspacher. "But what they gotta realize is, comics drink. Bars can pay them and they'll just get the money right back."