Idaho legislative attaché launching new statewide comedy competition this month

Known for long debates, divisive rhetoric and the occasional unconstitutional bill being signed into law, the Idaho Legislature really isn’t very funny.

But legislative attaché Beth Norton is an experienced stand up comic who is launching a new competition called Idaho’s Best Comedian Competition. The competition runs May 19 through May 21 at the Visual Arts Collective in Garden City.

Norton has worked as a pool secretary for the Idaho Legislature over the past two years. During the 2022 session, she served as secretary of the House Ways and Means Committee.

For the new comedy competition, Norton teamed up with two other women, Kat Lizarraga and Blue City Comedy’s Hailee Lenhart-Wees, to create the festival to showcase working comics from around the Idaho. Norton also won a grant from the Idaho Commission on the Arts, which receives funding from the Legislature.

The goal for this month’s competition is to support working comics and build up a supportive Idaho comedy scene after the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted performing arts and comedy and Boise comedy club Liquid Laughs stopped operating as a comedy venue.

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“Talking with Kat, who did all of the graphic design on (Idaho’s Best Comedian Competition), just having the club closed was like, for us, we just really needed something to work toward,” Norton said. “Because we didn’t have the same sorts of opportunities that we had before.”

Comedy is what Norton lives for. She experienced significant childhood trauma and grew up in the foster care system. Comedy is the first thing that she’s ever wanted to do for herself, as opposed to doing something because it is expected or someone else wanted her to.

And Norton knew that the very first time she saw live comedy in 2014. Until that night, Norton said she was just focused on surviving.

“That experience was the first time I ever felt something, like anything” Norton said. “And that was the first time I ever really wanted to do something. It made me want to do something.”

After that, Norton put in years of work.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, Norton was preparing to go on tour in California, was landing featured gigs here and was running a local event called Boise Happy Hour Comedy Showcase.

“I was right at takeoff, really,” Norton said. “For me, I was a plane that had been on the runway for five years and was just starting to lift off, and the pandemic came and it just obliterated the plane.”

The weekend of the pandemic shutdown, Norton was booked for Liquid Laughs in Boise. Another comic canceled and Norton ended up closing out the shows that weekend. The next week the club closed.

Although it was devastating, the pandemic motivated Norton.

She finished a master’s of public administration degree through Boise State University. In graduate school, Norton met Erica McGinnis, secretary of the Idaho Legislature’s House Education Committee. The two became friends, and McGinnis helped point Norton to job opportunities with the Idaho Legislature.

Norton and McGinnis supported each other in what can be an insider and chaotic legislative environment. They would send each other messages during the day, and meet up for walks, runs or lunch.

“As you know, it’s not a very humorous place,” McGinnis said. “So it’s nice to have somebody at work who understood what’s happening and is up-to-date on everything.”

McGinnis knew the pandemic derailed Norton’s comedy goals, but she said she’s not surprised to see Norton continue to chase her dream and create an event for the community.

Idaho’s Best Comedian Competition is based on a Vermont event that inspired Norton

Norton got her start in comedy before moving to Idaho in late 2016.

The first time Norton ever saw live comedy, she was working at a venue in Vermont in 2014 that was hosting Vermont’s Funniest Comedian Contest.

“It was the semifinal round, I was like 29 at the time and just floating through life and checking coats, I think, that night and I sort of saw the human experience for the first time that I would say I really recognized it,” Norton said. “I saw comedians’ nervousness. I saw their pride once they got off stage and everybody clapped and heard they the jokes and they were so funny. I felt this true sense of connection that I don’t think I had felt before.”

Norton started doing standup around Vermont based solely on her experience watching the competition. Over the next year, the people who put on the competition opened a comedy club to support comics and nurture the local scene.

The next year, they held the competition in the new club, and Norton entered. She didn’t advance in the competition, but it was the first time she had performed in front of that many people, a crowd of about 200.

The experience motivated her, and over the course of the next year she honed her craft and material at a series of comedy shows and open mic events.

A year later, she entered Vermont’s Funniest Comedian Contest again. This time, she advanced to the semifinal round.

She considers it one of the best sets she’s ever done, and she got a five-to-seven minute clip out of it that she was able to use to help advance her career and book comedy shows for a long time to come.

“I knew I had done a solid job,” Norton said. “I got laughs where I wanted to get laughs and where I didn’t expect. It’s the most proud of myself I had felt.

“When you get the laugh, it fills my heart with a sense of purpose for sure,” she added.

After that, she moved to Idaho, and it was like starting over. Norton said the scene wasn’t the same, she didn’t feel the same support or safety that she did in Vermont.

Norton said she is taking the best of what she learned in Vermont and from Vermont’s Funniest Comedian Contest and trying to apply it to Idaho’s Best Comedian Competition.

To support her Idaho festival, Norton applied for and won a $1,100 personal grant from the Idaho Commission on the Arts.

The Idaho Commission on the Arts is a state agency, and funding for the grants are provided by the Idaho Legislature and the National Endowment on the Arts, said Jocelyn Robertson, spokesperson for the Idaho Commission on the Arts.

The grant money helps pay for professional headshots and performance video clips for each of the 24 comics who compete in Idaho’s Best Comedian Competition. Norton said professional photos and videos are essential for breaking into the comedy business, but there are financial and technological barriers for many comics who are starting out.

Eliseo Ché, one of the comedians participating in Idaho’s Best Comedian Competition, said Norton has been a mentor. Ché is a storyteller whose band Break in Time performed at Boise’s Treefort Music Fest. But Ché has only been doing comedy since last year. Based on Norton’s advice from him, Ché has been meticulously crafting his “tight five,” a solid five-minute block of his very best material from him. Norton told Ché to put together his best “tight five,” get it where he is happy and then work continuously on that for a month straight.

A solid set in the competition and professional headshots and video clips could mean a huge opportunity for a local comedian.

“To me, that gives me what I need to start booking outside of the city,” Ché said.

Norton said winning the grant was a great source of accountability to motivate her to pour her best into launching the new comedy competition.

But the situation also gives her some ideas for a few new jokes.

“I am getting funding from the Legislature to also make fun of the Legislature,” Norton said. “There is nothing more American than that.”

Ready for a good laugh?

Idaho’s Best Comedian Competition runs from May 19 through May 21 at the Visual Arts Collective, 3638 Osage St., in Garden City. More information about the festival and ticket information is available online.

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