Known for its lengthy debates, divisive rhetoric, and occasional enactment of unconstitutional bills, the Idaho legislature really isn’t much fun.
But legislative secretary Beth Norton is an experienced comedian who is launching a new contest called Idaho Best Comedian Contest. The contest runs from May 19 to May 21 at visual arts collective in Garden City.
Norton has worked as a pool clerk for the Idaho Legislative Assembly for the past two years. During the 2022 session, she served as secretary of the House Ways and Means Committee.
For the new comedy contest, Norton teamed up with two other women, Kat Lizarraga and Hailee Lenhart-Wees of Blue City Comedy, to create the festival to showcase working comics from all over Idaho. Norton also won a grant from the Idaho Commission on the Arts, which receives funding from the legislature.
The goal of this month’s contest is to support working comics and build a supportive comedy scene in Idaho after the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted performing arts and comedy and the Boise comedy club Liquid Laughs ceased to operate as a comedy venue.
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“Speaking with Kat, who did all the graphic design for the[Idaho’s Best Comedian Contest]just closing the club down felt like, for us, we really needed something to work towards,” Norton said. “Because we didn’t have the same kind of opportunities as before.”
Comedy is what Norton lives for. She experienced significant childhood trauma and grew up in the foster care system. Acting is the number one thing she always wanted to do for herself, as opposed to doing something because it’s expected or because someone else wanted it.
And Norton knew it the very first time she saw a live comedy in 2014. Until that night, Norton said she was only focused on surviving.
“That experience was the first time I felt something, like anything,” Norton said. “And that was the first time I 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 tour California, landing gigs here and hosting a local event called Boise Happy Hour Comedy Showcase.
“I was just taking off, really,” Norton said. “For me, I was a plane that had been on the runway for five years and was just starting to take off, and the pandemic came along and it just wiped out the plane.”
The weekend of the pandemic shutdown, Norton was booked for Liquid Laughs in Boise. Another comic was canceled and Norton ended up shutting down shows this weekend. The following week, the club closed.
Although devastating, the pandemic has motivated Norton.
She earned a master’s degree in public administration from Boise State University. While in graduate school, Norton met Erica McGinnis, secretary of the Idaho Legislative House Education Committee. The two became friends, and McGinnis helped Norton find job opportunities in the Idaho Legislature.
Norton and McGinnis have supported each other in what can be a chaotic internal legislative environment. They texted each other during the day and met for walks, errands, or lunch.
“As you know, it’s not a very humorous place,” McGinnis said. “So it’s nice to have someone at work who understands what’s going on and is on top of everything.”
McGinnis knew the pandemic had derailed Norton’s comedy goals, but she said she wasn’t surprised to see Norton continue to pursue his dream and create an event for the community.
Idaho’s Top Comedian Contest Is Based On A Vermont Event That Inspired Norton
Norton got his start in comedy before moving to Idaho in late 2016.
The first time Norton saw a live comedy was working at a Vermont venue in 2014 that hosted Vermont’s Funniest Comedian Contest.
“It was the semi-final, I was about 29 at the time and I was floating through life and checking coats, I think, that night and I kind of saw the human experience for the first time I would say I really recognized her,” Norton says. “I saw the nervousness of the actors. I saw their pride once they came off stage and everyone clapped and they heard the jokes and they were so funny. I felt this real sense of connection that I don’t think I’ve felt before.
Norton started doing stand-up in Vermont based solely on his experience watching the competition. Over the next year, the people who ran the contest opened a comedy club to support the comics and nurture the local scene.
The following year they held the competition at the new club and Norton entered. She did not advance in the competition, but it was the first time she had performed in front of so many people, a crowd of around 200 people.
The experience fueled her, and over the next year she honed her craft and gear at a series of comedy shows and open-mic events.
A year later, she entered the funniest comedian in Vermont contest again. This time, she qualified for the semi-final.
She considers it one of the best sets she’s ever done, and she made a five to seven minute clip of it that she was able to use to further her career and book comedy shows for a long time. .
“I knew I had done a solid job,” Norton said. “I had laughs where I wanted to make people laugh and where I didn’t expect them. She’s the proudest of me I’ve ever felt.
“When you get the laugh it fills my heart with 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, that she didn’t feel the same support or safety as in Vermont.
Norton said she was taking the best of what she learned in Vermont and Vermont’s Funniest Comedian Contest and trying to apply it to Idaho’s Best Comedian Contest.
To support his Idaho festival, Norton applied for and won a $1,100 personal grant from the Idaho Arts Commission.
The Idaho Commission on the Arts is a state agency, and grant funding is provided by the Idaho Legislature and the National Endowment on the Arts, said Jocelyn Robertson, spokesperson for the Idaho Commission on the Arts.
Grant money helps pay for professional portraits and performance music videos for each of the 24 comics competing in Idaho’s Best Comedian contest. Norton said professional stills and video are essential to breaking into the comedy business, but there are financial and technological hurdles for many comics getting started.
Eliseo Ché, one of the comedians competing in Idaho’s Best Comedian contest, said Norton had been a mentor. Ché is a storyteller whose band Break in Time performed at Treefort Music Fest in Boise. But Ché has only been doing comedy since last year. Based on Norton’s advice, Ché meticulously crafted his “tight five”, a solid five-minute block of his best material. Norton told Ché to put his best “close five” together, get it to where he’s happy, and then continuously work on it for a month straight.
A strong ensemble in the competition and professional headlines and music videos could mean a huge opportunity for a local comedian.
“For me, it gives me what I need to start booking out of town,” Ché said.
Norton said winning the grant was a great source of accountability to motivate her to do her best to launch the new comedy competition.
But the situation also gives him ideas for some new jokes.
“I get funds from the Legislature to mock the Legislature as well,” Norton said. “There’s nothing more American than that.”
Ready for a good laugh?
The Best Comedian in Idaho contest runs May 19-21 at the Visual Arts Collective, 3638 Osage St., Garden City. More festival information and ticket information is available online.