JAMESTOWN, New York – Heard the one about the small western New York town that developed the nation’s first museum devoted to comedy? It’s no joke.
The National Comedy Center opens next week in Jamestown, and it is one of the most entertaining, engaging museums I’ve experienced in years. If you like to laugh – who doesn’t like to laugh? – it’s well worth the 21/2-hour drive from Cleveland.
How this major museum came to be located in western New York, far from the comedy centers of New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago, isn’t really a funny story.
Jamestown, a hardscrabble town on the east end of Chautauqua Lake, is the birthplace of Lucille Ball, the doyenne of American comedy. Ball moved away when she was young, but in her final years, in the 1980s, she encouraged her hometown to capitalize on her success and create a national center of comedy.
Three decades later, her dream is a reality – a $50 million, high-tech investment, including nearly $10 million in public money, mostly from the state of New York.
Journey Gunderson, executive director of the center, was hired in 2011 to guide the project to completion. She’s been assisted by a roster of A-list comedians who have signed on to help – Carl Reiner, Lewis Black, Laraine Newman, W. Kamau Bell all sit on the board, among others.
In recent years, the center’s focus has shifted from its initial concept as a hall of fame, focused on individual comics, to a themed museum honoring various iterations of the craft. “Comedy is an art form,” said Gunderson. “It deserves to be celebrated.”
As for why Jamestown? Gunderson, a native of nearby Bemus Point, has come up with her own humorous retort: “Because we said so.”
Interactive from the start
The center is highly interactive, right from the start. After buying a ticket ($23.50), visitors are given an electronic wristband that will store various comedic likes and dislikes. The goal: an individualized experience tailored to your funny bone.
At the entry kiosk, I select a handful of comedians who always make me laugh: Tina Fey, Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock; added favorite TV shows (“Arrested Development”), movies (“The Big Lebowski”), cartoons (Calvin & Hobbes) and more.
These choices, and others accumulated as I explored the center, created a comedy profile for me, which helped determine whom and what I saw at interactive exhibits throughout the space. (Sarcastic humor? Who me?)
I spent nearly four hours exploring the museum, spread across 37,000 square feet, a combination of the town’s old train station, trolley garage and a new addition. And I would have stayed longer, but the museum was closing and I needed to get home.
There are plenty of iconic comedic props and clothing here – a Johnny Carson pencil, with erasers on both ends; Lucille Ball’s blue polka-dot dress; Jerry Seinfeld’s “puffy shirt” — but this is not really a place that emphasizes artifacts.
There are screens in every direction, featuring clips and context, focusing on political humor, late-night shows, television programs, movies, radio, cartoons, internet memes and more.
Among the highlights:
* The center’s premiere attraction, a Hologram Theater, wasn’t quite ready during my preview visit, which just means I’ll have to go back. With seating for about 75, this space replicates a “real” comedy club, with one key difference: the performers appear on stage in hologram form. First up: a show featuring the development of Jim Gaffigan, from young comic to today. Additional shows featuring other comedians will be developed, said museum spokesman Steve Neilans.
* The Stand-up Lounge: Tap your bracelet on one of several small tables, and a comedian with a sense of humor likely to appeal to those in the group appears on-screen. Also: Jeff Foxworthy on building a joke, Ray Romano on “the long grind” to success: “Even the crappiest, hardest gigs were something to help you grow,” he said.
* Comedy Connection, an electronic “family tree,” which traces the many links and influences among comics, pairing, for example, Adam Sandler to Shelley Berman, Shelley Berman to Woody Allen and so on.
There’s a place to create your own cartoon, add sound effects to a favorite movie, insert yourself into a TV show, play with funny props like chattering teeth and whoopee cushions – even sit on a fart bench. (I’ll let you discover that one for yourself.)
George Carlin archives
There are hundreds of comedians represented in the museum, but only one gets his very own exhibit: the late George Carlin. Two years ago, his daughter, Kelly, donated Carlin’s archives to the center – 25,000 pieces of paper, some stuffed in plastic bags, filling seven steamer trunks.
The donation attracted national media attention and served as a catalyst for the fledgling museum, according to Gunderson.
Fans of Carlin could spend hours in this exhibit alone, perusing his notes, which have been digitized and organized by theme: race, sports, love, religion, death, euphemisms (“the adult industry,” for example, and “domestic abuse.”)
Printed on the side of the exhibit space is a news story from 1972 recounting his arrest in Milwaukee on a disorderly conduct charge after his bit about “the seven dirty words you can’t say on TV.” (You still can’t say them, on network TV at least, and I can’t put them in the newspaper.)
Carlin is featured in a second exhibit, as well, an adults-only space in the basement called the Blue Room. In the industry, “working blue” refers to dirty humor – profanity, sex jokes and the like.
Carlin’s seven dirty words are printed in large letters on the entry wall, in English, Spanish, German, Arabic and other languages. Other comedians featured here: Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce, who was jailed for four months in 1964 after a performance in New York City.
Among the items on display: Bruce’s trench coat, which he famously wore on stage after he started to get arrested regularly; and his posthumous pardon from New York Governor George Pataki, issued in 2003, erasing Bruce’s obscenity conviction 37 years after the comedian’s death.
Would-be comedians who want to try out their own delivery skills can get on stage themselves at Comedy Karaoke. Choose a favorite performer’s lines – Seinfeld, Ali Wong, Joan Rivers, among others — then get up in front of a crowd and try to make them laugh. (There’s a cash bar here, if that makes it any easier).
I didn’t have the nerve to test my comic chops, but I did challenge my husband to a game of Laugh Battle before we left.
Sitting opposite each other at facing screens, we took turns reading jokes, trying to make the other laugh, without laughing ourselves. I wasn’t very good at it, laughing at jokes that I didn’t think were that funny.
But I had been laughing all day. It was hard to stop. Indeed, I smiled all the way home.
If you go: National Comedy Center
The National Comedy Center, 203 W. 2nd St. in Jamestown, opens Wednesday, August 1, during the annual Lucille Ball Comedy Festival. The museum is open daily, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Advance-purchase, timed tickets are recommended for the museum for at least the first few weeks. Tickets are $23.50 for adults, $21.50 ages 60 plus, $18.50 ages 13-17, $12.50 ages 6-12.
The comedy festival, which runs Aug. 1-5, has for years attracted top performers to Jamestown, but is even bigger this year – with headliners Amy Schumer, Lily Tomlin, Dan Aykroyd and numerous others. Here’s a partial list of events and ticket prices:
* Comedy and the First Amendment: A Reflection on Lenny Bruce, Aug. 2, $18
* Intro to Improv, Aug. 2, $35
* Saturday Night Live Originators: Hazy Recollections from Aykroyd, Newman and Zweibel, Aug. 2, $15-$40
* Adopting a Comedy Mindset, Aug. 2, $35
* Amy Schumer & Friends, Aug. 3, $57.50-$153.50
* Story Pirates: Kids Comedy Show, Aug. 4, free
* An Evening of Classic Lily Tomlin, Aug. 4, $57.50-$153.50
For the full festival line-up, locations and ticket information: comedycenter.org
Jamestown is about 145 miles east of Cleveland, via I-90 east and I-86 east.
More laughs: The National Comedy Center also operates Jamestown’s Lucy-Desi Museum, 2 W. Third St., a 5-minute walk from the new National Comedy Center. This museum focuses on the professional and personal lives of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, including personal artifacts, interactive exhibits, TV show sets and more. Admission is $16, $15 for seniors, $11 for ages 6-18. Discounts are available for a dual comedy center/Lucy-Desi ticket.
Coming soon: Two new hotels are in development in the Jamestown area, at least in part due to the new comedy center.
* The 147-room DoubleTree by Hilton Jamestown is scheduled to open in November in downtown Jamestown, in a renovated building previously occupied by a Ramada Inn.
* The 135-room Chautauqua Harbor Hotel is scheduled to open in late August in nearby Celoron, at a waterfront spot on the east end of Chautauqua Lake.
For more to do in the area: tourchautauqua.com