Did you hear the one about the comedy museum that opened in the middle of nowhere?
It sounds like the setup to an old Rodney Dangerfield joke, but this punchline has a twist: The new $50-million National Comedy Center in Jamestown, New York, about 90 minutes south of Buffalo, is now one of the best museums in the country. And while Jamestown, which has been in decline since the 1930s and was overdue for a break, may not be on many travelers’ wish lists, that may soon change. The town is known among comedy aficionados for the Lucille Ball Desi Arnaz Museum and annual Lucille Ball Comedy Festival, but Ball always wanted something bigger for her hometown.
“She wanted Jamestown to become a destination for the celebration of all comedy and inspire the next generation of artists,” says Journey Gunderson, executive director of the new center, which is housed in the former Erie-Lackawanna Train Station. “We had to build a museum in the age of the Internet,” Gunderson says—and by all rights they succeeded, with a state-of-the-art museum is more Silicon Valley than Rust Belt. Upon arrival, you put on an RFID bracelet that tracks your “sense of humor profile” by gauging your reactions to different types of comedy as you explore the building.
Your first stop is the Hologram Theater, where a translucent Jim Gaffigan explains how his standup evolved from self-deprecating jokes to commentary on everyday life (“You always hear swimming’s the best exercise, but have you seen how fat whales are?”) to darker topics like his wife’s brain cancer (“The tumor is gone, along with my ability to ever win another argument.”).
The overwhelming majority of exhibits are interactive and digital. While you watch clips of stand-up comics in the History of Comedy Lounge, tap your wristband on your cocktail table to register your appreciation. An algorithm is constantly “reading the room” and presenting more of what the audience wants.
In the museum’s participatory wing, you and friends can sit in a green-screen booth and replace Ana Gasteyer, Molly Shannon, and Alec Baldwin in Saturday Night Live’s “Schweddy Balls” skit—with the option to have your performance projected into the lounge. Feeling even braver? Take the stage in the Comedy Karaoke Lounge and perform a routine from a favorite comic. “I saw a 12-year-old kid do Jim Gaffigan’s ‘Hot Pockets’ bit and his family was just dying laughing,” says Gunderson. “You could just see how exciting it was for him to be getting laughs.”
Everything in the museum is rated G and PG, with the exception of a basement suite called The Blue Room, which tackles edgier topics like censorship, taboo, and free speech. There’s a huge display of George Carlin’s seven dirty words you can’t say on television, along with Lenny Bruce’s iconic trench coat and posthumous pardon for a nearly 40-year-old obscenity conviction. You can watch comedians discuss how soon is too soon to joke about tragedy, and gain a whole new vocabulary as you learn about the history of roasts, from Dean Martin and Comedy Central to the Jeff Ross Roast Battle.
This isn’t the sort of museum you breeze through quickly. You stop. You watch. You laugh—a lot. The exhibits are embedded with over 42,000 media clips, guaranteeing that the material will never get stale. “There’s enough content that you could be here for days and not see everything,” says Gunderson. “And we can just keep adding more data—we don’t have to curate just for space.”
Kliph Nesteroff, author of The Comedians and a consulting producer of CNN’s docu-series “The History of Comedy,” helped with that curation. “One of the mandates was to showcase comedy as an art form that should be taken seriously, but not too seriously,” he says. “A lot of the times when comedy is celebrated, it’s the people who aren’t funny that are in charge.”
Not here. The comedy center’s advisory board includes comedic heavyweights, including Carl Reiner, Lewis Black, Robert Klein, and Jim Gaffigan, as well as the daughters of late comics George Carlin, Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, and Harold Ramis.
The challenge was to provide more than just a showcase for funny schtick, but a place that helps visitors appreciate comedy as an art form as well as the comedians who practice it. “Mom, Dad, I don’t know how to tell you this,” says Jerry Seinfeld in one clip, “but I’m a funny person, and I don’t want to be ashamed of it anymore and I want to lead a funny lifestyle now.”
The center’s opening weekend in early August featured more than 40 events, including live performances from Amy Schumer and Lily Tomlin and appearances by SNL alums Dan Aykroyd, Garrett Morris, and Laraine Newman. Aykroyd arrived on the Harley Davidson he rode to the SNL’s studio in the ‘70s, then donated the motorcycle to the museum.
The trove of comedic artifacts also includes Charlie Chaplin’s cane, Lucy’s polka-dot dress, and Archie Bunker’s jacket. You can see original SNL scripts, Jerry Seinfeld’s puffy shirt, and Rodney Dangerfield’s monogrammed duffel, along with a scrawled note to self to pump his trademark welcome twice: “What a crowd, what a crowd!” And from the late Joan Rivers, there’s a typed instruction sheet on “how to handle a heckler.”
Few exhibits reveal the craft of comedy like George Carlin’s ragtag filing system—jokes written on scraps of paper, stored in Ziploc baggies, organized in cardboard boxes—and decades worth of his daily agendas, complete with handwritten notes about appearances on the Tonight Show and SNL.
“We’re going to present as much live comedy as we can,” says Gunderson. “The vision is to build a year-round calendar of programming with big celebration weeks and themed weekends.” Soon the center will start presenting comedians at the 5 p.m. closing time, she says, “so that people are encouraged to take in some live comedy and then get dinner and stay overnight.”
One option is the newly opened Chautauqua Harbor Hotel, which I consider the best in town. Set on the shores of lovely Chautauqua Lake, the hotel features a satellite exhibit from the comedy center in the lobby and offers a package that includes tickets to the museum. Your next-best option is a 20-minute drive from the National Comedy Center, the wonderfully historic Athenaeum Hotel at the Chautauqua Institution. Every summer, the non-profit learning center and resort presents performances by world-class artists and lectures by speakers on topics ranging from art to politics and, yes, even comedy.