No joke—Comedy Center puts Jamestown on national stage
Going beyond Lucy to celebrate all that is funny
Photos courtesy of the National Comedy Center
Cleveland has the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. You’ll find the basketball and baseball halls of fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, and Cooperstown, New York, respectively. And, starting this month, the world of comedy will have its own celebratory landmark—right here in Western New York.
The National Comedy Center is set to open August 1 in Jamestown, coinciding with the annual Lucille Ball Comedy Festival that runs August 1–5. Nationally known comedians performing at/attending the festival include Louis Black, Amy Schumer, Lily Tomlin, W. Kamau Bell, Saturday Night Live cast members and many more. (Read more about the Festival HERE). Jamestown has long been the site of the Lucy Desi Museum, honoring the life and work of comedy legends Lucille Ball, who was born in Jamestown, and Desi Arnaz. But now, with the new 37,000-square-foot National Comedy Center, Western New York will be home to the nation’s first museum dedicated to the art of comedy.
“Lucille Ball expressed in the late eighties, in a nutshell, ‘Don’t just celebrate me. Don’t just celebrate I Love Lucy and my legacy. What I would love to see is a celebration of all comedy and an elevation of comedy as an art form, so it can be something that lives on forever,’” says Journey Gunderson, executive director.
The interactive museum features more than fifty exhibits, spanning all types of media and stretching back to William Shakespeare and Vaudeville through to present day stand-up specials and podcasts.
The sleek new center is ready for its closeup. Wristbands are equipped with chips that help curate visitors’ experiences.
“People so readily think of stand-up, television, and film, but they may not think of things like Foley art or the ways sketch and improv are the seedlings of so many successful comedies they know and love in television and film,” says Gunderson. “It’s about tracing the roots of the art form and the process, including things like illustrated comedy and cartooning, short stories, plays, radio comedies, and shock jocks.”
And, with all forms of humor represented, guests will be able to customize their experience from the minute they step inside the museum. After completing a sense-of-humor profile, visitors will receive wristband equipped with an RFID chip that will curate their experience based on their sensibilities.
“One thing we know about comedy is that people have vastly different tastes,” Gunderson says. With this technology, “we’re going to pull back the curtain on commonalities in delivery, tone, or style between different types of comedy that you may never have thought of to introduce you to new—or even older—artists that you may not have otherwise discovered.”
The new facility is loaded with high-tech features, including a forty-foot touchscreen illustrating how various comedy icons collaborated with or influenced each other.
Gunderson’s favorite exhibit is the comedy continuum: a massive floor-to-ceiling, forty-plus-foot-long touchscreen that illustrates how various comedy icons collaborated or were influenced by one another. The museum will also include other high-tech features, like a hologram theater, along with traditional displays of artifacts from comedy’s biggest names.
“While there is a lot of interactivity, media, and technology, I think we’ve done a great job of grounding the whole experience with a mix of tactile, physical archives as well [from] artists like Charlie Chaplin, Jerry Lewis, Harold Ramis, and Garry Shandling,” Gunderson says.
Construction began on the $50-million center in August 2015, with funding from federal, state, and philanthropic sources, and museum officials expect the center to contribute more than $20 million in annual economic impact to Jamestown and Western New York. In addition, Gunderson says the comedy community has been involved every step of the way in the lead-up to this month’s opening, with more than fifty national comedians—including Billy Crystal, Conan O’Brien, and Jimmy Kimmel—contributing video interviews.
“Authenticity is key,” Gunderson says. “Comedians are a smart, cynical, and skeptical bunch, if I were to generalize, and so from day one, we knew this had to be storytelling delivered from their perspective.”
In the end, she hopes visitors leave with a greater appreciation for comedy as an art form—one in which each word, each syllable, is crafted and delivered with precision to leave your sides aching from laughter.