I’ve been enthusiastically championing the arrival of the National Comedy Center for about a year now. I first approached the center with a heaping dose of skepticism about the idea of a comedy center appealing to tourists for all the reasons you’re rolling your eyes right now. But after visiting the construction site last year and taking a tour, I was confident that they were on the right track, and planned to treat the art form with the proper eye. But still, even after meeting the people involved, I had to wonder- could they actually pull off the ambitious goals they were setting?
After touring the center last week, I’m so excited to answer that question with a very enthusiastic yes, and I’m thrilled to offer my congratulations not only to Journey Gunderson, Tom Benson and the entire board of directors, but also to the City of Jamestown, the region of Western and New York Governor Cuomo for actually putting those regional economic development funds to great use. The $50 million dollar project received about $14 million in help from the State of New York via tax credits, regional funding and a Buffalo Billion initiative. The payoff is an expected $23 million in revenues that the center should bring to Western New York. Despite being pretty far away from just about everything, Jamestown is an excellent choice for the Cooperstown of Comedy to call home, and new center promises to be a mecca for comedy fans to return to over and over again, hopefully for decades to come. Governor Cuomo, you have helped to bring to life a place that will set a new standard in how we look at museums, and will celebrate and commemorate the art of comedy, hopefully for generations to come.
There is nothing like the National Comedy Center in existence…yet. But prepare for every museum in the country to follow their lead in exhibition design. The National Comedy Center is the future.
The Center’s board must have been confident that they had hit a grand slam because they invited some of comedy’s toughest critics to be the first to see and report. George Shapiro, W. Kamau Bell, Paul Provenza, Kelly Carlin, Patrick Carlin, Lewis Black, Dan Aykroyd, Amy Schumer, Lily Tomlin, George Schlatter, Judy Gold, Alan Zweibel, Ron Bennington, and a long list of descendants and family members of the legends of the art form were all there to be the first to see the new exhibit halls. The result across the board- the comedy celebrities in attendance for the grand opening were awestruck.
In short, the National Comedy Center crushed it in almost every way. A visit to the NCC is fun, it’s funny, it’s interactive, it’s varied, its smart, and its really a place where anyone can learn something while having a great time- a true comedy candy store. The Center uses state of the art technology to bring the history of comedy to life, pretty literally, and the education isn’t just limited to learning about the past. The Center’s brilliant design also teaches visitors how comedy is created, and how difficult it is to perform correctly. And without even trying too hard, the center teaches visitors all of the ways that comedy is important.
From the moment you walk in, until you exit through the gift shop, the exhibitions are gorgeous. Every time you step into a new room you’re dazzled and delighted with beautiful designs that complement the topic covered in that area. As you walk from one exhibit to the next, hardcore comedy fans can’t help but feel proud with every room that is just so “right.” They do such an incredible job of making things fun while still being faithful and respectful to the art– something we thought was a nearly impossible task– that they almost make it look too easy to do.
I’m not going to give away everything in the museum, because part of the excitement of visiting is the element of surprise. But since it’s a real schlep to get there, a few examples of what makes this tour so worth your while, should help to get you motivated to make the trip.
Your tour begins when you walk into an entryway filled with a beautiful mosaic of colorful screens displaying comedy from every era. It’s just background while you put on a bracelet provided by the museum and check in at a kiosk and answer some questions about your favorite comedians, tv shows, movies and more. These choices will help you to interact with certain exhibits as you walk through the museum, and definitely enhance the experience. If you don’t feel like sharing, don’t worry, you can enjoy the museum without this step, but it adds to the fun, so go ahead, and take the 2-3 minutes of time. Kids will especially love this feature and looking up at the giant screen overhead that welcomes new visitors by name.
Once inside, you can stop in the hologram theater that you’ve heard so much about. Yes it’s real- and it feels more like being in a giant Oculus VR theater that doesn’t require a headset than what we imagined a hologram would look like. But its still impressive and somehow much more engaging than watching standard video. Watching Jim Gaffigan share his own personal evolution is hilarious for hardcores, and wow! is it educational for the more casual fans who think their favorite comedians were just born hilarious. Worth the time to stop in here for the 10 to 15 minute offering.
If you didn’t opt to enter the hologram theater, the George Carlin exhibit hits you right off the bat and clues you in that you are in a special place. The word brilliant should not be used lightly, and this is a truly brilliant use of a limited amount of space to give visitors access to a ridiculous amount of “stuff.” Using some very clever design, the museum has created almost a full George Carlin museum in a space smaller than a New York City hotel room. You can spend hours exploring a trunk full of archival notes- some digitally and some face to face; watch video taking you through Carlin’s career; see actual artifacts like the outfit he wore on the cover of FM&AM, and more. You can easily lose track of time immersing yourself in the Carlin zone, and this is all thanks to Kelly Carlin, her archivist Logan Heftel and the museum’s designers. Kelly has set the standard for legacy keeping, and we hope other descendants of legends will all follow her lead.
At the heart of the museum both metaphorically and geographically lies the Comedy Continuum– a massive digital touchscreen that is 60 feet long and almost seven feet tall. It is a playground for comedy fans of all ages regardless of whether you’re interests in comedy are highbrow, low brow, political or clownish. Scan your bracelet and the Continuum will show you some of your favorite comedians and begin filling in their comedic family tree. After you spend a few minutes just touching things and figuring out how it all works, you can settle in and use the Continuum to learn connections between comedians you never imagined had something in common. Who inspired your favorite comedian? Who was inspired by them? Who was in a movie with them? Who talks about the same subjects? All of this and more is there discoverable merely by touching and following the branches of the all-comedy-industry-encompassing tree. Watch videos showing those connections, or just keep following the tree to discover more. Alongside the Continuum wall you’ll find a more kids friendly version (also suitable for adults) that explores the history of comedic devices. Touchscreen tables are flanked with shelves of brightly colored symbols of comedy. A whoopie cushion, a banana peel, those glasses that come with a big nose and a mustache are a few examples of the items that you can grab off the shelf, and place on the tables to call up a visual history of the use of that comedy trope. Turn the artifact clockwise to see more about its history. Irresistibly user-friendly and fun!
If the Blue Room was the only room in the National Comedy Center, we’d still suggest you make the trek. This is where we know most of our readers and all of our comedian friends will be spending their time. The Blue Room is dedicated to adult comedy, offensive comedy, blue comedy, dirty comedy, and you’re welcomed into the room with a gorgeous tribute to Carlin’s infamous Seven Dirty Words. It’s 18 and over only, and there’s even a bar when you can buy a beer. This is where Lenny Bruce’s trenchcoat, (such a deceptively simple item embued with so much history and meaning) typewriter and posthumous pardon are displayed, and if you don’t know why every modern comic owes a debt to Lenny Bruce, you can learn all of it in the Blue Room. Beyond Bruce, there are clever displays around the room where you have to slide open doors, lift curtains, unlock gates and peer through keyholes to watch some of the bluest comedy ever created. And don’t leave the Blue Room without putting some real time into the party album exhibits- Redd Foxx, Rusty Warren and others who are dirtier than you can believe and were doing it long before you were born. We heard Amy Schumer was enthralled with the Rusty Warren album, ‘Knockers Up.’
There’s also a room dedicated to writers full of “wooden” desks that are actually touch screen tables where you can flip through digital recreations of original scripts and manuscripts. Nearby you can visit an exhibit focusing on illustrators and cartoonists. A space dedicated to late night television’s contribution to the art form houses artifacts, and a simulated control room. There are homages to and artifacts from cornerstones of comedy like SNL, Laugh-In, Seinfeld and I Love Lucy; legends and groundbreakers from all eras like Joan Rivers, Garry Shandling, and Ernie Kovacs, and all the exhibits draw you in, enticing you to photograph, touch, and explore.
Interactive games are spread throughout. In every room there’s at least one space to play games, answer trivia questions or test your comedy knowledge, and there are many opportunities to try to be funny yourself. And while they may look like they’re just silly fun designed to keep things interesting, all of them have a very real lesson sprinkled in: it’s really hard to make someone laugh on cue. Play head to head ‘Make Me Laugh’ with a friend or reenact a scene from a movie and watch it play on the video screens above. And perhaps the best lesson in the whole museum is the one you learn if you try your hand at Comedy Karaoke where you can get up on stage in a simulated comedy club. Despite being handed some of the best material ever written, you will almost certainly bomb and instantly learn how hard it is to be funny on stage.
Yes, there really is a fart bench, and yes its good for a laugh, as well as a place to sit down for a few minutes. There are also plenty of opportunities to learn about younger comedians, and legends in the making- I got to see comedy from Ali Wong, Amy Schumer and Brian Regan in different exhibits, Kumail Nanjiani, and Mark Normand were spotted on my walk through too. It’s truly exciting what they’ve accomplished in Jamestown.
Early on I mentioned that the center crushes it in ‘almost’ every way. There’s still a need to amp up the racial and ethnic diversity a notch- it’s not absent, but more would be welcome. And particularly you can’t help but wish there was a stronger Richard Pryor presence. But the museum’s high tech design allows for easy adaptation and updates so there’s plenty of room to grow. And the dedication of some future Richard Pryor installation would be a perfect enticement to draw all of us back for another visit.
The city itself is another great reason to visit. Jamestown’s historic district is a destination designer’s dream. Straight out of central casting, Jamestown has an industrial feel with genuine history, old-school American pubs and diners, and the type of infrastructure that makes hipsters and millennials itch to open coffee shops, bookstores, record shops and farm to table restaurants. And it’s real, not recreated. You can wake up in your hotel and walk a block in one direction to Labyrinth Press Company, a hipster coffee shop and cafe straight out of Greenpoint with burritos, craft beer, and artisan coffee. Or head the other direction to Lisciandro’s serving all American breakfast and lunch since 1954 and not much has changed over the years. Next door, The Pub is that bar/restaurant that every awful chain sports bar in America was attempting to re-create, except its legit, serves great burgers and Beef on a Weck, and homemade Italian favorites.
And if you are looking for something you would never expect to find in Western New York you can cross the street to the Havana Cafe for authentic Cuban sandwiches that would make Ricky Ricardo proud. Walk around Jamestown, check out the Lucy murals scattered around the city, browse the shops and visit the eminently charming Lucille Ball museum. If you’ve brought your car you can explore the surrounding area and some real farm to table restaurants that are just a stone’s throw away from actual farms, and if you’re visiting during the summer, spend at least one afternoon walking around the Chautauqua Institute, and catch a lecture or a musical performance or both.
For more information on visiting Jamestown, Western New York, and the National Comedy Center, visit nationalcomedycenter.org, and put next year’s Lucyfest- the first week in August- on your calendar!