Highlights From the Lucille Ball Comedy Festival 2017

For over two decades, Jamestown, New York has transformed into comedy central for one week every summer. Jamestown is Lucille Ball’s home town and when your town gave birth to one of comedy’s greatest icons- you celebrate every year. The Lucille Ball Comedy Festival has been a long time tradition and this year the festival organizers are gearing up to taking the celebration year-round when they cut the ribbon on Lucille Ball’s dream- a brand new National Comedy Center. So pay attention comedy America, because small town Jamestown is about to get a lot bigger on the comedy map.

The festival is a tremendous comedy event, held just a few days after Montreal’s mammoth Just for Laughs festival ends. The change of pace is not unwelcome after a week of hustling from show to show at JFL- at Lucy Fest you don’t have to make choices, the festival’s organizers have made the decisions for you and all you need to do is show up. The choices, by the way, are all excellent and geared to satisfy comedy superfans as well as casual ‘toe-dippers’.

I can’t say enough about the festival’s organizer Journey Gunderson— who runs a remarkable, fun festival with a small team of super producers and interns– while also proving to be a gracious host who seems to manage to be in 10 places at once. Journey is also heading up the new National Comedy Center, and in the span of a few days, you could find her shuttling around VIPs, talking with press, giving lectures, providing tours of the new center, hosting the Governor of New York, attending every event at the festival, and putting in some late night pub time to talk comedy and hang out with other festival VIPs- oh, and always looking like she’s got all the time in the world- and she just had a baby. She’s the perfect choice for the job- with deep connections to comedy and a history with the towns of Jamestown and Chautauqua- where she lived most of her life minus a six year stint in New York City.

There were comedy events all week long leading up to the fest- including conversations with David Steinberg and Lewis Black- but Lucy Fest officially kicked off with W. Kamau Bell and Kelly Carlin in conversation at the Chautauqua Institute’s Amphitheater. Kelly and W. Kamau talked about themes of race and gender inequity, progressiveness and political correctness in front of a few thousand guests. Our story about the conversation generated controversy with some of our readers who were angry that Bell asked the members of Chautauqua’s privileged to community to “cape up” and get involved. Read more about Bell’s remarks here.

The National Comedy Center is still under construction- anticipating a 2018 ribbon cutting, but festival-goers got a sneak peek at what’s to come with two special exhibitions of select pieces from the George Carlin Archives. This case was on display at the Chatauqua Institute visitors center- which partnered with the Fest to provide additional comedy programming and lectures. The clothing worn on Carlin’s third album cover- FM & AM, are displayed along with unopened copies of the album. The center archivist told me that Carlin himself saved those sealed copies of the album. She also said that the shirt was so small, that they had difficulty fitting it on a mannequin.  A second exhibition of Carlin items was on display at the Jamestown train station.  (More on that tomorrow!)

The Chautauqua Institute, a mere 20 miles away from the festival’s Jamestown hub, is a gated community dedicated to learning, knowledge, culture and philosophy. Daily lectures, classes and performances on the grounds cover religion, ballet, opera, visual arts, and of course, comedy. During the fest, the institute hosted numerous lectures and conversations on the subject of comedy.

Back in Jamestown, a display teases the opening of the National Comedy Center with renderings and cycling videos of comedians talking about the importance of comedy and the future of the center. The Jamestown train station will be a part of the new Comedy Center.

Journey Gunderson led a VIP tour of the new center and the planned exhibits. Comedy greats W. Kamau Bell, Lewis Black, Kelly Carlin and Alan Zweibel were among those on the tour.

The Jamestown Arena hosts hockey games during the day, but at night, it converts to a theater where over 2,000 can get together to watch performances. This crowd came out big to see Jim Gaffigan. New York comedian Ted Alexandro opened with a great set.

Gaffigan performed to a sold out arena in Jamestown, and talked to the crowd about his wife Jeannie’s brain tumor and her recovery, performing for the Pope in Philadelphia, and his recent colonoscopy. Later in the show, he thrilled the crowd by doing 15 minutes of Hot Pockets material.

Late night in Jamestown means comedy in the Tropicana Room, a replica of Ricky Ricardo’s night club normally reserved for private functions. The bookers at Jamestown did an outstanding job of choosing younger comedians to bring to town with performances over three nights from Sam Jay (who just made a huge impression at Just for Laughs New Faces), David Gborie, Adam Newman, Liza Treyger, Matteo Lane, Emma Willmann, Michelle Buteau, Moody McCarthy, and Rondell Sheridan. Every show sold out.  Highlights from Friday night’s show included Treyger talking about her exciting new relationship, Newman learning dirty sign language from a sign language interpreter who was helping audience members who were hard of hearing, and Matteo Lane being just hilarious telling stories before announcing he had just taken a Xanax for the very first time.

The historic city of Jamestown hosts the fest and will soon play host to a much larger audience when the National Comedy Center opens.  An industrial town that has likely seen better days- Jamestown has impressive infrastructure that could be just right for a revival. Big brick buildings, several theaters, and a few restaurants that have been a part of the community for decades, an old railway and a riverwalk could all provide the right backdrop to create a picture perfect tourist town.  The town also hosts a number of Lucy murals, two museums dedicated to the town’s love for Lucille Ball and plenty of local comedy. With the state’s largest concentration of farmland surrounding the city and the potential to bring some interesting (and much needed) culinary destinations, plus plenty of support from the state and the governor, Jamestown has the potential to become a true culture mecca.

The Reg Lenna Theater hosted a stand-up showcase on Friday and Saturday. Not every city can pack an 1800 seater at 6:00 in the afternoon for a showcase show, but Jamestown drew fans from near and far to see young up and coming comedians. Tammy Pescatelli hosted the early evening show which featured Adam Newman, Matteo Lane, Emma Willman, Michelle Buteau, and Rondell Sheridan. Some of the highlights included Michelle Buteau’s hilarious stories about her Dutch husband’s family, and Matteo Lane talking about his now Colbert-show famous incident at Starbucks.

Back at Chautauqua on Saturday morning, Kelly Carlin spoke with comedy historian Kliph Nesteroff and CNN’s History of Comedy executive producer Steven J. Morrison in a conversation that touched on celebrity, George Carlin’s 1973 arrest, Dick Gregory, and the job of a comedian. The three also went deep into the relative dangers and merits of political correctness (read more about that here).  Nesteroff supported a move to embrace political correctness, Carlin used some powerful quotes from her father’s archives to argue the opposite and Morrison added in some thought provoking opinions he learned in the course of interviewing comedians for his CNN series.

Later, crowds gathered at Chautauqua’s outdoor Hall of Philosophy despite soaking rains to hear Executive Director Journey Gunderson speak about the new National Comedy Center and what visitors can expect. You will be able to read much more on that, including a sneak preview of the center tomorrow, right here on The IBang.

The crowd was thrilled to get to see comedian and political satirist Mark Russell make an appearance. Russell grew up in the Buffalo area and would later become known for his socio-political commentary and parody songs. Many comedians, including W. Kamau Bell, cite Russell as an important influence.

Every night, a block party with live music, local beer and vendors selling sausage and peppers, pasta in a cone and more, brought the town out, whether they were going to that night’s arena show or not.

The arena was packed out again to see Kevin James take the stage Friday night with an appearance from James’ brother, Gary Valentine (who everyone knows from The King of Queens and a long list of TV shows and movies) as his opening act.

The crowd went crazy when Kevin James took the stage and James proved that television hasn’t softened his ability to crush in front of a crowd. The audience adored him, as he talked about the uncomfortability of taking pictures with fans, why wishes his wife would stop making new friends and why he hates anyone who is lactose intolerant. But nothing made the crowd happier than when James personalized a bit on asking for directions with a Tim Hortons reference. Robert Klein was in the house, who would be performing at the festival on Saturday night.

I had to roll out of town on Saturday morning, but the fest events continued through Saturday night with afternoon silliness like grape stomping and chocolate candy wrapping at the Lucy – Desi Museum, and more headliner shows from impressive performers including Lisa Lampanelli, and the legendary Robert Klein.

Start planning now for 2018’s Lucy Fest, which is bound to be the biggest and best fest yet, and the chance to be one of the first visitors to the new National Comedy Center. Don’t wait too long to book, this town sells out fast.

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