The National Comedy Center is coming to Jamestown, New York in 2018, and there are plenty who are skeptical about whether it will be the real deal. I understand that because until recently, I was a doubter. But after visiting Jamestown during this year’s Lucille Ball Comedy Festival, and taking a tour of the building still under construction, Jamestown is on track to build a worthy archive that will become a destination for fans of all type of comedy. That’s not to say the center’s success is a slam dunk guarantee. Executive Director Journey Gunderson and her team have their work cut out for them, and a few obstacles to clear. But seeing what the team has planned and how they’ve handled the questions and concerns that have arisen so far, odds are definitely in favor of Jamestown becoming the Cooperstown of Comedy, and the comedy destination Lucille Ball once envisioned.
When I first heard of the Comedy Center- it was through a viral story about holograms performing at the center- immediately raising question marks. Many, myself included, wrote off the center as a sideshow attraction with no ambition of being a credible representation of the history of comedy. That all changed last year, when Kelly Carlin, Melissa Rivers, Julian Ramis, and Marshall Berle attended the groundbreaking ceremony for the new building, along with other comedy luminaries- Paul Provenza, Barbara Gaines, and Steve O’Donnell. If they were trekking out to Jamestown, it was finally time to start paying attention to the NCC. Provenza and Kelly Carlin in particular are two people who I consider true gatekeepers of comedy. Translation- they know their shit, and they don’t suffer nonsense. If they were involved, they had done their homework.
This year, with that in mind, I took the six hour drive from NYC to see what kind of center is coming to Jamestown. After tagging along on a VIP tour of the new building, still under construction, here are 10 reasons it’s time to take the National Comedy Center seriously.
1. It’s fully funded. I learned that the non-profit institution has already raised all the money they need- over $50 million- to open the center – some from New York State and more from private sources. And during the festival, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo gave an additional $500,000 to promote the center on top of $9 million already invested by the state. Governor Cuomo noted that the National Comedy Center is quickly becoming a world-renowned cultural institution and said that “by investing in comedy and the arts, New York has shown the nation that Jamestown is the place to visit with family and friends. I look forward to the completion of the National Comedy Center as it supports the creation of new jobs, fosters economic growth, and establishes Upstate New York as a top notch cultural hub for generations to come.” It’s happening and should be open for business by this time next year.
2. Credibility. The most important factor in having a center become ground zero for the genre it represents is credibility. Is it legit? The folks behind the center have done their homework– and the center promises to respect the art. Some of the biggest and most credible names in comedy are already supporting the center. Kelly Carlin is convinced enough to donate the Carlin collection, and Lewis Black, Alan Zweibel and W. Kamau Bell who were on the tour were visibly impressed. Comedy historian Kliph Nesteroff, and Stephen J. Morrison who is EP of CNN’s History of Comedy are involved with the exhibitions, lending credibility. David Steinberg is another supporter. “It’s important to have a National Comedy Center because comedy, like any other form, needs help,” he said. “You have to have a place for people to work out what it is they’re doing on the way to their answer to ‘What is it to be a comedian, a writer in comedy, a director in comedy?’” Robert Klein, who was in town headlining for the festival said “I think since there’s an accountant’s hall of fame, there certainly should be something recognizing comedy. It’s not a hall of fame, but is a comprehensive appreciation of the art, and it’s about time.”
3. Journey Gunderson. The center could not have chosen a better candidate to head up the project. With experience running a non-profit foundation, and a great love for comedy, Journey is a tremendous ambassador and Executive Director for the project. She has a history with the Lucille Ball Comedy Fest, named one of Buffalo’s Top 40 under 40, she loves comedy, but will be quick to tell you that she is neither a historian nor a comedian– her role is to produce. But she knows comedy as well as anyone in the industry, and she told me that credibility and authenticity were the most important goals for the center. Less than a month after giving birth to her second child, she was running the festival, giving speeches, hosting VIPs, talking with press and overseeing every show at the festival, and even putting in some late night pub time to talk comedy and hang with friends, guests, and VIPs. 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. Her Grandmother served as hostess at a nearby hotel where she was well known for hosting limerick parties and welcoming ambassadors, musicians, writers and politicians and history is definitely repeating itself. She runs a remarkable, fun festival full of big name headliners and she brought in some of the best up and coming, young comics working today and will undoubtedly continue to be a huge asset to the center.
4. The Carlin Archives. At the end of the tour I had the incredible privilege to attend a special preview of the Carlin archives, a sampling of a larger collection containing over 25,000 artifacts meticulously saved by George Carlin over the course of his career. I took this in with Kelly Carlin in the room sharing stories, watching W. Kamau Bell listen to never before heard audio, and seeing Lewis Black and Alan Zweibel react to the exhibition. In attendance were also Jeff Abraham who was Carlin’s publicist, Logan Heftel- the Carlin archivist responsible for combing meticulously through Carlin tapes to put together the posthumously released “I Kind of Like it When a Lot of People Die” and Laura La Placa who is one of the Center’s chief archivists. The experience was mind blowing and that one room exhibition would have been reason enough to travel to western New York. You can read more about The Carlin Archive exhibit- titled “Stuff I Saved” here, and when the center opens there will be a permanent Carlin exhibit in residence. Kelly Carlin’s decision to trust the center with her father’s prized items speaks volumes about the center- and she gave a shout out asking the children of other comedy greats to follow suit.
5. An impressive plan. Getting comedy right is only part of the equation- you have to have the right exhibitions that will draw in visitors and keep them returning. On the tour, Gunderson kept repeating that they were working with the very best exhibition designers and planners. The design team has created experiences, museums and exhibits for big names from the Green Bay Packers to the Franklin Institute, Coca-Cola, Crayola, the NCAA and Jim Beam. The exhibition halls themselves will be state of the art and personally tailored to every visitor through video screens, audio, and interactive exhibits that change for each person. A quick questionnaire that visitors fill out when they walk in will be coded into a chip that will display content that matches each visitor’s interests. Visiting with your grandparents? There’s even a giant touch screen display that will sense your disparate interests and display an interactive comedy tree showing the bridges between the two guests and allow you to search additional connections by touching the screen- sort of a 6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon for comedy.
The Center will combine video screens and interactive technology with plenty of tactile exhibits- things you can look at in-person and in some cases touch or interact with. There will be a simulated writers’ room where you can sit down and take a shot at some writing, and yes, the divisive hologram exhibit will be on site, in a reproduction of a comedy club environment. There will be comedy karaoke and the chance to stand up on stage and see how difficult it is to get a laugh- even with someone else’s tried and true material. Exhibits will be dedicated to all walks of comedy- stand up, cartoons, film, television, satire, political comedy- and come from every era of recorded comedy history. If there is recorded material from that time period, it will have a place in the center.
6. Skimmers, Swimmers, and Divers. While the exhibits need to be authentic, they also need to draw. Translation: the exhibits need to appeal to those who aren’t self-professed comedy nerds. The designers of the NCC have promised to be paying attention to all types of visitors and say the experience will satisfy skimmers, swimmers and divers. So whether your comedy knowledge stops at The Big Bang Theory or goes deep into the history of stand up, you’ll be covered. And thanks to the individualized experience promised, you won’t even have to be annoyed with material that doesn’t interest you.
7. There’s Going to be A Fart Bench. No explanation required.
8. They’ve Got A Blue Room…with a Bar. The lower floor of the center is going to be dedicated to all things down, dirty and blue- and it will have a bar. It’s an essential component and well handled by the designers. You can’t have a center devoted to comedy without covering all things meant for adults, but you can’t incorporate that into a family friendly museum either. The blue room is the only exhibition that is off the main floor, creating a perfect compromise.
9. Because Lucille Ball. Jamestown already has proven itself as a good caretaker of comedy legacy. Tens of thousands of people visit every year to pay tribute to one of America’s greatest comedy legends- Lucille Ball. It was Lucille’s vision for her hometown to become a destination for the celebration of the comedic arts.
10. Jamestown could be the perfect city to host a National Comedy Center for reasons beyond Lucy. As we’ve learned from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Cooperstown, a hall of fame or archive doesn’t have to be located in New York City or Los Angeles to be legitimate. An industrial town that has likely seen better days- Jamestown could be just right for a revival. Big brick buildings, several theaters, 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 cultural mecca, provided that revitalization efforts go in the right direction. And while Jamestown is a great place to stay and play, the nearby Chautauqua Institute offers the perfect environment for lectures, conversation and debate. Chautauqua is a National Historic Landmark that has welcomed the likes of Thomas Edison and Bill Clinton. The summer resort hosts daily cultural experiences that include opera, ballet, conversations, lectures and religious exploration.
If you want to get involved, there are endless opportunities to be a part of the center through naming rights. You will be able to buy naming rights to just about anything in the building, including the bathroom stalls, so if you are looking to immortalize yourself, now is your chance.
Visit comedycenter.org and keep an eye on The Interrobang for more information as the center progresses toward its 2018 grand opening.