The world’s biggest comedy museum opens | Sunday Observer

The world’s biggest comedy museum opens

A 40,000 square-foot interactive comedy center filled with cultural artifacts and immersive exhibits
A 40,000 square-foot interactive comedy center filled with cultural artifacts and immersive exhibits

Comedy giants like Lewis Black, Lily Tomlin, Amy Schumer and Laraine Newman are all set to descend upon Jamestown, New York, for the opening of the National Comedy Center, the first institution of its kind. If Jamestown – population 30,000 – seems an unlikely place to pay homage to the craft of comedy, think again. It’s the birthplace of Lucille Ball, whose daughter Lucie Arnaz once told CNN that if there were ever a memorial for her mother in Jamestown, she wouldn’t have wanted “a statue or a bridge or some stagnant memory” but something “alive and active”.

It’s safe to say that Ball, whose name already adorns many of the town’s placards and parks, not to mention a local comedy festival, would be satisfied with the result. Spanning nearly 40,000 square feet, and around the corner from the comparably diminutive Lucille Ball Desi Arnaz Museum, the NCC took seven years and around $50m to bring to fruition. A non-profit, and the first devoted entirely to the art and craft of comedy, it features over 50 interactive exhibits divvied up by style of humor as well as artifacts and ephemera that, in sum, tell the story of comedy from Charlie Chaplin to Dave Chappelle and beyond.

“This is about bringing to fruition the vision of Lucille Ball,” says Journey Gunderson, executive director of the National Comedy Center. “Going back to the late 80s, she said to Jamestown: ‘Don’t just celebrate me, don’t just put my stuff in glass cases and relish Lucy nostalgia. Celebrate all comedy and do it in a way that educates and inspires people.’ She really believed in the power of the art form and was also a savvy businesswoman. She was thinking long term and big.”

Gunderson, however, is quick to note that the NCC doesn’t intend to be a Mount Rushmore of comedy, nor a hall of fame. “When you make a list,” she says, “it becomes about who’s not on it.”

She thinks of the center as more of an art museum, having been arranged not by comedian but by sensibility. Upon entry, visitors receive a radio-frequency identification bracelet, or “laugh band”, with which they create a “sense of humor profile”. By filling in your favorite TV shows and films, and selecting from an expansive repertoire of comics and styles (satire, improv, slapstick, sketch, etc), the museum molds itself to the visitor much like a standup does to a room.

There have been museums related to comedy before, but never one of this scope, which is strange given the art form’s historic prevalence in the American living room, from I Love Lucy to All in the Family and the Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Then again, our collective notions of what’s funny continue to evolve and expand. Comedy has, in turn, become a bigger tent: big enough for discomfiting routines like Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, YouTube videos of cats, and the whole plethora of dry-witted urban dramedies that followed Seinfeld, The Larry Sanders Show and Curb Your Enthusiasm. “People whose voices might have been at the mercy of a network or a venue no longer are because of social media,” says Laraine Newman, an original Saturday Night Live cast member best remembered for her characters Sheri the Valley Girl and Connie Conehead.

“Very personal styles of comedy are being embraced by an online audience, and that accounts for the expansion of our spectrum of appreciation.”

If comedy, relative to other forms of creative expression, has been been given short shrift, Newman thinks the National Comedy Center can help to rectify that oversight by bringing visitors into the fold rather than keeping up a rarefied air: in various rooms throughout the sprawling center, you can make your own meme, interact with a holographic Jim Gaffigan and even perform venerated standup routines, script in hand.