Visit the National Comedy Museum
Posted on February 12, 2019
Take a mental health day and visit the new $50 million National Comedy Center in Jamestown, New York. As you trek through three buildings, totalling 37,000 square feet, you’ll laugh away stress and return home emotionally lighter.
Shame on us for arriving with preconceived notions. We thought we’d breeze through 50 or so exhibits in an hour or two, grab lunch nearby and drive home. Four hours later, we got a $10 parking ticket because we stalled for one more joke. (It was just five minutes, officer, please.) We’ll go back to see more another day.
Admission includes a wristband with an radio-frequency identification chip. A lobby kiosk scans the chip, and you build a humor profile — kind of like a Pandora music profile — by selecting favorite comedians and TV/movie icons. This profile drives your museum experience.
Drop preconceived notions about the small town of Jamestown. Forget what you know about museums as staid collections of artifacts and video. Despite its smaller size, this place rivals Cleveland’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum for impact. The interactive technology is so cutting-edge that other national museums are studying it for ideas.
That means my mom — who dislikes profanity — would experience the museum differently from how I would. For example, when I scan my wristband at an interactive monologue screen, “Saturday Night Live” cast member Leslie Jones might appear shouting jokes about orgasms, while Mom may see comedian Gabriel Iglesias doing his signature “puffy” jokes about weight.
On a random Wednesday, my partner and I started in the Hologram Theater, a comedy club replica with cocktail tables and red-upholstered theater seating. There, a lifelike hologram of funnyman Jim Gaffigan talks about the evolution of a comic and demonstrates with various holograms of his younger self.
Just outside that lounge is Jerry Seinfeld’s white, ruffled puffy shirt from a 1993 episode of TV’s “Seinfeld.” In another corner, Conehead helmets — from 1970s “Saturday Night Live” sketches about an alien family — conjure memories and smiles. Artifacts abound but don’t overwhelm. Most exhibits require participation — from video screens to manipulative objects.
We wimped out on Comedy Karaoke but participated in Laugh Battle. In the latter, we faced each other and read custom jokes. Whoever laughed the most lost. We tied, although I must admit he was funnier.
Control freaks might be a disconcerted by the lack of linear progression as you wander the three connected buildings in any order. This free-range layout is a bonus on crowded days. Simply find your flow.
One of the best parts of my flow was watching stand-up comedians including Margaret Cho, Paula Poundstone, Richard Lewis and Jeff Foxworthy explain their creative processes. As a writer, I’m fascinated by how others build their words into something meaningful.
While I was taking in the video, a cocktail waitress balancing a round tray suggested a glass of wine or a local beer. Yes, the museum has a liquor license, and adult beverages — in lidded containers — are available throughout.
While experiencing funny folks from Charlie Chaplin to Johnny Carson to modern meme writers, we were giggling as we learned about the art of comedy and its role in U.S. culture. For example, comics such as Lenny Bruce, George Carlin and their successors — found downstairs in the adults-only Blue Room — challenged freedom of expression and helped define First Amendment rights in the 1960s. Millennials may not be aware that Bruce was jailed more than once for profanity that wouldn’t raise an eyebrow at today’s stand-up shows.
Making Jamestown the home of a National Comedy Center was the vision of the hometown comedic genius Lucille Ball. The star of “I Love Lucy” and founder of Desilu Studios, Ball wanted to see a national-scale museum there to honor the art of comedy. The idea took 30 years to reality, but she’d be proud.
While we were in town, we walked two blocks to the Lucille Ball Desi Arnaz Museum to reminisce over props, costumes and replica studio sets. This is a must-see while in town.
The National Comedy Center is close enough to my home for a day trip but more relaxing as an overnight adventure. We stayed at the brand new Chautauqua Harbor Hotel, where, in the lobby, we previewed satellite exhibits from the comedy center. Opened in September, the 135-room grand hotel sits on the shores of Lake Chautauqua and offers panoramic lake views from its restaurant, lounge and many of the guest rooms. A comfortable bar and elevated dining experience punctuate the visit. In warm months, the dining scene spills outside to the Carousel Bar. The hotel is just four miles from the comedy center.
In Jamestown, our Comedy Center visit took much of the day. Around noon, we left the complex for an hour and grabbed a bowl of gumbo at The Pub, just two blocks away. It can best be described as a busy, locals spot with the friendliness of television’s Cheers and good food. Stay tuned, the Jamestown Brewery is scheduled to open nearby in early 2019.
Chautauqua Harbor Hotel: 10 Dunham Ave. Celoron, New York, 716-489-2800, thechautauquaharborhotel.com.
Lucille Ball Desi Arnaz Museum: 2 W. Third St., 716-484-0800, lucy-desi.com.
The National Comedy Center: 203 W. Second St., Jamestown, New York, 716-484-2222, comedycenter.org.
The Pub: 209 N. Main St., Jamestown, New York, 716-488-6036, thepubjamestown.com.