Jamestown, N.Y., is a funny town, in part because it is home to the year-old National Comedy Center.
“If you didn’t spend at least three hours, you didn’t see the Center,” I overheard my mother telling one of my sisters.
My mother, father and I spent the good portion of an afternoon giggling, blushing, laughing, and learning the craft of comedy. Under the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management and Recreation Act, the National Comedy Center was formally designated as the country’s official cultural institution dedicated to comedy in March 2019.
Over the summer, People magazine named the high-tech, interactive museum as one of “100 Reasons to Love America.” TIME included it as one of “World’s Greatest Places of 2019.”
And now, after spending more than three hours interacting with exhibits, watching television and movie snippets, and laughing, the Western New York Hubers have endorsed it as one of their top 10 all-time favorite experiences.
Jamestown is about a 90-minute drive southwest of Buffalo and 6.5-hour drive west of New York City. It has a population of more than 29,000. It’s a nice, low-key city, but why is the nation’s designated comedy museum here?
Jamestown is the birthplace of Lucille Ball (1911). She envisioned her hometown as a destination to celebrate the art of comedy. Ball passed away April 26, 1989, but her legacy is strong. After years of planning, the First Lady of Comedy’s dream has been realized.
The National Comedy Center houses more than 50 interactive exhibits along with displays and theaters telling comedy’s history. The journey begins with the “Laugh Band,” a wristband you scan at a kiosk before entering the museum and build your comedic-taste profile. Once entering, begin exploring and scan your “Laugh Band” at each exhibit and select “like” when you see something that interests you. Because everyone’s taste is different, explore on your own for a more personalized experience.
WHAT’S AT THE CENTER?
Peek into George Carlin’s stuff through displays and a digital treasure chest. Watch comedy legends, such as Jim Gaffigan, in the Hologram Theater, and hear how they improved their comedy routine over the years.
Learn how to draw cartoons like those found in the Sunday comics. Then, try your hand with Foley effects, injecting sound into a television scene. Laugh your way through the nostalgia of the best late-night talk show monologues from legends as Johnny Carson, Jay Leno and David Letterman.
Enjoy snippets from today’s hosts, such as Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon, and Trevor Noah. Sit on a retro-looking sofa, scan your Laugh Band, and watch a bit of a sitcom tailored to your tastes and that of others sitting with you.
Movie and television props and costumes are strategically placed throughout the center. They include Jerry Seinfeld’s white puffy shirt, a Laugh-In 100th anniversary costume, and three conehead helmets from the 1993 movie “Coneheads” starring Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtin. In the “Act the Part” exhibit, put yourself in iconic movie and television scenes. One option includes the iconic scene from the “I Love Lucy” episode called, “Job Switching.” The world knows it better as the chocolate scene.
Comedy busts through boundaries and downstairs is the Blue Room with off-color and some may consider, taboo humor. Scanning your Laugh Band opens the doors into the colorful-language filled room yet keeps those younger than 18 out. Immediately walking in, one of George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” is yelled, which may or may not get a rise out of you. A small camera captures your reaction, and when you find your photo, scan your Laugh Band, add a filter with something like, “I Got FBombed at the National Comedy Center,” then select save. Hear bits of routines from actors like Andrew Dice Clay and Lenny Bruce.
Before exiting the center, scan your badge to learn what your “Sense of Humor” profile is. This is based on the information filled out before entering and what you “liked” throughout the journey. My top three attributes are observational, exaggeration, and absurd/surreal. This information is also emailed to you and includes any activities and photos you saved as you explored. The final scan before exiting into the gift shop generates a joke on a business card. This makes it easy for keeping in your wallet and handy for those times you need a joke.
TRIBUTE TO LUCILLE BALL AND DESI ARNAZ
More laughs are less than a five-minute walk away at the Lucy Desi Museum. Opened since 1996, the museum pays tribute to Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. The couple were talented actors and successful producers. Desilu Productions was their production company and visitors can walk through television history as they explore Desilu Studios and view memorabilia including replicas of sets and some of Lucy’s wardrobe.
The museum offers a more personalized look into the lives of the talented couple beginning with their upbringing, brief courtship, marriage, careers, family and death. It emphasizes how Lucy’s heart was always in her hometown of Jamestown. Names of some of Ball’s friends were used in some “I Love Lucy” television episodes, including “McGillicuddy,” Lucy’s maiden name in the comedy.
Hop in the car and see the World’s Largest I Love Lucy Mural called, “California, Here We Come.” Unveiled on Oct. 15, 2012, this 1,800-square-foot, color mural features jovial Lucy and Ricky in the front seat of a car with their television neighbors, Ethel and Fred Mertz, in the back. Gary Peters and Gary Peters Jr., a father-and-son team, painted five “I Love Lucy” murals in Jamestown.
“I Love Lucy” fans should head to Lucille Ball Memorial Park in Celoron, where Ball grew up, to visit two statues honoring the successful comedian. The first bronze statue, depicting the famous “I Love Lucy” Vitameatavegamin scene was unveiled to gasps in 2009. Thanks to the power of the Internet and social media, images of what is now called “Scary Lucy” went viral quicker than a chocolate candy conveyor belt. It’s been described as something looking like it stepped out of “The Walking Dead.”
The outcry resulted in the formation of a Facebook group called “We Love Lucy! Get Rid of this Statue.” Funds were raised for a new sculpture representing a more realistic version of the town’s beloved daughter. On Aug. 6, 2016, which would have been the comedian’s 105th birthday, a new, more lifelike Lucy was unveiled. Crafted by sculptor Carolyn D. Palmer, the new statue is recognized as “Lovely Lucy” and she stands where “Scary Lucy” once stood. The town decided to keep “Scary Lucy” who is a grape-toss away from the “Lovely Lucy.”
The area has another famous funny native. Cartoonist Brad Anderson was born on May 14, 1924, in Jamestown, and grew up Portland, New York, about a 35-minute drive away. He created the lovable Marmaduke cartoon in 1954, modeled after his mother’s Boxer named Marmaladee. Local landmarks, his friends and family, and cats and dogs, were incorporated into the Marmaduke comic strip. Anderson passed away on Aug. 30, 2015, and in June 2016, the life-size bronze sculpture of the cartoonist and canine was dedicated. Located next to the Portland Town Hall, it serves as a photo stop a short distance from Interstate 90.
The National Comedy Center is a national treasure. The city was once tops in manufacturing furniture and automatic voting machines. Today, the town tickles the funny bone and is in the business of creating smiles and memories. When visiting Western New York, make the trip and visit Jamestown to pay homage to “I Love Lucy” and the art of comedy. If you don’t, you’ve got some ’splainin’ to do.