Photos Courtesy of National Comedy Center
Imagine contemporary comedians performing in front of you in the form of holograms. Visualize inserting yourself into the classic I Love Lucy scene of Lucy and Ethel at the chocolate factory. Or picture yourself duplicating your favorite comic’s routine at Comedy Karaoke, an impromptu live stand-up performance before an audience.
All that and more can be done at the National Comedy Center in Jamestown, New York, the hometown of the late comedic genius Lucille Ball. With a focus on American comedy from vaudeville to viral memes, the museum, which opened in August 2018, is both a big deal and big: more than 50 interactive exhibits delving into the history of American comedy fill its 37,000 square feet.
Visitors can see artifacts such as Charlie Chaplin’s cane and the Coneheads’ helmets from Saturday Night Live as well as watch videos such as the comically suggestive scene between Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan at the New York deli in When Harry Met Sally. Visitors also can draw their own cartoons, study comedy scripts, add comic sound effects to videos and listen to radio comedy from the 1930s. There’s even an age-restricted “Blue Room” focusing on adult humor.
But it’s the appeal to your individual sense of humor that makes a visit here truly memorable. When you arrive at the center, you’ll take a quiz to identify which comedians, television shows and movies make you laugh. That information is embedded into a chip fitted into a wristband that you can wave at exhibits, and as a result, your experience is shaped by what tickles your funny bone.
Visit the individual stations in the “Late Night” section, for example, and videos featuring Johnny Carson or David Letterman that are most likely to appeal to you appear on the screen. In areas like “The TV Room,” where a number of people may sit down to watch, the software looks for common denominators in the sense of humor of those watching, presenting sitcoms from yesteryear most likely to elicit chortles, guffaws or outright belly laughs from those watching.
And while you laugh, you’ll learn. At the “Comedy Continuum,” a giant wall of screens shows how comedians have interacted with and influenced each other. To stretch your comedic awareness, exhibits occasionally present the comedy of funny folks you may not have heard of. Scripts alongside videos demonstrate how often comedians ad-lib. Even the entire archives of comedic luminaries such as George Carlin are available to study.
“We like to think the word ‘experience’ describes us better than ‘museum,’” says Executive Director Journey Gunderson. “We want to dig deep into the DNA of comedy, to show how it’s an art form, to pull back the curtain on the creative process behind it. We hope people leave with a whole new appreciation of comedy.”
A minimum of three hours is suggested to visit the huge facility, and since the National Comedy Center is a laugh-a-minute kind of place, that means you can expect at least—well, you do the math.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2019 edition of AAA World.