Michael Stahl is a freelance writer based in Queens, New York. He’s written about the arts and culture, sports, psychology, politics, history, business and other topics for the likes of Rolling Stone, Vice, the Village Voice, Quartz, Splitsider, The Bridge, and Narratively, where he also serves as a features editor.
The struggling Western New York city of Jamestown has big dreams for its new comedy museum. Can it live up to the hype?
Every year in Jamestown, New York, the beginning of August brings an invasion of Lucys.
For the past three decades, thousands of people in red wigs and polka-dot dresses have converged here each summer for the five-day Lucille Ball Comedy Festival. These superfans don’t just love Lucy—they’re head-over-heels for her. They compete in a fashion show, buy I Love Lucy memorabilia, and participate in an intense chocolate-wrapping contest, inspired by perhaps Ball’s most memorable scene. Lucy-centric events occur all over town alongside a series of stand-up performances in nearby theaters.
For this Rust Belt city of about 30,000 people, it’s a defining event in honor of its most famous native. But it also served as inspiration to be something more—not just a destination for Lucy aficionados, but a hotspot for comedy culture in general. That effort culminates this month with the opening of the National Comedy Center, a 37,000-square-foot museum dedicated to the history of the comedic arts.
The museum, backed by a nonprofit of the same name, represents an investment in the future of Jamestown. The city has ambitions to draw in comedy fans from around the world, in the same way that the Baseball Hall of Fame turned Cooperstown, New York, into a must-see for enthusiasts of America’s pastime.
The museum itself comes with a $50 million price tag, some of which was curried from state and federal government coffers, and it boasts a state-of-the-art mix of nostalgia and technology. On entering, visitors get an electronic wristband that they swipe at a kiosk that asks about favorite comedians, movies, sitcoms, and more. The exhibits then respond to the personal comedic sensibilities of each museumgoer. In the Stand-Up Lounge, for example, after touring groups settle into chairs at cocktail tables and swipe their wristbands across electronic readers, interactive multimedia presentations begin—performances, documentary shorts, trivia—all algorithmically curated specifically for the group in the room. A hologram theater, meanwhile, offers stand-up excerpts from comedian Jim Gaffigan.
If there’s a city in Western New York whose economic development could use a punch-up, it’s Jamestown. Located 75 miles south of Buffalo, the town’s population peaked around 45,000 in 1930. As the U.S. steel industry went into decline, more than a quarter of the residents left between 1950 and 2000. The number of vacant housing units has doubled the past 25 years, and since 1970 the number of families earning $50,000 a year has fallen nearly 50 percent.
“You have a lot of young people facing either leaving the area or trying desperately to find a way to make a living here,” says Journey Gunderson, executive director of the National Comedy Center, a nonprofit group that runs the museum of the same name.
Jamestown may seem an improbable destination for it, but plans for the museum go back to the 1980s, when city officials and the local arts council approached Ball with the idea of building a museum dedicated to her. She thought it would be better to celebrate all of comedy in the city, turning Jamestown into a national destination.
“Lucille Ball always felt very strongly about the power of the art of comedy, and she was a very savvy businesswoman,” Gunderson says. “She was wise to suggest that.”
After her death in 1989, the city erected the Lucille Ball Desi Arnaz Museum, focusing on the achievements of both her and her husband, and their TV show, I Love Lucy. The Lucille Ball Comedy Festival, founded in 1991, became more of a Lucy convention, too, Gunderson says.
But the National Comedy Center has been rebranding in recent years, and today, the organization, its events, and museum are closer to Ball’s broader vision. Joan Rivers headlined the Lucille Ball Comedy Festival in 2011, for Ball’s 100th birthday, and it’s been drawing big names since, including Lewis Black, Kevin James, Jerry Seinfeld, and, this year, Amy Schumer.
The National Comedy Center isn’t a “Comedy Hall of Fame,” per se. (There’s already one of those in New York City, though it’s more of an oral history and educational initiative than a museum.) But Gunderson says that many in Jamestown have been thinking about the parallels with Cooperstown and its signature attraction, the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Since its opening in 1939, that facility has drawn 17 million visitors; at least 60,000 people are expected for even modestly attended induction ceremonies, says Cassandra Harrington, executive director of the Destination Marketing Corporation for Ostego County. In the past decade, the Hall has brought an estimated $1.5 billion into the local economy. In Cooperstown—which has just 1,800 residents and is (sort of) the birthplace of the sport—baseball culture utterly dominates the village. “If you walk down Main Street, almost all the shops are in some way related to baseball,” Harrington says. “Everyone has their own take on it.”
Such a feat could prove harder to pull off in Jamestown, which, despite its Lucy connection, can hardly claim to be a hotbed of comedy. And comedy itself is a somewhat less family-friendly draw than baseball, especially in the stand-up realm. (The museum reserves one floor for more adult-oriented content.) Plus, the Baseball Hall of Fame enjoys the institutional support of a multi-billion-dollar organization; most of the National Comedy Center’s funding arrived via private donors, and the financially strapped city of Jamestown was unable to put up any money for it.
Still, there’s hope that the center’s opening will lure a larger cohort of comedy fans to New York State’s Southern Tier throughout the year. The Lucille Ball Comedy Festival now attracts about 15,000 out-of-towners each year, and there’s talk of adding performances year-round at the handful of venues already in Jamestown, with hopes that new clubs will open, and open-mic nights at bars and cafes will pop up. According to an economic impact analysis from consultants at AECOM, the National Comedy Center stands to pump $22 million a year into Western New York, and generate 32 equivalent full-time jobs.
The state’s economic development arm hopes the museum can deliver on those promises. “The National Comedy Center is a key component of Western New York’s strategy for economic growth through investments in our tourism industry,” says Howard Zemsky, president of Empire State Development, which provided $9 million in funding for the museum’s construction. “It’s already receiving the support of comedy greats and national recognition as a cultural showplace that visitors will flock to for generations to come.”
The National Comedy Center’s five-day grand opening, from August 1 to 5, coincides with this year’s Lucille Ball Comedy Festival, and the event lineup features a slate of famous names in addition to Schumer, including Lily Tomlin, Fran Drescher, and original Saturday Night Live cast members Dan Aykroyd and Laraine Newman—who says she was “blown away” by a recent tour of the exhibits. “I don’t know who the average person is who would go there,” Newman says, “but if they want to be enlightened [about comedy], they certainly will be.”
Among the museum’s collection ephemera are Charlie Chaplin’s cane and handwritten one-liners by Rodney Dangerfield, as well as artifacts from more modern comedic artists.
Self-described “comedy nerd” and stand-up Tony Deyo, who’s been hosting monthly National Comedy Center-branded shows at New York Comedy Club in Manhattan as part of the museum’s promotion, is particularly eager to scour the George Carlin Archives. Donated to the Center in 2016 by Carlin’s daughter, the collection of 25,000 artifacts includes some Ziploc bags with topics scrawled on them, filled with notes outlining how the funnyman made his material. “I get super into what someone’s process was and how they worked,” Deyo says. “To think that I could ever just peek at what George Carlin did [and] study how he did it is amazing to me.”
Deyo proselytizes about the importance of the National Comedy Center. “Stand-up was an art form invented in the United States,” he says, “and we had no place that honored it in any way, other than your local comedy club. I have very, very grand visions in my mind for it.”
If he’s right, the future of Jamestown—economically, culturally, and perhaps spiritually—might start to seem a little less rusty.