The funny business started when we entered the dining room at the chic Chautauqua Harbor Hotel. We couldn’t help but notice a party of diners sporting Groucho Marx glasses, complete with bushy eyebrows and giant schnozzolas. “They’ll get a free dessert if they wear the Groucho getup,” our server explained. “It’s part of a package we offer with the National Comedy Center. Funny, huh?”
Perhaps there’s something in the air in New York’s Chautauqua County that spawns hilarity. Comedy legend Lucille Ball is a native, and — although she died in 1989 — she is vividly present here. Next door to the hotel — built on the former site of an amusement park, naturally — is a memorial park dedicated to the “I Love Lucy” star. The park is famous for its two Lucy statues: “scary Lucy” (who became a viral sensation) and “pretty Lucy,” an attractive Lucy likeness. A short drive will get you to Lucy Lane and the star’s childhood home, and the cemetery where she is buried alongside her family. (Follow the red hearts to her gravesite.)
There’s more Lucy in nearby Jamestown: the Lucille Ball Desi Arnaz Museum, the Lucille Ball Little Theatre, Lucy murals, and, in August, the annual Lucille Ball Comedy Fest, a five-day event that draws talent like Lily Tomlin, Amy Schumer, and Lewis Black. And now this: The new National Comedy Center, the only museum dedicated to the art of comedy in the country, inspired by the Queen of Comedy herself.
“Lucy didn’t want a museum devoted to her life. She wanted her hometown to become a destination for the celebration of all comedy,” says Megan Arnone of the Chautauqua County Visitors Bureau. Years later, with financial help from the state of New York, the National Comedy Center was launched. Lucy’s daughter Lucie Arnaz helped make it happen.
“Comedy is an art form worthy of celebration, but also an examination of its role in our culture,” says Journey Gunderson, the center’s executive director. “Nothing like this has existed until now, and it’s long overdue.” A cadre of big-name comedians provided input, and they now sit on the center’s board of directors. “The concept evolved beyond a hall of fame. Rather than focus on inductions or ranking, our approach is like that of an art museum, with the emphasis on the varied bodies of work,” Gunderson says.
What they created was a wildly immersive, interactive comedy environment designed to make everyone LOL. The twist: This is customized comedy. When you check in, you spend time at a kiosk selecting which comedians, TV shows, and comedy movies tickle your funny bone. Then, you get an electronic bracelet loaded with this information. Tap exhibits as you go, and you’ll be matched with things that make you laugh, whether you’re into slapstick or screwball comedy, George Carlin or George Costanza — you get the idea.
Entering, you encounter holograms of Jim Gaffigan, video panels of comics discussing why “funny” is important, and so many eye-popping visuals you’ll feel like you’re watching a Celtics game at TD Garden. There’s a room devoted to Carlin, with memorabilia donated by his daughter, plus Jerry Seinfeld’s puffy shirt, Lucy’s polka dot dress, and Joan Rivers’s favorite comebacks for hecklers. And that’s just the first few feet of this sprawling space.
Nostalgia bits abound, including clips of famous comedians at the beginning of their careers, but you can also unleash your own Inner Comedian. In a booth with a green screen, you can play, say, Molly Shannon’s role in SNL’s classic “Schweddy Balls” skit. Other people can watch you exercise your comedy chops, or you can turn off that function. We tried — and failed — to be a proper Ethel Mertz in the iconic chocolate factory scene from “I Love Lucy.” You can also try Comedy Karaoke, to experience how hard it is to get in front of an audience and be funny, even when someone else has supplied the punch lines.
Even a comedy nerd will learn something here, watching the evolution of stand-up comedy from vaudeville and burlesque to today. We picked up a surprising amount of intel about censorship in the American culture in the “Blue Room.” Located on the lower level, the Blue Room is restricted to guests age 18 and up who aren’t easily offended: the subject is raunchy humor. You’re greeted with an audio assault of dirty words. (Fun feature: You’ll see your reaction later on a monitor.) Did you know that the show “I Love Lucy” starring an obviously pregnant Lucille Ball (whose son Ricky’s birth was a major national event) wasn’t allowed to use the word “pregnant” on television in the 1960s? Contrast that with an expectant Ali Wong, whose 2016 Netflix special (clips shown here) included material that would’ve probably curled Lucy’s red hair. And who knew that Redd Foxx of TV’s “Sanford & Son” made “party records” of dirty comedy that parents played in their paneled rec rooms in the ’50s and ’60s while the kids were asleep? “Pretty organically, the story of comedy in America is a story of the First Amendment,” Gunderson notes. The dirtiest jokes and filthy Playboy-ish comics are hidden behind peepholes. It feels voyeuristic to open them, which is probably the point.
After you’ve tried your hand at creating a comic strip, making a meme, and placing a rubber chicken on a pad to see comedy clips featuring a rubber chicken, settle into a couch and watch clips of buddy movies or classic sitcoms — tailored to your sense of humor. And if that’s “The Three Stooges,” we promise we won’t judge.
National Comedy Center , 203 W. Second St., Jamestown, N.Y.; 716-484-0800; www.comedycenter.org Open daily; $23.50. Combined admission with Lucille Ball Desi Arnaz Museum, $30.
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.