Baseball has a Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Rock & Roll has one in Cleveland. And for Comedy it’s the National Comedy Center in Jamestown, New York.
In the few short years since opening, this non-profit dedicated to the art form of comedy, has already been deemed a cultural institution.
Located in Lucille Ball’s hometown, the actress and comedian always had a deep connection to Jamestown. Ball envisioned a locale to develop future comedians—a place where comedy and great comic voices, throughout history, could be showcased.
In fact, in I Love Lucy there were frequent references to Lake Chautauqua, Celoron and Jamestown. Furniture famously manufactured in Jamestown was said to adorn both her Beverly Hills home and the I Love Lucy set. Also, Ball had Jamestown’s Jones Tasty Baking Swedish limpa rye bread delivered to her in California. And in 1956, when the queen of television comedy visited to premiere her film Forever Darling she was completely taken by the outpouring of love.
“She didn’t want to have a statue or a bridge or some stagnant memory,” her daughter Lucie Arnaz told CNN back in 1991 about the town honoring their beloved Lucille Ball. “If there was going to be some trib cie Arnaz told CNN back in 1991 about the town honoring their beloved Lucille Ball. “If there was going to be some tribute to her paid in her hometown, she wanted it to be alive and active.”
Opened in August 2018, The National Comedy Center is the first non-profit cultural institution devoted to the art of comedy. It features more than 50 immersive and interactive exhibits which spans over 37,000 square feet. The museum celebrates comedy’s great voices, from Charlie Chaplin to Dave Chappelle. “It’s not a hall of fame. It’s a place where all kinds of comedy, in every form and every medium, is delivered,” says comedy legend Alan Zweibel. The Thurber Prize winning author, Tony and multiple Emmy winner, was an original Saturday Night Live writer. “It’s a place to access and relive shows or movies you have seen before. Or you can become familiar with stand-up acts you may not know.”
The exhibits are also fun and interactive. Visitors can peruse through George Carlin’s notes on legal pads that he used for his stand-up. There’s Lenny Bruce’s trademark trench coat, typewriter, and original How To Talk Dirty and Influence People manuscript. Also on hand is an assortment of personal memorabilia from Lucille Ball, Bob Hope, Red Skelton, Rodney Dangerfield, Mary Tyler Moore, Garry Shandling, Jerry Seinfeld, Joan Rivers, Harold Ramis, Ernie Kovacs, Jerry Lewis, Andy Kaufman, Jonathan Winters, Phyllis Diller, the Marx Brothers and more. “I like the center’s informality,” says Zweibel. “And you can get a bird’s eye view of any aspect of comedy through the ages.”
Plus, there are props, sets and mementos from countless shows including Seinfeld, Laugh-In, 30 Rock, The Simpsons, Will & Grace, Airplane, Dumb & Dumber, Animal House, The Hangover and on and on. There is even a Late Night Exhibit which does a deep dive into the late-night talk shows from Steve Allen and Jack Paar’s era to today’s hosts. Visitors can even learn the staples of the monologue in the setting of a virtual late-night studio and operate a broadcast camera.
Just last month, the National Comedy Center announced that it will become the home of comedy legend Carl Reiner’s archives. A twelve-time Emmy award-winner, a Grammy award-winner and a recipient of The Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, Reiner passed away last June at the age of 98. He was an early advocate and instrumental supporter of the National Comedy Center.
The Reiner family donated rare creative papers, scripts and artifacts spanning Reiner’s seven-decade career in comedy as a writer, director, producer, author and performer. In addition, the National Comedy Center will formally name its ongoing work to preserve comedy’s heritage in honor of Reiner.
For comedy greats like Zweibel, the National Comedy Center is special because it heralds comedy as an art form in unprecedented ways. It illustrates how people’s lives can be transformed through comedy like theirs have been. “I’m doing what I always wanted to do ever since I was a little boy. I have always wanted to write and put words into the mouths of others,” shares Zweibel. “I like waking up every day to figure out how to hold people’s attention with whatever I’m writing and make them laugh along the way.”