America's First Comedy Museum Preserves a Time When We Knew How to Laugh

The National Comedy Center in Jamestown, New York, the birthplace of Lucille Ball, opens its doors this Wednesday.

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Jul 31 2018, 8:00pm

From left to right: Whoopi Goldberg via Wikimedia Commons; the National Comedy Center via the AP/Carolyn Thompson; George Carlin via Flickr

Comedy is in the midst of a full-blown identity crisis. Jerry Seinfeld and other high-profile comics refuse to perform on college campuses, because they claim political correctness is destroying the medium they hold dear. Roseanne was booted off network TV following a racist tweet, a YouTuber was booed off stage at comedy's biggest festival for saying comedians shouldn't talk about race or sexuality, Michelle Wolf was criticized for bringing truth to power. Male comics like Louis C.K. and Bill Cosby are finally having to answer for their years of sexual misconduct. And Hannah Gadsby, in her groundbreaking Netflix special, Nanette, declares she's quitting stand-up all together, because of the humiliation she's suffered from her own self-deprecation—from all too often making herself, a queer woman, someone who already lives on the margins, the butt of her own jokes.

Meanwhile, Leslie Jones pleads, from the set of The View, that comedians are given some space and asks that everyone stop being so offended. ("You can't hold me accountable for stuff in 1987," she says. "I wasn't smart.") Comedy has not, in recent years, served as an antidote for our pain. It is now undergoing a period of extreme self-reflection, perhaps its most substantial evolution to date. "When did comedy," Jason Zinoman asks in the New York Times, "become the worst medicine?"

It is in this heightened and cramped climate that on Wednesday, August 1, the National Comedy Center opens its doors, the first museum in the country fully dedicated to comedy. It's been built in Jamestown, a city on the western end of New York near Pennsylvania and Ohio, population 30,000—essentially in the middle of fucking nowhere. It is where, though, Lucille Ball was born and raised. Ball dreamed of a cultural landmark of this sort—not the festival held in her honor or the Lucille Ball Desi Arnaz Museum erected in her hometown, but one solely yet broadly focused on her craft and its evolution. Nearly 30 years after her death, she's gotten her wish.

According to the National Comedy Center's "About" page, it will include "50 immersive exhibits," which take you "on an interactive journey through comedy history, from early vaudeville acts to the latest viral memes." It reportedly cost $50 million to construct, with millions from state and federal funding as well as private donations. (Chuck Schumer, a New York senator and cousin of the comedian Amy Schumer, was a big proponent of the project.) In an introductory video on the center's website, famous comedians and the daughters of famous dead comedians discuss its importance—and why comedy should be taken seriously.

"The thing that makes comedy so significant, especially in the States," Seinfeld says over music in the opening, "it's one of the few things that, Americans, we really invented this as a world." (Demanding credit for everything has become a major preoccupation of Seinfeld's retirement, as he drinks coffee and drives cars. Take that Jonathan Swift!)

Entering the museum, a refurbished art deco train station from the 1930s, is almost a futuristic endeavor. You, as a visitor, create what's called a "sense of humor" profile designed to personalize your experience. According to the Wall Street Journal, you can stop to check out George Carlin's entire archive, Rodney Dangerfield's duffel bag, or Lenny Bruce's black trench coat. The Associated Press press mentions Jerry's "puffy shirt" from Seinfeld will be on display as well as scripts from The Dick Van Dyke Show. The joint isn't short, either, on interaction. There's apparently a camera to fuck around with, one that you can twist and turn to see the sets of different late-night talk shows; a hologram theater with a virtual Jim Gaffigan pacing around and delivering a set; and something called "comedy karaoke," where you can try out some of your favorite pithy one-liners. (There's a bar, too!) With 37,000 square feet to get through, it's obviously not lacking in shit to see and do.

"It is not a hall of fame," Robert Klein says later in the center's video, "but is a comprehensive appreciation of the art." (Gaffigan compares it to baseball's Cooperstown, which is a hall of fame.)

Complete comprehensiveness is what the center most wants—or at least hopes—to achieve. And it could arrive, really, at no better time—at a moment when we are clearly asking the very question about what we've been laughing at all along.

As soon as you walk into the lobby, there's a statement, the Wall Street Journal reports, that "will warn [you] that the comedy doesn't necessarily represent the views of the museum." Journey Gunderson, the center's executive director, has repeatedly emphasized that she did not censor anything. "We've taken the approach that when it's necessary for storytelling, to do justice to the history of comedy, we are including the work of controversial figures," she told the Journal. "We're not going to pretend that The Cosby Show wasn't revolutionary for sitcoms."

The National Comedy Center isn't going to solve any of comedy's woes—but it can, in the very least, be what any great museum should be: a place to witness, and learn from, great successes and tragedies.

"Culture is preserved by meaningful storytelling," Gunderson said in a statement to Forbes. "What these artists have done is important, and it should be both celebrated and contextualized, drawing connections that make the past relevant to the present."

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