How many places do you walk into laughing? You can’t help it at the National Comedy Center in Chautauqua, New York, which we visited as part of an Empire State Road Trip in upstate New York.
Flashes of comedic movies, TV shows, and stand-ups assault your inner comedian as you enter the National Comedy Center, and you feel one with a larger-than-life Rodney Dangerfield. Then a sign comes on reminding you to wash your hands—and you stop laughing—but just for a moment. Instead of the pre-COVID wristband, you get a card that provides interactive capability during the virus and a stylus allowing you to touch screens. And you allow yourself to start laughing again.
The National Comedy Center began as a long-ago vision of the legendary Lucille Ball—a home-grown Jamestown girl (the small town adjacent to Chautauqua), she was born, bred, and buried here—for her hometown to become a destination for the celebration of comedy. Still, it didn’t actually open until 2018. Her own much-older museum is just down the street—but more on that later.
First, I had to personalize my comedy experience by picking my favorite comedians, TV shows, and films from Cary Grant to Stephen Colbert, “All in the Family” to “Modern Family,” the Marx Brothers to “Bridesmaids.” They lost me at podcasts, but it turns out my humor runs toward political satire—wry, sophisticated, and observational. My husband took issue with the sophisticated designation.
The museum emphasizes comedy as an art form and illustrates everything that goes into the craft of comedy, from inception to production to execution. A sample of Dangerfield’s handwritten notes has him admonishing the audience: “What a crowd! What a crowd!” I didn’t want to know that.
Joan Rivers had her own preparation notes: “17 Ways to Handle a Heckler.” OK, so no taking any chances there. Lots of iconic outfits dot the museum, from Jerry Seinfeld’s puffy shirt to Phyllis Diller’s huge ball gown to Carol Burnett’s wacky characters’ fashion statements.
One exhibit is devoted to all things George Carlin, another to late-night hosts from Steve Allen to Seth Myers, and another to “When Harry Met Sally,” highlighting two of the most memorable movie scenes ever.
At the stand-up comedy lounge I got to sit in to view some of my favorite comedians from my initial sense-of-humor profile. I actually looked around for a bartender to take my drink order. A different lounge presented clips from my favorite TV shows.
Passing from one exhibit to another takes you down a hallway of one-liners. At this point you just can’t stop laughing, and you think you might never make it to the end. There’s an academic exhibit that chronicles the history of comedy from the Greeks to Vaudeville to the Internet. Lest you find that a tad too serious, when you sit on the adjoining bench, what do you think happens? Yes, of course. The bench makes an embarrassing sound.
There are scripts where improvised changes that were made during shooting remained on camera; there is the history of radio from Jack Benny to Harold Stern; and then there is the age-restricted raunchy “Blue Room” for the likes of Lenny Bruce and Wanda Sykes. Everything tells a story of how a joke goes from page to stage, the long grind from comedic inception to commercial success. And it’s all funny!
Like millions of Americans throughout the 1950s, I laughed with and at Lucy and Desi Ricardo growing up. The “I Love Lucy Show” was must-see TV in those days, and the iconic show no doubt laid the foundation for situation comedies for decades to come. Having a museum of her own in her hometown seemed like a fitting testament.
The Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz Museum down the street, while special in its own right, is static by comparison since most of the visuals are behind glass enclosures. The West Gallery is devoted to Lucy and Desi, their relationship, and their family. The East Gallery focuses on their studio and show, with replicas of all the rooms in the Ricardos’ second apartment. Any fan would feel transported back in time and onto the TV set.
For a Lucille Ball fan, this would be a tiny bit of heaven. Since I was more socially distanced (in every sense of the word), I was just sorry to read that Lucy and Desi got divorced the day after the last show aired in 1961. After four hours steeped in laughter, I left feeling sad. That just seemed wrong, so I headed back to the National Comedy Center. Problem solved.
When You Go
For more information: HarborHotelCollection.com/experiences/empire-state-road-trip or 607-535-3759
National Comedy Center: ComedyCenter.org
Lucille Ball Desi Arnaz Museum: Lucy-Desi.com
Fyllis Hockman is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at Creators.com. Copyright 2020 Creators.com