Serious about laughter, National Comedy Center ready to open

In this July 24, 2018 photo, Bonnie Tangalos of Charlotte, N.C., reviews a comedy profile created for her during her visit to the National Comedy Center in Jamestown, N.Y. The center that is marking its grand opening Aug. 1 was inspired by the late comedian Lucille Ball, who wanted her hometown of Jamestown to become a destination for the celebration of comedy as an art form. (AP Photo/Carolyn Thompson)
In this July 24, 2018 photo, a file box full of notes is part of the George Carlin exhibit at the National Comedy Center in Jamestown, N.Y. Visitors to the center can explore the late comedian's archives of material, which the center acquired from Carlin's family. The center's grand opening celebration starts Aug. 1. (AP Photo/Carolyn Thompson)
In this July 24, 2018 photo, the George Carlin exhibit is seen inside the National Comedy Center in Jamestown, N.Y. Visitors to the center can explore the late comedian's archives of notes and other material, which the center acquired from Carlin's family. The center's grand opening celebration starts Aug. 1.(AP Photo/Carolyn Thompson)
In this July 24, 2018 photo, the main entrance to the National Comedy Center in Jamestown, N.Y. is shown. The center was inspired by the late Lucille Ball, who wanted her hometown to be a destination for people to learn about and celebrate comedy as an art form. Its grand opening celebration starts Aug. 1. (AP Photo/Carolyn Thompson)
This July 24, 2018 photo shows the National Comedy Center in Jamestown, N.Y. The center, starting its grand opening celebration Aug. 1, was inspired by the late Lucille Ball, who wanted her hometown to be a destination for people to learn about and celebrate comedy as an art form. (AP Photo/Carolyn Thompson)
In this July 24, 2018 photo, street signs in Jamestown, N.Y. promote the new National Comedy Center. The center, starting its grand opening celebration Aug. 1 was inspired by the late Lucille Ball, who wanted her hometown to be a destination for people to learn about and celebrate comedy as an art form. (AP Photo/Carolyn Thompson)
In this July 24, 2018 photo, Journey Gunderson, executive director of the National Comedy Center, stands in front of windows decorated with comedians' one-liners at the National Comedy Center in Jamestown, N.Y. The 37,000-square-foot center, which is celebrating its grand opening starting Aug. 1, has more than 50 interactive exhibits that allow visitors to explore comedy as an art form, from its origins to present day. (AP Photo/Carolyn Thompson)
In this July 24, 2018 photo, the famed "puffy shirt" from a 1993 episode of the television show "Seinfeld" is among comedy artifacts on display at The National Comedy Center in Jamestown, N.Y. The center's grand opening celebration starts Aug. 1. (AP Photo/Carolyn Thompson)
In this July 24, 2018 photo, the lobby of the National Comedy Center in Jamestown, N.Y., invites visitors to stop at a kiosk, swipe their wristband and create a profile about their comedy preferences. After swiping the wristband at various exhibits, visitors receive a personalized comedy analysis on the way out. The center's grand opening celebration starts Aug. 1. (AP Photo/Carolyn Thompson)
In this July 24, 2018 photo, a script from the 1960s television series "The Dick Van Dyke Show" is displayed inside the National Comedy Center in Jamestown, N.Y. In addition to comedy artifacts, the center has 50 interactive exhibits that let visitors learn about comedy as an art form, from its origins to present day. The center's grand opening celebration starts Aug. 1. (AP Photo/Carolyn Thompson)

JAMESTOWN, N.Y. — Comedian Billy Crystal asks the question in a video that welcomes visitors to the National Comedy Center.

"Everybody else has a place," he says. "Why not us?"

It may be as good a reason as any for the construction of the high-tech new center devoted to what has made people laugh from Vaudeville to now.

But there's more to it.

The nonprofit center in Jamestown was inspired by hometown hero, Lucille Ball, who envisioned a place where comedy would be celebrated as an art form. The city of about 30,000 people in the southwest corner of New York already is home to the annual Lucille Ball Comedy Festival and the Lucille Ball Desi Arnaz Museum.

"But it was always (Ball's) preference that Jamestown become a destination for the celebration of all comedy in a way that would foster and inspire the next generation of artists," says National Comedy Center Executive Director Journey Gunderson. "What we've done here is finally bring her vision to fruition."

Located in a repurposed 1930 art-deco train station, the center is part museum, part hall of fame and part video arcade, keeping visitors smiling as they move through displays of comedic artifacts. There's the "puffy shirt" from a 1993 "Seinfeld" episode and scripts from the 1960s "Dick Van Dyke Show" along with lively immersive exhibits that invite visitors to explore sound effects and props and make cartoons and memes.

The bravest can take the stage in "Comedy Karaoke," trying out lines from Jeff Foxworthy or others, or sit at a game show-like set and try to crack up an opponent. But there also are plenty of chances to laugh at the pros in action. A club-like comedy lounge shows stand-up bits, and a movie theater has clips of classic scenes with celebrity commentary. A hologram theater initially will feature Jim Gaffigan's evolution as a performer.

The grand opening celebration starts Aug. 1.

"I'm stunned by the technology," says Andrew Tangalos of Charlotte, North Carolina, who with his wife, Bonnie, was part of a group invited to test the exhibits on Tuesday before the official opening. They started by selecting preferred comedians, shows and movies at a lobby kiosk. After tapping computer-chip enhanced bracelets at exhibits, the couple's last stop was a station that revealed their comedy profile. It told Bonnie she leaned toward satire and observational humor.

The 37,000-square-foot (3,437-square-meter), $50 million center received $9 million in funding from New York state, along with private and federal support. The House of Representatives on July 23 unanimously approved a bill designating it as the nation's official comedy center. U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, whose cousin, comedian Amy Schumer is in the opening week lineup, is working on Senate action.

"Comedy is important to celebrate as an art form because it's not been celebrated at all, ever," comedian Lewis Black says on the center's welcoming video. He is part of the center's largely celebrity advisory board, along with Gaffigan, Carl Reiner, Laraine Newman, W. Kamau Bell, Paula Poundstone and others.

Board member Kelly Carlin, daughter of the late George Carlin, gave the center seven trunks full of her father's materials, including his creative files, handwritten journals and arrest records resulting from his "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television" routine.

Those seven words get star treatment in the center's lower-level, adults-only "Blue Room," reserved for the material that's gotten comedians into trouble over the years.

"Down in the Blue Room it's completely uncensored and we actually address a lot of topics like the history of taboo, censorship, seven dirty words and things like that," Gunderson says. Among displays is the trench coat Lenny Bruce would wear in anticipation of going from stage to jail.

"There's enough content in here that you could spend a week and not see everything," says Stephen Platenberg, creative director of Cortina Productions, the McLean, Virginia, interactive design firm for the project.

The grand opening week also includes events with Lily Tomlin and original "Saturday Night Live" cast members Dan Aykroyd, Garrett Morris and Newman.

"I hope people leave here having a great time, seeing some cool content that's nostalgic or makes them laugh, doing some things they never thought they'd do," Platenberg says, "but then also learn about something about their sense of humor and comedy in general."

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