For comedian Lewis Black, timing is everything. Not just onstage, where he’s spent decades perfecting his signature stand-up style, but also in terms of a new project, the National Comedy Center, which opened this week in Jamestown, N.Y.
“This museum wouldn’t be there without the timing,” said Black, a member of the center’s advisory board. “It was really the right place and the right time.”
To celebrate, Black and a roster of other comics, including Lily Tomlin, Dan Aykroyd and Amy Schumer, headed to Jamestown for a week of festivities and performances running through Aug. 5. The opening celebration coincides with the town’s annual Lucille Ball Comedy Festival. (Ball, whose personal memorabilia is featured at the center, was born in Jamestown.)
The National Comedy Center now is working to receive federal recognition. Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer is leading the push for a congressional designation that would recognize the center as the nation’s official cultural institution dedicated to the art of comedy and its role in our culture. “You don't want that history to get lost,” Black said.
Unlike many museums, the center is fully interactive. Visitors receive high-tech wristbands that help guide them through more than 50 interactive exhibits that span comedy history, from early vaudeville to late-night classics to internet memes. Extensive archival collections highlight the work of legends such as Bob Hope, Mary Tyler Moore, Jerry Lewis and Joan Rivers, plus many more comedians. For grownups in search of adult humor, the “Blue Room” offers a separate level devoted to boundary-pushing comedy and the history of censorship.
“I spent two hours in there going from exhibit to exhibit,” Black said. “I think even a comic would be astonished by the level of interactivity.” Take the exhibit dedicated to George Carlin, one of Black’s own inspirations. “It’s this astonishing little spot,” he said. “You can see the little notes he wrote to himself, one after the other. You can watch him through videos, developing a piece and how he would go about doing that. It’s pretty amazing.”
Part of the challenge, Black says, is that unlike other crafts, comedy isn’t always held in high regard. People tend to think of it in terms of showing up at a bar to watch stand-up — but that’s far from all there is. “Once you get to the level of Norman Lear’s sitcoms or Marx Brothers films or Dr. Strangelove, there is an art in this craft,” he said. “It’s timeless. Therefore, it needs a dedicated home.”
In providing that home, the National Comedy Center seeks to honor comedy’s past as a way of looking to its future. “It’s not just about yesterday,” Black says. “It’s also about tomorrow — or at least next Thursday.”