It’s not the most likely home of American comedy. Jamestown, a town of just 30,000 inhabitants in western New York State, is no Big Apple or Second City. Often dubbed ‘the furniture capital of the world’, it’s known for its pre-Ikea warehouses and expositions at Furniture Mart.
And yet, despite its reputation as a sleepy town, Jamestown is the site for a groundbreaking new project: America’s first National Comedy Center. Scheduled to open in 2017, it will take the form of an interactive museum of comedy, with 65 exhibitions covering everything from the earliest written jokes to the latest viral Twitter trends. A 3D hologram comedy club will screen ‘performances’ by the likes of Richard Pryor and Seinfeld.
Jamestown may not be indelibly linked with comedy in the public consciousness in the way that, say, Chicago, LA or New York are, but one glance around the town and you’ll realise its heritage is pretty solid. This is the birthplace of Lucille Ball: America’s first woman of comedy, the first female mogul of a Hollywood studio, the first woman to be pregnant on TV, and one half of television’s first interracial couple. You have to be a pretty big deal for Jerry Seinfeld to make a 400-mile, seven-hour pilgrimage to pay tribute to you, as he did on August 1 for the Lucille Ball Comedy Festival — and Lucille Ball is exactly that.
Ball may have ended her days in Los Angeles, but her roots lay firmly in Jamestown. In the town’s centre stands the Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Museum and along Third Street are murals of I Love Lucy’s most famous moments: getting drunk on ‘dietary supplement’ Vitameatavegamin, wrapping sweets at the candy factory and driving out of New York City with Ethel, Fred, and real-life and on-screen husband Desi.
I’m not a major I Love Lucy fan — in fact, I’ve only ever seen a couple of episodes — but the museum offers a fascinating insight into how Ball and Arnaz, her Cuban husband, transcended America’s sexual and racial boundaries to make the most popular TV show in the United States. When they divorced, Lucille took sole ownership of Desilu, their production company that later became Paramount. I hadn’t realised how important Ball was for the history of American film: against the advice of her executives, she green-lit an odd-sounding show called Star Trek.
There’s plenty of memorabilia here: studio sets, the door to Studio A of CBS Columbia Square Studio (used by the likes of Clark Gable, Judy Garland and Gregory Peck), costumes and Desi’s old car.
While the kitsch vibe makes this museum an ideal expedition on an all-American road trip, it’s what’s still to come that’s most exciting. The $40m National Comedy Center will be just a few blocks away, in Jamestown’s old railway station, and is set to breathe new life into the town. Comedians including Seinfeld, Jay Leno and Regis Philbin, all of whom have recently headlined Lucyfest, are consulting on the content, and the museum itself is being being built in conjunction with the team behind Universal Studios and Jurassic Park Singapore.
Jamestown’s sense of humour is on the up and up. One of the must-see sights in town is the bronze ‘Scary Lucy’ statue of Ball that went viral last year for its zombie-like qualities. After an international outcry about her less-than-lifelike features (as well as a rush to snap photos with her), Scary Lucy is to be relocated — to pride of place in the Comedy Center.
“Do you think she’d be offended?” I ask the Center’s Steve Neilans, as we pose with Scary Lucy for the obligatory selfies.
“Oh no,” he says. “I think she’d find it funny.”
Not many comedians can go viral a quarter of a century after their death. The National Comedy Center has found a worthy home.