A Seriously Funny Place

By Liz Campbell

If laughter is the best medicine, Jamestown, NY is the place to go for large doses of it. This pretty town in Upstate New York is home to two museums that will make you laugh – and laugh – and laugh! They will also give you lots of opportunities to wallow in a giant lagoon of nostalgia. I guarantee you’ll find yourself saying, “I remember that one!”

I know everyone remembers Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. This pair brought hilarity into our homes weekly for six years (1951-1957), and was for several of those years, the top rated show in America. The Lucille Ball/Desi Arnaz Museum offers a glimpse into the early years of both Lucy (who grew up here in Upstate New York) and Desi (whose mother was heiress to the Bacardi Rum family wealth in Cuba). But it’s their partnership which made them irresistible.

While Lucy provided the craziness, Desi’s role as straight man and his hilarious tirades in Spanish sent us giggling. Now that I’ve learned some Spanish, I still don’t understand what he’s saying – but maybe that’s the point!

Who could forget classics like Lucy stomping on grapes in Italy, or Lucy and Ethel working the line at a chocolate plant? Say ‘Vitameatavegemin’ and nearly everyone over 50 who grew up in North America will know exactly what you’re talking about. In fact, at this museum, you can have your picture taken on the Vitameatavegemin set and sell the foul tasting stuff yourself.

“I Love Lucy” re-runs have continued to draw audiences over many decades. As a child, I looked forward to every show, but what’s remarkable is that my grandchildren are still watching it. The humour is timeless – part slapstick, part over-the-top goofy but completely endearing.

But I was surprised to learn here that Lucy and Desi broke a lot of ground in the early years of television. Theirs was the first show to feature an interracial couple (white and Hispanic) and the first show to feature a pregnant woman playing a pregnant woman. Remember that this was a time when the word pregnant was verboten – Lucy was ‘expecting’ or in Desi-speak – ‘spectin’! They even had twin beds in the bedroom so you wouldn’t be tempted to speculate as to how Lucy came to be ‘spectin’!

The museum includes Desilu Studios, with models of the original set for Lucy and Desi’s apartment at 623 East 168th St. in New York City (a purely fictitious address which would actually be in the middle of the East River).  The set is so familiar, it’s a bit spooky.  You almost expect Desi to open the door and walk in, announcing, “Lucy, I’m home.”

Desilu Studios, their joint company, was ground breaking too. They produced a host of extraordinary television programs, some of which are also still in re-runs today. “Star Trek”, “Mission Impossible”, “Dick Van Dyke”, “Andy Griffith”, “My Three Sons”, and “The Untouchables” were just a few of the shows filmed at Desilu Studios.

Just down the road, there’s a second museum. The recently opened National Comedy Center (NCC) was Lucy’s dream. Indeed, her daughter Lucie Arnaz is on the advisory board. Located in the gorgeous old Art Deco railroad station, it offers 40,000 square feet filled with more than 50 interactive exhibits that will really get the chuckles rolling. Indeed, Condé Nast called it ‘one of the best museums in America’.

A nonprofit institution celebrating comedy’s great minds and unique voices, NCC took seven years and some $50m to bring to fruition. An extraordinary collection of artifacts and memorabilia is blended with modern technology creating an opportunity to take an unprecedented, behind-the-scenes look at the history and the art of comedy, from earliest vaudeville to the latest viral memes.

As soon as you get your RFID wristband, you can begin to create your own personal humour profile. Your photos and interactions are sent to your home email to save and enjoy again.

There’s something for every age, and most of it is completely interactive. For example, pick an electronic prop and place it on one of the large foozball style tables to watch a snippet of comedy using that prop. I watched a young boy place a banana peel prop on the table. We both giggled as we watched someone slipping on one pop onto the table screen.

It’s hard to figure out what to see and do next – educational games, silly competitions, a chance to try cartooning or comedy writing. Take the mike at a club and do live stand-up, or work alongside Lucy stomping grapes or wrapping chocolates. Your friends and family can watch you live or on video, and if they’re like mine, they will howl with laughter. Hmmm…maybe I missed my calling?

The displays are compelling – everything from old scripts and cartoons to rare artifacts you will recognize immediately. My favourites included Archie Bunker’s old plaid jacket, the famous puffy shirt from “Seinfeld”, and Rose Marie’s pink suit which she wore as Sally Rogers on the “Dick Van Dyke Show”. There are even original hand-written notes by stars like Joan Rivers and George Carlin. Indeed, this museum is home to a 25,000-piece Carlin archive.

And when you need a break, there’s a movie theatre showing classic clips with celebrity commentary. Spoiler alert: you will laugh.

Downstairs, the RFID bracelet allows adults into the Blue Room, where the humour is uncensored. It addresses the history of censorship and even covers the seven dirty words which – due to censorship – I can’t name!

I had heard of Lenny Bruce, but in 1961 was probably too young to understand the background of the comedian’s arrest on charges of obscenity. In the Blue Room, I watched a short film about its history, and listened to comedians like Richard Pryor talk about how Bruce broke ground for future stand-up comics.

After a day of joy that went from mild giggles to outright, side-splitting laughter, I have only one recommendation. You must go to Jamestown, NY.  Seriously,  I’m not joking!

Planning your trip:

Jamestown is about a 75-minute drive from Buffalo, making it a great destination for a weekend getaway.

To add to the fun, stay at the Chautauqua Harbour Hotel, overlooking the lovely Chautauqua Lake, and just a stone’s throw from the famous pair of Lucy sculptures. ‘Ugly Lucy’ (which drew nationwide criticism when it was first erected) looks like an all-in wrestler in drag. ‘Pretty Lucy’ was subsequently added a few metres away, and looks much more like the Lucille Ball we all loved. The Chautauqua Harbour Hotel offers a Hilarious Getaway Package. It includes double accommodation; two tickets to The National Comedy Center and Lucy/Desi Museums; a $30 meal voucher to Lakehouse Tap and Grill and a gift bag which includes Groucho Marx glasses. Wear the Groucho glasses to dinner for a complimentary dessert! They aren’t joking either.