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Immersive Exhibits, Festivals Propel Comedy Center Through 5 years

From left National Comedy Center Executive Director and Caroline Hirsch cut the ribbon on Carolines Exhibit. P-J photo by Michael Zabrodsky

What a difference five years makes.

The National Comedy Center has ushered in many visitors, and many celebrities through its doors, and is the go-to place for comedy.

And in 2023, as NCC celebrates, and reflects on its five-year anniversary, it keeps attracting guests and celebrities with its interactive exhibits.

Because they flow into one another, and to give the exhibits their due time, be prepared to spend a lot of time at the NCC because you will need it. According to Executive Director Journey Gunderson, that was intentional.

“You want it to feel fluid,” she said.

The Carolines exhibit features iconic artifacts, including the stage backdrop bearing the world-renowned harlequin Carolines logo, showroom curtains and signage, entry doors and “barfly” stools. P-J photo by Michael Zabrodsky

With the amount of information one can gather during a session, no trip to the NCC is the same. Some of the highlights include the immersive Johnny Carson exhibit that opened in 2022, the Carl Reiner: Keep Laughing exhibit that also opened in 2022, the Joan Rivers exhibit that will debut in 2025, and the recently-opened Carolines exhibit.

“The Johnny Carson: The Immersive Experience is presented in a theater environment where visitors are enveloped in the story. It takes you on a journey through the legacy of Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show,” Gunderson said in 2022.

The exhibit is designed to fully immerse visitors into Johnny Carson’s rich history on The Tonight Show. Gunderson said visitors will be surrounded by storytelling, media and sound. The exhibit features Jimmy Fallon as the hologram host, presenting visitors with a unique experience.

“We actually captured Jimmy Fallon in New York at 30 Rock and filmed him in his studio to be the hologram host specifically for Jamestown’s National Comedy Center exhibit. There’s really no better host for this than the current host of The Tonight Show reflecting on the man who really set the standard for late night,” Gunderson also said in 2022

In addition to Jimmy Fallon acting as the exhibit’s hologram host, the National Comedy Center also collaborated with other comedians and individuals who were significantly impacted by Carson. The comedy center conducted original interviews for the exhibit with Steve Martin, Martin Short, Bette Midler, George Wallace, Byron Allen, Jay Leno and others. The museum’s exhibit feature’s artifacts from The Tonight Show, including the iconic rainbow curtain that appeared on The Tonight show between 1969 and 1987.

Reiner served on the center’s advisory board until his death in June 2020. Reiner, who was an actor, director, screenwriter and stand-up comedian who won 11 Emmy awards and a Grammy award.

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“Carl Reiner’s more than seven decades in comedy have not only been remarkable for their consistency but for their longevity and their ability to inspire legions of artists for generations to come. Carl Reiner’s gift to us all is comedy that is witty, intelligent, lighthearted and ultimately very human,” Gunderson said in 2022.

Located within the center’s state-of-the-art museum, the new Carolines exhibition celebrates the 40-year legacy of the iconic Times Square comedy venue — one of the world’s most important venues for showcasing the art of stand-up comedy, an NCC statement said. The Carolines exhibit features iconic artifacts, including the stage backdrop bearing the world-renowned harlequin Carolines logo, showroom curtains and signage, entry doors and “barfly” stools.

Carolines showcased the world’s greatest comedic talent — first in Chelsea and later at the South Street Seaport, before calling Times Square home in 1992 — playing an integral role in the resurgence of the Times Square district, the NCC release said.

“Caroline knew how to spot talent and she did it with the spirit of inclusitivity. It was about the work and it was about the art,” Gunderson said during a ribbon-cutting ceremony to open a new exhibit honoring the legendary New York City comedy club.

Carolines first opened as a small cabaret club in the New York’s Chelsea neighborhood in 1982. Hirsch, a lifelong comedy fan, soon began booking comedians in her room. The comedy acts were a tremendous success, and it wasn’t long before Carolines became a full-fledged comedy club. As the popularity of stand-up surged throughout the 1980s, so did the popularity of Carolines, which was becoming the place to see live comedy in New York City, the statement noted.

And Joan Rivers’ 65,000 jokes will be arriving to be part of her exhibit at NCC.

“Talk about comedy’s crown jewel, the joke file is somewhat legendary. And a lot of people saw it during the documentary that came out about Joan. And that relationship, of course, dates back to her headlining the 100th Birthday Comedy Festival of Lucille Ball here in Jamestown. And so that’s when I met Joan,” Gunderson said.

The NCC stated that on the 90th birthday of Rivers, her daughter Melissa Rivers announced that the National Comedy Center will become the home of Joan Rivers’ career archive including a file cabinet containing over 65,000 original jokes spanning from the start of her career in the 1950s to 2014 when she passed away.

“And so the cards will make their way to the comedy center over the course of the next six months so that we can start so that we can start designing and building the interactive but the the thing that’s so cool about this is that one it gets it gives us a way to really celebrate one of the best to ever do stand up — Joan Rivers — and also it’s an interesting time capsule of jokes written from the 1950s through 2014. I think most people, most casual comedy consumers, would not fathom that a comedian would write 65,000 jokes,” Gunderson added.

Highlights from the collection include Rivers’ earliest hand-written jokes, personally compiled scrapbooks, never-before-heard autobiographical audio recordings, hundreds of pre-show preparatory notes, intimate correspondence with peers in entertainment, the guest books from her storied run as host of “The Late Show with Joan Rivers,” and a selection of the iconic gowns, boas, and jewelry that defined her inimitable style. Gunderson said she was hard working and talented.

“She was a craftswoman,” Gunderson said. “You see Joan’s process, you see her work ethic, and the fact that she had them categorized and cross referenced. This was a working file database of jokes for her,” Gunderson noted.

If the exhibits aren’t enough to draw people to the center, then there is The Lucille Ball Festival of Comedy. This year the headline acts were Gabriel “Fluffy” Iglesias and Taylor Tomlinson.

In other years, top headliners have included Lewis Black, Amy Schumer, Sebastian Maniscalco, Jerry Seinfeld, David Spade, Kevin Nealon, Rob Schneider, Margaret Cho and Jeff Foxworthy.

Cho said comedy promotes optimism.

“It’s a different way of looking at things,” she said, “so I think it gives people a lot of hope. It shifts perspective. And I think that’s what’s really needed. We need people who think a little bit differently. And that really, I think, promotes optimism. Comedians are really there to instigate hope or hopefulness,” she said in 2022, prior to her festival performance.

Cho said she loves the lifestyle of comedy and most of her friends are comedians, so much of her social life centers around comedy. When performing she thinks of how she can mesh her personal views and her personal issues in life with a kind of comedy that audience members can respond to in the same way they do with issues she has talked about.

For Foxworthy, he views being a comedian as a gift.

“I just view it as a gift,” the comedian said in 2022, also prior to his performance at the festival. “You know, the same way that some people are, are great at nursing or some people are really good at like masonry or so it’s, it’s just a gift.”

And Foxworthy noted that there should be a place like the National Comedy Center.

“I’m just thrilled there’s a comedy center somewhere. I know I’m a little biased, but there ought to be one. I think it’s very cool that there actually is a place that acknowledges this about comedy,” he said of NCC. “I’ve been doing this a long time, but that was kind of the, one in my mind that’s circled. I’m like, this was special. This one’s different. Because you’re going to a place where people recognize and appreciate the art form,” he said in 2022.

NCC is located at 203 W. Second St. For more information, visit comedycenter.org.

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