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Comedy Is on Display in Chautauqua, New York

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By Fyllis Hockman

How many places do you walk into laughing? You can't help it at the National Comedy Center in Chautauqua, New York, which we visited as part of an Empire State Road Trip in upstate New York.

Flashes of comedic movies, TV shows and stand-ups assault your inner comedian as you enter the National Comedy Center, and you feel one with a larger-than-life Rodney Dangerfield. Then a sign comes on reminding you to wash your hands -- and you stop laughing -- but just for a moment. Instead of the pre-COVID wristband, you get a card that provides interactive capability during the virus and a stylus allowing you to touch screens. And you allow yourself to start laughing again.

The National Comedy Center began as a long-ago vision of the legendary Lucille Ball -- a home-grown Jamestown girl (the small town adjacent to Chautauqua), she was born, bred and buried here - for her hometown to become a destination for the celebration of comedy. Still, it didn't actually open until 2018. Her own much-older museum is just down the street --but more on that later.

First, I had to personalize my comedy experience by picking my favorite comedians, TV shows and films from Cary Grant to Stephen Colbert, "All in the Family" to "Modern Family," the Marx Brothers to "Bridesmaids." They lost me at podcasts, but it turns out my humor runs toward political satire -- wry, sophisticated and observational. My husband took issue with the sophisticated designation.

The museum emphasizes comedy as an art form and illustrates everything that goes into the craft of comedy, from inception to production to execution. A sample of Dangerfield's handwritten notes has him admonishing the audience: "What a crowd! What a crowd!" I didn't want to know that.

 

Joan Rivers had her own preparation notes: "17 Ways to Handle a Heckler." OK, so no taking any chances there. Lots of iconic outfits dot the museum, from Jerry Seinfeld's puffy shirt to Phyllis Diller's huge ball gown to Carol Burnett's wacky characters' fashion statements.

One exhibit is devoted to all things George Carlin, another to late-night hosts from Steve Allen to Seth Myers, and another to "When Harry Met Sally," highlighting two of the most memorable movie scenes ever.

At the stand-up comedy lounge I got to sit in to view some of my favorite comedians from my initial sense-of-humor profile. I actually looked around for a bartender to take my drink order. A different lounge presented clips from my favorite TV shows.

Passing from one exhibit to another takes you down a hallway of one-liners. At this point you just can't stop laughing, and you think you might never make it to the end. There's an academic exhibit that chronicles the history of comedy from the Greeks to Vaudeville to the Internet. Lest you find that a tad too serious, when you sit on the adjoining bench, what do you think happens? Yes, of course. The bench makes an embarrassing sound.

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