Journey Gunderson was on the phone in her second-story office at the Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Museum & Center for Comedy in Jamestown. Kelly Carlin, daughter of the late and legendary comedian George Carlin, was on the line.
Carlin had a decision, one that was about to add serious comedic street cred to Gunderson’s $50 million mission: Transforming Jamestown into a center of comedy.
Carlin, whose dad died nearly eight years ago, agreed to donate what she calls his “stuff” – a comedic treasure trove of notes, videos, letters, clothing and more – to the National Comedy Center, which is under construction now in the 31,000-person city.
When it opens, which may be as soon as late 2017, the center will have a permanent exhibit dedicated to Carlin and also have his archives available for academic research.
“It feels surreal but also like we’re up for the task,” said Gunderson, executive director of the Lucy Desi Center, a longstanding institution in Jamestown, and the future National Comedy Center.
Carlin’s commitment call to Gunderson came in December, but news of it wasn’t made public until this week in New York City. It’s a significant step for the comedy center. As the hometown of Lucille Ball, Jamestown’s comedic roots are unquestioned. But building a true, viable national center for the comedic arts requires more than that.
Jamestown needed to convince other legendary comedians – or, in this case, their heirs – to support the vision. The comedy center plans call for a facility that is more than a museum. It’s also designed to be a place for comedic performance, study and research, with more than 70 exhibits and many high-tech, interactive elements.
“I have been waiting a while to have a place for my father’s archives to be seen and heard and have the fans be able to have an experience with them,” Carlin said. “I was convinced that this is the right place.”
It took a long time to find it.
Carlin has spent eight years trying to find the right home for her dad’s materials. In a phone interview with The News, she described multiple lunch meetings with people promising to start comedy halls of fame in places like Los Angeles, New York or Florida.
“Nothing had ever come from any of these things,” she said.
Then in 2014, Carlin’s neighbor in Los Angeles, David Weiss, approached her. Weiss is an exhibit producer and was hired to work on plans for the National Comedy Center. Weiss wondered if Carlin would consider making the donation to Jamestown.
After all her misfired meetings, Carlin’s instinctive reaction was no.
“I basically said to him, ‘This is all very interesting and well and good, but I’ll believe it when I see it,’ ” Carlin said. “ ‘I don’t really believe any of this is going to happen.’ ”
Then she added a key line: “But keep in touch.”
That’s what the comedy center officials did. Gunderson booked Carlin to perform her one-woman show at the annual Lucy Fest in August 2015. That gave Gunderson and the center’s board chairman, Tom Benson, a chance to connect with Carlin directly – something they’ve done with virtually every comedian booked by the center for the last five years, since Gunderson was hired and the comedy center plans gained momentum.
The timing was good: Carlin’s visit to Jamestown in August coincided with the groundbreaking for the center, which is being built in and around a historic former train station on West Second Street in Jamestown. Most of the $50 million cost for the project has been secured, largely through commitments from foundations. The state was kicking in money – $3.5 million to date – and plans for the center encompass virtually all genres of comedy, from stand-up to improv to late-night.
Carlin, whose dad was known for his raw material, appreciated that the rougher edges of the artform are going to be presented authentically.
“Their take on comedy and how they want to represent it is not corny or Disney-fied or vanilla pudding-ed in any way,” Carlin said. “They really get it.”
And she took to the business-like approach of Gunderson, a Chautauqua County native who is a former executive with the National Women’s Sports Foundation in New York, and the board chair Benson, a successful Jamestown businessman.
“I saw there were some serious people involved,” Carlin said. “I met Journey and got to look her in the eye and really understand who she is and her amazing vision, and tenacity with all of this, and understood the commitment of New York State and the philanthropy in the region, and saw it was a real viable thing.”
Carlin says she’ll be an ambassador for the comedy center within the entertainment industry. She’s already gotten started: In January, when Gunderson visited Carlin in Los Angeles to look through the archives, they also had a two-and-a-half-hour lunch with actor Dan Aykroyd, who two years ago endorsed the comedy center plans in an interview with The News.
“The body of what will be housed there will take care of the appeal and the marketability of it,” Aykroyd said in March 2014. “I think a center of comedy will be a natural magnet to people.”
Gunderson also met in L.A. with actor Jim Belushi, who gave her insight into the mindset of comedians. They’re not craving celebrity, Gunderson said, recalling her conversation with Belushi. Rather, they are “chasing the magic” – the feeling comedians get when making a crowd laugh.
“It was important context,” Gunderson said. “They’re all chasing the magic, and that’s part of the reason why a standard artifact museum has never been done in comedy. It’s about more than that for them.”
That’s why the center’s interactive components are vital for industry credibility. Through high-tech exhibits that are currently being designed, visitors will be able to take the stage as a stand-up and create their own comedy.
The center also will offer comedy education and training, a concept that especially appealed to Aykroyd who, while growing up in Canada, trained in improvisational comedy in Ottawa and Toronto’s Second City theater before landing his breakout role on “Saturday Night Live.”
“Wherever these programs are available and properly exploited,” he told The News in that 2014 interview, “people are going to show up,”
The signs are good: Aykroyd is supportive. Belushi’s direction was helpful. Other comics are encouraging, too. A noted comedy author and expert, Kliph Nesteroff, has agreed to serve as chief curator of the center’s museum components. Gunderson says the “lion’s share” of the funding is in place. Construction is underway.
All of that’s important. But none of it means much without tangible commitments from people like Carlin.
“The Carlin archive is extremely significant not just because of George Carlin being one of the most influential stand-up comedians of all time, but also its timing,” Gunderson said. “We knew from the start that doing this with credibility and authenticity would be key, even if we raised all of the money and hired all the best designers. This Carlin donation really helps solidify our legitimacy for the role we want to play in comedy.”