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From pipe dream to game-changer: Jamestown's National Comedy Center is days from reality

JAMESTOWN – Journey Gunderson is in the final days of an eight-year quest that has evoked laughter (not always the variety it’s supposed to) and tears (mostly joyful, but sometimes the other kind).

This quest has cost tens of millions of dollars and, the way it’s felt lately, even more hours.

“I’ve been sleeping three hours a night,” said Gunderson, with nary a trace of complaint or humor. She needs every minute of those other 21 hours. That’s just fact.

Sound stressful? Something this big is supposed to be. On Aug. 1, the techie, glitzy and celebrity-backed National Comedy Center opens in Jamestown with a five-day festival. Dozens of comedy luminaries and Hollywood power players, including celebrities such as Amy Schumer, Lily Tomlin and Dan Aykroyd, will show up in the small Chautauqua County city.

Gunderson, the organization's 35-year-old executive director, has been promoting and building this project since 2010. “She has been the face of this in Hollywood,” said Tom Benson, the nonprofit National Comedy Center board chairman.

While Gunderson recruited scores of comedians and showbiz types to support the concept of an institution that celebrates comedy as a serious art form, Benson took the lead on weaving an intricate tapestry of government and foundation dollars that funded the $30 million center with zero permanent debt.

During a late July interview in her Jamestown office, Gunderson acknowledged the project has always “felt very vulnerable.” It's been eight years of delicately navigating a maze of financial, governmental and pop-culture politics. Funding from one entity was often contingent on support from another. The endorsement of comedians gave the project legitimacy — meaning a faux pas within that community could have killed it.

“I have always had a level of skepticism about our ability to pull this off,” Gunderson said, “but I think anything other than that would have been naive.”

Those doubts drove her, and it worked: Construction began two and a half years ago. The final funding fell in place in spring 2017. Since then, it's been a race to be ready for this week.

“Today it feels pretty strong,” Gunderson said, “and it’s just about making sure the reviews are good.”

Jasmine Pastorchik left, and Jessica Ekstrom use a dunce hat prop on a video screen at the National Comedy Center to learn about the hat's role in the history of comedy. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

A comedy nirvana

To generate buzz, Gunderson has been bringing celebrities and media through the National Comedy Center, even as the final exhibits were being installed. The exterior of the center has large flat screens and an outdoor patio with colorful chairs and tables. Behind the complex is a green space called Comedy Center Park and a walkway along the Chadakoin River.

Visitors begin their tour by receiving a wristband embedded with a radio frequency ID chip and stopping at a console to enter their comedy favorites.

On a recent tour, the comedian Laraine Newman entered names ranging from Moms Mabley to her fellow “Saturday Night Live” alumnus Martin Short. The wristband chip records those preferences, and much of the tour is personalized as visitors proceed through an old utilities building and former train station, both of which have been retrofitted as part of the project. (An additional $20 million was used for the historic train station and the outdoor work.)

The center has the equivalent of 40 full-time employees, many of whom were hired last month and have been trained on how to guide visitors through the center, which features flashy, interactive touchscreens. One of those is the Comedy Continuum, where visitors can see how their preferred comedians are connected to others. Newman, for example, may have seen her own image pop up on the panoramic touchscreen, because she shares that “SNL” connection with Short.

The center also includes a trove of artifacts, highlighted by the brainstorm notes and draft materials of late stand-up legend George Carlin.

“I want scholars to be in there and studying this art form,” said Kelly Carlin, who donated her dad's archives, “and being able to look at my father’s papers and the way he organized his material.”

The suit that was worn by comedian Harold Ramis in the movie "Ghostbusters" is on display at the National Comedy Center. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Glass cases display Harold Ramis’ Ghostbusters costume, Jerry Seinfeld’s ruffle shirt, a Red Skelton button-down and a polka-dot dress that belonged to the late Lucille Ball, who grew up near Jamestown. Visitors can pick up a comedy prop – like a frying pan – and place it on a console where they’ll see a movie or TV clip of that item being used. There's a comedy karaoke stage, where the daring can attempt stand-up, and a discreetly separate “Blue Room” that examines R-rated material.

There’s even a farting bench — the equivalent of an electronic whoopee cushion.

“It felt like nirvana,” said Newman, speaking not of the flatulent seat, but the comedy center itself. In fact, she teared up at the experience and is planning to donate costumes and early “SNL” scripts. “I could never have conceived of something like this, I guess because comedy has never really been seen as something to be treated in this manner,” said Newman, who joined the center’s industry advisory board.

That group also includes Jim Gaffigan, who "greets" visitors in a hologram theater shortly after they enter the center, as well as Carl Reiner, Lewis Black, Robert Klein, Paula Poundstone and Kelly Carlin, among others.

Among the artifacts displayed at the National Comedy Center are these jokes written in longhand by Rodney Dangerfield. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Alan Zweibel, one of the original “SNL” writers, agreed to join the advisory board once he was convinced that the comedy center’s approach was the right one. “It’s a celebration of the art of comedy, yet it’s not a comedy hall of fame,” said Zweibel, whose collaborators have included Gilda Radner, Billy Crystal and Dave Barry. “I was fearful of that, because (a hall of fame) is something that’s elitist and debatable. ...

"It seems to be without judgment. It seems to let the comedy, no matter what form it is, stand on its own to be viewed or listened to, and enjoyed."

Lucy would have loved that.

Celebrating comedy — the way Lucy wanted

The National Comedy Center is rooted in the wishes of Lucille Ball, the legendary “I Love Lucy” actress who grew up outside Jamestown. Late in her life, Ball, who died in 1989, granted permission for Jamestown to celebrate her legacy with an institution and a festival. But she wanted something that celebrated the art of comedy — not just her.

That led to the creation of the Lucille Ball Desi Arnaz Center, named for Ball and her television (and real-life) husband. The center’s annual festival never fully blossomed into a celebration of the art form. That frustrated Ball’s daughter, Lucie Arnaz, and son, Desi Arnaz. They ultimately left the Lucy Desi Center’s board of directors, which shook organizers and funders and triggered a change.

At the urging of foundation officials, Tom Benson joined the board in 2010. The headliner of that summer’s festival was a comedian named “Crazy Legs” Fonseca. By Benson’s recollection, five tickets had been sold for the show at Jamestown’s Reg Lenna Center for the Arts. Benson and others stood outside the theater, giving away tickets and ending up with a few dozen people in the seats.

“It was a disaster,” said Benson, who is 63. “Embarrassing. It was like, ‘What the hell? This is crazy. What are we doing with this?’ ” The next week, Benson said, “We met as a board and said, ‘OK. On the heels of that resounding success, we’re going to build this world-class attraction in Jamestown, New York.’ ”

The Lucy Desi Museum board evolved into the National Comedy Center board and began making the plans that are coming to fruition this week. For the position of executive director, they hired their then-27-year-old web and media consultant, Journey Gunderson, who grew up in nearby Bemus Point and worked for the Women’s Sports Foundation in New York City.

Tom Benson leads the nonprofit that envisioned the National Comedy Center and hired Journey Gunderson eight years ago to build and run it. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

For most of the next eight years, Benson and Gunderson pitched the project to anyone who could help. They made trips to New York and Los Angeles. They made presentations to foundations, government officials, media and community groups, often invoking a reference to the small-town home of the Baseball Hall of Fame by pointing out that Jamestown could become “the Cooperstown of Comedy.”

“People weren’t shy about laughing in your face,” Benson said.

But neither of them stopped. The center commissioned a feasibility study and generated impressive projections: They expect 114,000 attendees annually and a $23 million economic impact.

Rep. Tom Reed, a Republican from Corning whose district includes Jamestown, acknowledged that it’s common for people to approach his office with well-intentioned “pipe dream” ideas.

But the Jamestown plans impressed Reed, who along with Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer, helped the National Comedy Center land $8 million in federal new markets tax credit equity, a program that focuses on economically distressed areas. Jamestown qualifies as that: The blue-collar city, which has a population of just under 30,000 and is located 75 miles south of Buffalo, has long suffered from loss of industry. “This is a game-changer,” Reed said.

A Department of Commerce grant kicked in another $1.6 million, several private foundations contributed just over $11.5 million, and New York State added nearly $9 million.

“Jamestown always had such great assets,” said Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, citing the city’s architecture, proximity to water, and the nearby Chautauqua Institution and the Robert H. Jackson Center, named for the late Supreme Court justice.

“We were looking for ways to pull it all together and put Jamestown on the map with a ‘wow’ factor.”

Kelly Carlin, pictured in Jamestown in August 2017, donated her father George Carlin's papers to the National Comedy Center. (Mark Mulville/News file photo)

The ride

On a recent afternoon, Gunderson gathered a half-dozen staffers to parse out details for opening week. The schedule includes an Aug. 1 stand-up showcase; a sold-out Aug. 2 “Saturday Night Live” talk with Aykroyd, Newman and Zweibel; a pair of Aug. 3 shows with Amy Schumer; and a sold-out Aug. 4 performance by Tomlin. There’s also an Aug. 4 concert by Lucie Arnaz, who long ago lent her support to the center, and an array of comedy performances, talks and Lucy-focused activities.

“One thing we want to pin down is that Aykroyd motorcycle event,” Gunderson told her staff. Aykroyd, a longtime supporter of the comedy center, is donating the Harley Davidson bike he used to ride to NBC's “SNL” studios in the mid-1970s. The motorcycle event is slated for 6 p.m. Friday, Aug. 3, during a block party in front of the center before Amy Schumer’s show at the adjacent Northwest Arena.

Gunderson posed questions to her staff: Should Aykroyd ride the bike down a street? The consensus was yes. They also discussed Schumer’s availability, Tomlin’s schedule and the logistics for several memorabilia donations. Gunderson mentioned a couple of A-list comedians who were rumored to be considering coming to Jamestown. What could be done to encourage those celebrities to show?

Gunderson masked it, but as she plowed through the details, a snag from the day before was nagging her. Gunderson had given three back-to-back tours. The first was to a major media outlet. The second was for the comic Lewis Black, who was appearing the next night on the “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” and flew in from New York City to experience the center before talking about it on national television. The third was with another globally recognized media outlet.

Tour one was golden: The visiting journalist seemed impressed.

Tour two, same thing: Black loved it. “It’s like the Library of Congress for comedians,” he told The News later.

Tour three? The journalist was excited about a specific exhibit that wasn’t yet finished and seemed disappointed when Gunderson told him it wasn't ready.

These are the stinging moments: The ones in which she can't deliver. After eight years of chasing the impossible – and ultimately making it possible – Gunderson has honed a keen sense of skepticism. “All along the way, I have felt like the rug could be pulled out from under us at any moment,” she said.

Logically, Gunderson knows the red carpet she’s rolling out in Jamestown is secure. The facility is built. The comedy community has embraced it. “Every time I email Journey about something,” said Kelly Carlin, “I always end with, ‘You’re a rock star! You did it!’”

But she's a rock star working 21-hour days and trying to put on a perfect show. Gunderson tried hard to salvage that third tour, but she couldn't tell if she succeeded. She knows she is over-analyzing this, but likens it to “a comedian going in front of a crowd and starting to bomb.”

“It was hard to recover from,” Gunderson said, her eyes moistening and voice cracking to a whisper, but she did recover. It came late at night, when she got home, right on the cusp of the 22nd hour of her day. Gunderson’s husband, Jason Toczydlowski, asked, “How was your day?” As they tucked in their sons Oskar, 3, and August, 1, she filled him in. And she started to prioritize her feelings.

“Lewis Black was blown away,” Gunderson told her husband. “I would take that any day of the week, forever.”

*Related:
- National Comedy Center earns "national" distinction
- More from O'Shei: Jamestown wants to be the Cooperstown of Comedy
- Gift of George Carlin's archives gives comedy center a major boost

Email: toshei@buffnews.com

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