Free Speech and Comedy History at the National Comedy Center’s Grand Opening

The grand opening of the National Comedy Center was held August 1-5 in Jamestown, a small town in western New York just a short drive from Pittsburgh. The event coincided with the annual Lucille Ball Comedy Festival. Block parties, live podcast tapings, comedy shows at a small club decorated as Ricky Ricardo’s Tropicana Room, and live concerts featuring Lily Tomlin and Amy Schumer were among the many events booked for the four-day celebration.

At any point during the long weekend, a festival goer could walk in to a small corner space called the Podcast Lounge and watch Judy Gold interview Laraine Newman for her podcast “Kill Me Now”, or see Kelly Carlin along with comedian Paul Provenza interview her very stoned and funny uncle Pat Carlin for the National Comedy Center’s official podcast. They could go to the tiny Tropicana Room late at night and watch comics do a “Set List Live” show of improvised stand-up. They could turn around on a random street corner and see George Shapiro, executive producer of Seinfeld and Andy Kaufman’s manager. They could see Bridget Everett headline Amy Schumer’s own show and end her set by sitting on a guy’s face.

photo by Steve Neilans, Marketing and Communications, National Comedy Center

At a panel discussion at the Robert H. Jackson Center entitled “Comedy and the First Amendment”, Lewis Black is getting laughs.

The topic is the obscenity trials of Lenny Bruce in the early 1960s. Bruce was arrested and charged with obscenity four times between 1961 and 1964 in San Francisco, West Hollywood, Chicago, and New York. The cops would go to Bruce’s gigs, jot down his jokes as he told them, and the prosecution would present that as evidence. As a result, juries heard Bruce’s jokes without context.

“Lenny gets nailed because the cop reads his jokes,” says Lewis Black. “Watch people do ‘comedy karaoke’ at the National Comedy Center and just destroy material. And these are people who love those comics. You got cops who arrested this guy and want him nailed, so they’re reading it bub-a-bah bub-a-bub.”

Illustrating his point, it’s just not as funny reading the above text as it is seeing Black perform it. The signature Lewis Black shouting, the pointing, the timing, the decades of experience as a comedic craftsman has the audience howling.

CNN’s Stephen Morrison moderated the panel which also featured First Amendment lawyer Paul Cambria, famous for representing Larry Flynt in the Hustler obscenity trial, and Lenny’s daughter Kitty Bruce, founder of the Lenny Bruce Memorial Foundation, which provides financial aid for treatment to those suffering from drug addiction.

Cambria spoke about the legal history of free speech:

“There are always those puritans that are in power, and they are the ones who are responsible for the oppression of free speech. They are the ‘holier-than-thous.’ For the average adult, [the attitude is] ‘I allow you to be different from me’. For us, that’s the essence of the First Amendment: difference. Does the average adult find this [media] acceptable for another adult? And if the answer is ‘Yes’, the law goes away. The law is pushed back. Let us be free, let us be adults, let us have differences of opinion.”

Kitty Bruce spoke about the harassment her father faced from the police and legal system, up to the time of his death at the age of 40.

“He gets convicted of three counts, and for each count he gets four months in the workhouse. And he’s fighting not to get locked up. During this time, he overdoses and he dies. In the same state that brought charges against him, in 2003, Governor Pataki pardoned my father. And that pardon is in the National Comedy Center. So he’s still talking, and he’s still here, and in the end, they still can’t shut him up.”

Because of boundary-pushers like Lenny Bruce and George Carlin (also arrested in 1972 and charged with obscenity after a performance in Milwaukee), comedians no longer face a prison sentence for dirty jokes, publishers can sell a book filled with poems referencing sex and not be arrested for it like Lawrence Ferlinghetti was for publishing Allen Ginsberg’s Howl in 1956, and American adults can watch porn on the internet that makes Hustler look like a ladies’ underwear ad from the 1800s.

The headliner of the four day event was the National Comedy Center itself, a 37,000-square-foot space made up of a newly constructed building connected to Jamestown’s old train station. The NCC experience is very high-tech and interactive, more like a Carnegie Science Center of comedy rather than a comedy “hall of fame”.

Kelly Carlin, who donated a massive amount of her father George Carlin’s stuff to the center and was deeply involved in its creation, was adamant about this point. “It is NOT a comedy hall of fame. UGH. It is called the National Comedy Center. We all hate the notion of hall of fame places.”

Comedy artifacts are on display, like Joan Rivers’ gown, Andy Kaufman’s Elvis jacket, and Rodney Dangerfield’s black bag full of set lists, but it’s also a place where visitors can understand the comedy craft while studying its history in over 50 engaging, interactive exhibits. We spent hours there and didn’t come close to seeing everything.

The George Carlin exhibit is the crown jewel of the center. It consists of thousands of his personal files, which he obsessively categorized and sub-categorized. Using a touch-screen, the visitor can see how Carlin’s legendary stand up shows were created from scratch, using newspaper clippings with paragraphs circled, ads cut out from magazines with hand-written comments, thoughts jotted down onto scraps of paper and placed into zip lock bags, then organized into file folders labeled with subjects such as “religion”, “America”, “race”, “filth” and “fart jokes”.

Other exhibits include:

–          The Hologram Theater, where the creepy e-ghost of Jim Gaffigan takes the visitor through his personal development as a stand up comic

–          Laugh Battle, where the object is to make your opponent laugh by telling a joke through a face recognition system that detects smiles

–          Benches with built in whoopee cushions that make loud fart noises through a speaker

–          A game where the object is hit the right sound effect at the right time while watching a scene from the Three Stooges

–          The aforementioned comedy karaoke, where you pick a joke from a famous comedian and read it from a teleprompter on stage (I picked Mitch Hedberg’s bit, “Dufrane party of two”, and bombed)

Another highlight is the Blue Room, dedicated to “blue” or vulgar comedy. After taking an elevator down a floor, visitors are greeted by a trigger warning to ward off young children and sensitive adults who might be permanently harmed. As the visitors enter through the doors, they are greeted by George Carlin’s infamous “seven dirty words”, very large and prominent and in many different languages. The Lenny Bruce exhibit is there where it belongs, as well as videos about Richard Pryor’s career, and little doors in a wall where, when opened, reveal dirty jokes and some of R. Crumb’s most pornographic work.

Fifty two years after Lenny Bruce’s death, entertainers can’t be arrested for blue comedy. They can only lose multi-million dollar contracts or their entire careers. Recently, movie producer James Gunn fired by Disney, the company that makes children’s movies with subliminal cartoon penises, after a fake outrage campaign orchestrated by a right wing Youtuber dug up old pedo jokes on his Twitter account. Helen Crimmins, the wife of the late comedy pioneer and anti-child porn crusader Barry Crimmins, defended Gunn, saying in an Instagram post “Barry would have fully supported James Gunn. He would have thought his jokes were terrible but he would have known they were exactly that; jokes.”

In 2011, Gilbert Gottfried was fired from a lucrative job as a duck for making jokes about the tsunami that hit Japan that year. As a result, long-time fans of Gottfried wondered, “Why did Aflac fire him for those jokes? Were they unaware of his previous material?”

Our bizarre, disorienting media culture blurs the line between entertainment and reality, between jokes and hate speech, between journalism and propaganda, between pushing the boundaries out to allow for more freedom of expression and pushing them back in to suppress voices that make the suppressors uncomfortable.

Now could be the perfect time for an education in comedy history and appreciation of comedy as an art form with a unique power to stitch societal wounds.

“The world needs to laugh,” says Kelly Carlin. “And most importantly, we need to learn to laugh together.”

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