Limited Horizons

Several days ago, I wrote about the National Comedy Center and how I didn’t especially enjoy it. I’ve noticed a recent trend in conversations both on and offline that are reminiscent of the philosophy behind this museum.

The Comedy Center uses artificial intelligence to show visitors comedy they will find appealing based on their individual tastes. This is accomplished through a kiosk where visitors create a comedy ID by selecting the comics, actors, tv shows, movies, comic strips, etc. that the visitor enjoys.

Some of the choices seemed rather obscure to me. Some looked like things I might enjoy or want to learn about. Some of the older choices made me wonder how familiar the average guest is with their work. Would a young person enjoy Charlie Chaplin if they were exposed to his brand of entertainment? What trendy podcast might I enjoy if I ever heard it?

The point is that our tastes are developed based on what we believe is the best of what we already know. Unfortunately, we don’t know what we don’t know and, at a museum kiosk, may discount something we would enjoy because we aren’t familiar with it. This skews the formula used to entertain us.

Is this why I went to this museum? To see more of the same stuff I know I’ll like? I actually went hoping to expand my horizons and maybe find some new laughs rather than view a greatest hits of material already in my consciousness. The museum areas where I discovered new stuff were the ones where I didn’t scan my ID. Scanning that ID was a guarantee that I would be shown clips of things I already like.

Instead of expanding my horizons, it felt like this place limited mine.

It probably sounds like I’m picking on the Comedy Center and that’s not the intent. After all, it is a beautiful space with some great stuff and that embraces technology in a truly unique way. It would just be nice to see them help visitors embrace something new.

This isn’t the only place I’ve had these thoughts lately. I belong to a few book clubs on Facebook where I’m noticing a similar trend. Members will post requests for recommendations that are prefaced by a phrase like ” I only read historical fiction” or they only read a certain author or won’t read nonfiction at all. They read a book they liked and want to read another one just like it.

This always catches my eye because it’s so far removed from my own way of thinking. You bet I’ll obsess over the work of a single author if it’s good. However, I read a lot of other things too.

It’s wonderful to be passionate about something but life would be awfully dull if we just stuck with what we already know. Personally, I’m interested in most everything and don’t want to limit myself to just the comedians I already like or the books I’m sure will please.

Maybe I’m the weird one but it’s just such a big world out there – I can’t imagine not wanting to explore it.

What are your thoughts? I would love to hear them!

National Comedy Center

Jamestown, New York was my destination last month because of all the Lucille Ball stuff but there is a lot to see and do around the region. It’s a haven for winter sports and for folks who enjoy summer lake activities. There are breweries and vineyards, museums, an escape room and more.

For the last few years it has also been the home of the National Comedy Center. Back in the eighties, when the city approached Lucille Ball and asked how she wanted to be remembered, she suggested that the town become a destination for lovers of all comedy and not just her own.

The first order of business was to develop a museum, festival and other smaller attractions to get people coming here to celebrate her life’s work. In 2018 they finally opened the doors on her proposed celebration of all comedy in the form of the National Comedy Center.

It’s 37,000 square feet packed with countless interactive exhibits, some costume and artifact displays, and LOTS to see and do.

You start with a kiosk where you create a digital identity with your comedy likes and dislikes. You have a little digital thingamajig that you can clip to your jacket or belt loop that contains all your info. The idea is that when you arrive at certain places throughout the museum you scan that thing and the display will load content the computer thinks you’ll like based on your tastes. You can rate what you see too.

Since we are still in the midst of a pandemic, they give you a stylus for touching things. They also have plenty of hand sanitizer throughout the museum and employees are sanitizing the seats and other surfaces. They take your temperature at the door too.

Everything from early radio comedy sketches to late night television to sitcoms, stand up comics, internet memes and everything in between are represented here. They even have a room devoted to animation and comic strips. Do you still read the funny papers? I do!

There’s an area where you can generate memes and another where you can sit and watch Bob Hope give a USO show. There’s a film that addresses how truth has been stranger than fiction in American politics these last many years. It talks about how late night comedy shows became the gatekeepers for truth while the actual media often just reports what someone says even when it’s all lies or when they’re missing even the most flamboyant red flags imaginable.

My personal favorite area is set up with a retro theme of couches and many screens where you can watch longer clips from tv shows. This is one of those areas where they load shows based on audience taste. I sat on a couch to see clips from Roseanne, the Simpsons and a few others.

Another room is devoted to the archives and motivation behind George Carlin’s work. You can digitally rummage through his joke collection by topic and see notes written in his own hand.

I enjoyed the concept of this plaice but not necessarily the execution. To be honest, it felt like sensory overload. From any given place, you might hear a radio show from an overhead speaker, a tv show from another room and Fozzie Bear telling jokes. It’s hard to know where to focus your attention.

The things I enjoyed most were the areas that immerse the visitor in a topic. I loved sitting in a small theater and watching music videos of famous funny songs. Another corner with classic SNL clips was fantastic. Remember Chris Farley’s bit about living in a van down by the river?

They do display some original items like costumes, awards, props and the like. However, the focus is on the technology. Personally, I don’t want to stare at a screen with a scanned copy of a famous person’s note cards in a museum. This, I can do from home for free. If I pay good money to be in a museum, I want to see the actual notecard.

Perhaps I’m just turning into an old crank.

No offense to the hard working folks who put this all together. It’s a nice museum that someone spent a bucket of money and time to create. It has many good qualities and I’m glad I went. It just wasn’t for me. They do have a large, rotating collection so you may see different things if you go. I read recently that they will be home to the Carl Reiner archives. That’s a huge win for them.

With that said, if you are a connoisseur of comedy and if you are impressed with these artificial intelligence aspects, you really should visit. Also, if you’re in town for the Lucille Ball stuff, you can get a dual admission ticket for this museum and the Lucy Desi Museum just down the street. They’re close enough together you can walk there.

One more thing. It’s a safe place to take your kids. The comedy on the main exhibit floor is pretty clean. They keep the uncensored stuff in the basement.

Want to learn more? Visit their website!