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If you’re going to build an expensive humor museum — the first ever of its kind, as the state of New York is doing — better tap someone good to oversee the place. Enter the National Museum of Comedy — a $50 million-plus campus in Jamestown, where Lucille Ball was born — and enter the comedy historian Kliph Nesteroff. The author of the recent book The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and the History of American Comedy (audiobook and paperback out Nov. 8) was recently named chief curator. Though the museum won’t open until 2017, it promises to be interesting, not least because they’re going to resurrect comedians as holograms a la Tupac at 2012 Coachella.
Nesteroff spoke with The Hollywood Reporter in early May about the plans, his book, aging out of the zeitgeist and Ball.
What are your plans for the National Museum of Comedy? It’s conceived as a venue for the stand-up circuit and for panels, but will there be other programming?
That’s the plan. I’m going to be chief curator, so I’m in charge of content. But I’m not in charge of design or implementation — that’s being handled by a pretty impressive group of museum builders and designers. I flew to Jamestown a couple weeks ago and met with them. It took six hours to go through the blueprints and their ideas; I was impressed. These people have made a lot of ambitious museums that are not just exhibit-based. (Jack Rouse Associates is the firm behind the Jim Beam American Stillhouse and Distillery Tour in Kentucky and the SPAM® Museum in Austin, Minn. Local Projects, which worked on the 9/11 Museum, helped with interactive components.)
You’re not going to get museum foot.
No. The museum is still in the planning stages, but when you show up, you punch in your taste, comedy-wise. You could be an 8-year-old or an 80-year-old — you indicate who your favorite comedians are. And then you will be directed through the museum for a specific experience. The museum is taking over an Art Deco train station from the 1930s. It’s an enormous structure and the basis for this initially family-friendly museum, but then there is this dingy, weird, Terry Gilliam-like basement. They’re going to turn that into the Blue Room, which will be adults-only. You’ll get a real taste of subversive comedy: your Richard Pryors, your Lenny Bruces, your George Carlins doing dirty-words-you-can’t-say-on-television-type stuff. The Blue Room will give people a chance to see the stuff that maybe they don’t want their kid to see, and still honor comedy by not sanitizing it. There will be a bar, there will be shows down there, and the hologram.
About the holograms …
People have tried to do comedy museums before and failed. When you hear “comedy museum” and you’re a comedian, your first thought isn’t, “Oh, that’s cool,” it’s “Oh, that sounds terrible.” The main gimmick to bring people to Jamestown — which you may imagine is not an easy thing to convince people to do — are the holograms of comedians. [The Museum has declined to release the names as of yet.]
Do you imagine Jamestown can brand the way Cooperstown did with the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum?
That is the point.
And it was one of Lucille Ball’s deathbed-like wishes to make her birthplace into a comedy capital, right?
Yeah, on her deathbed she said, “Please, the comedy museum! Help! I could be a hologram.” And then she died. Yeah.
Ball comes up once in The Comedians, when you mention her brush with the House Un-American Activities Committee. But anyone who’s written or worked on a book knows that some really great stuff falls out of it and onto the cutting-room floor. Anything about Lucy that did?
I focused on the stand-ups, on live, performance comedy. But I think I did have something in my files from the late ‘60s or early ‘70s that was kind of nasty. Not about her specifically, but there’s a part where I talk about the changing tides of show business and how [the nightclub comedian] Danny Thomas was wearing men’s hair coloring and making a sitcom called Make Room for Granddaddy, even though nobody wanted to see him again. In the original draft I mentioned how Ball had taken on this grotesque demeanor: over-dyed hair; makeup used to tape her face back to make her look younger, but it didn’t make her look younger, it made her look like something else.
Right. And you’re watching Lucy, and her eyelids are caked in blue eye shadow and smoker’s voice has set in …
To this day, people say “I Love Lucy — one of the greatest sitcoms of all time.” And I’ll watch an I Love Lucy rerun and love it, and yet, by 1970, in Here’s Lucy, here’s Lucy and much of the same writing staff and much of the same plotline. It did not mature from 1970. If you don’t change or evolve, you will make yourself irrelevant. The comedy that was successful years earlier won’t remain successful. Lucille Ball was a classic example of why that doesn’t work.
You liken Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner to “time travelers” because they so uncannily have been able to transition from one generation to another. You call them “seminal links to comedy’s past living in the world of the future.” You place importance on the ability for a comedian to take every zeitgeist by the horns. Is that ability to follow along, defying the shelf life of the generation you belong to, maybe the truest metric of a great comedian?
Well, Mel Brooks is an anomaly. But generally, whomever you consider to be the coolest, hippest, savviest, best comedian today, 50 years on, half the population if not more will consider them square, lame, irreverent and out-of-touch. The new generation always rejects the old generation’s comedy. I think of Jerry Seinfeld. He’s 60-something years old and complaining now about college audiences being too politically correct. But then I contradict myself by saying that I think Mel Brooks is the funniest man alive. He’s almost 90 and since the 1950s has been hilarious. And he’s never changed whatever his shtick is. When he does Conan now, there are no sympathy laughs in the audience for Mel Brooks. Don Rickles goes on Jimmy Kimmel and he does kind of get sympathy laughs. If he stutters or says something that doesn’t make sense, we forgive him. We love him. But we are giving him license maybe not to be as strong as he used to be. Ninety-five percent of the time, comedy has an expiration date.
As maybe do women in our culture? I’m remembering a recent piece in the Observer where a guy lumped Ball in with Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Edie Beale at Grey Gardens. That was Ball circa, like you mentioned, when she was trying to mount yet another sitcom under yet another titular character named “Lucy.” Still, Ball was a sharp-minded businesswoman, and she did things on TV that were firsts: She was pregnant, in a biracial marriage and unruly in an undeniably subversive way — her character was so determined to get out of the house and into the limelight.
I think Lucille Ball became more of a businesswoman. Desilu was one of the most profitable companies in show business. But Jerry Seinfeld once said that laziness is of the upmost importance to the comic mind; and if you’re a business person, laziness is anathema. I never describe Lucy as a comedian, but as a comedic actress. Steve Buscemi is like that — he’s a great actor. But if you’ve ever seen him on a talk show, he could not be more boring.
But when it came time for Ball to make room for the next generation, did she? Or did she behave like Frank Sinatra when Elvis Presley arrived?
I’ll tell you, one person she was very good to was Joan Rivers. Young Joan Rivers was in a Here’s Lucy episode. They loved each other, and when Lucille Ball died, Joan Rivers was one of the go-to interviews. And one of the last things Lucille Ball ever did was guest on Rivers’ show on Fox. I think some people just don’t know how to adjust, especially to the ’60s, coming for a generation born around WWII when everything seemed black or white. I wouldn’t say that Lucy never passed the baton, though.
And Rivers never sank her fangs into Ball.
There was no reason to. Who else was there for her to look up to, in terms of women in comedy at the time?
Editor’s Note: Nesteroff originally misidentified Carlin as the subject of the hologram. Carlin will not appear as a hologram, and the names of the comedic acts who will be simulated have not been released.
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Melvin Van Peebles