Feature - LOL! - March 2019

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National Comedy Center establishes a museum experience for the digital age

by Scott Fais

Photos Courtesy of the National Comedy Center

The art of creating laughter has a new high-tech home. 

While the National Comedy Center in Jamestown, New York, pays tribute to the comedic arts in the United States—from early vaudeville acts to the latest viral memes—the facility also provides the next-generation museum experience. 

“From day one we said, ‘We can raise all the money and hire the best museum designers in the world, but if this doesn’t have authenticity of voice, it could easily become the butt of a joke,’” recalls Journey Gunderson, executive director at the National Comedy Center. Just the opposite happened in American comedian Lucille Ball’s hometown.

Following the center’s opening in August, the accolades rolled in: Conde Nast Traveler magazine named the facility “one of the best museums in the country.” Gunderson attributes the acclaim to how the museum quickly became recognized as a “cultural institution,” serving as an epicenter to the art of comedy. Opening the doors took seven years of planning and one pivotal question.

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Banding Together

“At the very onset of this project, this was going to be a living museum,” says Shawn McCoy, vice president of JRA (Jack Rouse Associates). McCoy and his colleagues had covered the walls and windows of their sprawling Cincinnati, Ohio, conference room with renderings, proposals, and concept plans for the National Comedy Center. The pinups represented months of work, all of which Gunderson praised when visiting JRA’s headquarters. But she had one question: “What makes me want to come back?”

The answer: a vibrant museum capable of unprecedented personalization. The imagined space would be so revolutionary, tangible displays would be organic—showing content according to each visitor’s own sense of humor. 

But how? 

Enter the “Sense of Humor Profile” program.

“It allows visitors to create a lens of their own sense of humor that they see the center through,” explains Colin Cronin, a senior designer with JRA.

Before proceeding through the entry turnstiles at the National Comedy Center, visitors are given a wristband with a radio-frequency identification (RFID) chip embedded inside. Dubbed a LaughBand, the device will allow visitors to interact with displays.

“Many of the exhibits are able to read the room, just like a comedian needs to read the room,” says Gunderson of the 127 RFID readers deployed inside the complex.

At kiosks in the lobby, guests answer a series of questions to complete their profiles. By selecting the television shows, movies, and the comedians they find funny, guests are effectively programming attributes for the experience ahead. 

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Interactive stations allow visitors to hand draw comic figures.

Please Touch

There are no “do not touch” signs in use at the National Comedy Center, which is housed inside Jamestown’s former train station and trolley car garage. Everything in the 50 exhibits is designed to be scrolled, watched, flipped, held, or sat upon. 

“This is one of the most technologically advanced museums in the world right now,” boasts Gunderson.

A central nerve center feeds content to 20 projectors and 221 monitors—some ranging in size from a toaster to those larger than a city bus, where content produced by Herzog & Company runs across 115 miles of cable and wiring under floors and in the rafters.

Stand-up comedian Jim Gaffigan welcomes guests in a theater. Yet, instead of using a movie screen, Gaffigan appears as a hologram, using technology and hardware supplied by Hologram USA.

A television network-quality control room holds a collection of late night TV shows. Visitors have a seat and don an audio headset like a technical director. After tapping in using their LaughBand, they can watch video clips from notable late night moments throughout history, with the added ability to vote on their favorites. A menu of clips has been chosen for users, based on their comedic profile. If a user told the entry kiosk he or she prefers Jay Leno over Jimmy Fallon, the focus would be on Leno clips. 

“Everyone experiences comedy as an observer, a performer, or a creator,” says Cronin. “Throughout the experience, we break up the content through those ways.”

The Stand-Up Lounge recreates a comedy club, yet the front of the room doesn’t feature a stage, rather a projection wall. Sitting at their tiny tables, visitors will vote for which comedian they would like to see by tapping a virtual drink coaster. A projection system from above will rotate the options shown on the tables, while projected graphics on the wall keep a tally. The secret is how Electrosonic placed hidden RFID readers in the tables, that when paired with the projected images designed by Cortina Productions, work in tandem to record the visitor’s responses. Once selections are tabulated, a video clip from a stand-up comedian favorable to those assembled will play.

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NSFW: Being Blue

Like comedy, the museum is fun—and shows attitude. Museum maps display restroom locations using the traditional male and female icons, who are positioned in a way that indicates an urgent need to use a toilet. When sat upon, some benches replicate the sound a whoopee cushion evokes. Yet, the most sensitive space is located down an elevator, past no fewer than four warning signs, and behind a locked sliding door—which only opens with the use of an adult’s LaughBand (programmed with their age at the entry kiosk).

“It’s an added safeguard so you can’t stumble into this space,” Gunderson says as she taps into the Blue Room. The bold space holds all the words, jokes, and risqué humor not fit for prime time (or Funworld). The Blue Room explains television censorship in the United States, lauds free speech, and shares video of roasts throughout history—without use of the bleep button. There are also displays honoring comedians who were often arrested for using adult language in an earlier era.

When visitors enter the Blue Room, a hidden camera captures their reaction—traditionally ranging from a blush to an expression of shock. Before leaving the bunker-like space, visitors can tap in and have their image e-mailed to them, complete with a text border hinting at naughty words. The space dedicated to the comedic taboo is not for everyone, but designers thought the elements housed within are significant.

“It’s an important part of the whole museum because blue humor is one aspect of comedy that is always pushing the boundaries, keeping the art new and fresh,” says JRA designer Sam Colvin.

www.comedycenter.org

While there is no bar positioned within the lounge (a bar does provide “liquid encouragement” at the Comedy Karaoke Lounge, where guests are invited on stage to practice their stand-up skills using an open mic and scripted material on a teleprompter), a cocktail waitress will roam the full exhibit floor taking orders and delivering beverages—just like a real comedy club—in a move that generates extra revenue. To create a date night destination, the center holds extended hours on Friday and Saturday nights.

“It’s not just laughs as entertainment, it’s extremely important to our culture,” Gunderson says of how unwinding with comedy enlightens life.

Projections are again used on the Writers’ Desks, which display scripts from TV, movie, and theater on a tabletop. Visitors use their hands to scroll and open the projected content. Cortina Productions hid Intel’s small RealSense Depth camera inside prop lamps sitting on the table to track hand movements.

“It really plays with your sense of disbelief,” says Stephen Platenberg, creative director with Cortina Productions.

Other exhibits use touch screens allowing users to draw their own cartoon characters; a living room with 1960s furniture broadcasts moments from classic sitcoms; while a dot-com area explores how the internet has allowed everyone to become a comedian by sharing funny content on social media.

“We’ve already had to update media to keep our finger on the pulse of comedy,” Gunderson says.

The center’s content management system allows a team of three to curate exhibits with the content from Herzog & Company, which assisted with video production, research, and copywriting.

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Analytics continue to refine each guest’s comedy profile, while exhibits provide intel into a visitor’s sense of humor.

Happy Returns

The final exhibits ask guests to immerse themselves into scenes from “Saturday Night Live,” “Anchorman,” and “I Love Lucy,” where they read lines from famous TV sketches using chroma key (green screen technology), or host the Laugh Battle game show—where the goal is not to laugh. Microsoft Artificial Intelligence facial recognition software gauges whether contestants can hold a straight face before awarding points. The addition of new media and the customization of the experience means a return visit is imminent. 

“The next time they come back, they’ll have a different experience because there will be more media available,” says JRA Project Manager Kate Batt.