Though it doesn't open until August, the reputation of Jamestown's National Comedy Center is spreading throughout the entertainment industry. With the recent donation of the archive of the late Shelley Berman, and the previously-acquired George Carlin archive, the facility is generating interest among fans, comics and scholars.
A standup comedian, a writer, teacher, movie and television star, Shelley Berman broke ground in the late fifties by winning the first Grammy for a spoken comedy record. It was just one of the many highlights of a career that extended well into this century.
"A lot of people these days recognize Shelley Berman as having played Larry David's father Nat on 'Curb Your Enthusiasm,'" said Journey Gunderson, Executive Director of the National Comedy Center in Jamestown. David was among the many notable comedians present in California for the announcement that the Berman archive would be stored at the Comedy Center.
"The thing about this archives that is so incredible is the continuity because it was meticulously maintained daily throughout his career," Gunderson said.
"He (Berman) would ask networks for copies of anything he was in. And this was during a time when people didn't save everything and networks didn't save everything. And so there's otherwise lost footage, his daily calendar, contracts, correspondences, any writing he ever did. And, of course, he was a teacher of comedy, and so, all of his papers when it came to teaching others the craft, everything was preserved. Photos, you name it."
The plan is to make the archives user-friendly for the casual fan. With scholars showing an interest in the contents, Gunderson says the Comedy Center will make all the contents available for research purposes. Another dozen comics are considering donating their papers and memorabilia. While in California for the Berman announcement, Gunderson was approached by a former joke writer for Bob Hope who is now interested in donating his work to the Comedy Center.
It's all big news for a facility that won't open until August. While construction projects are notoriously delayed by an array of issues, Gunderson is expressing confidence the Comedy Center will open as scheduled. The interactive displays are expected to undergo extensive practice runs long before the public steps inside. The expectations are high.
"We all agreed on the board level we could hire the best firms in the industry. we could raise all the money but without the credibility and the authenticity of approach, this could become the butt of a joke," Gunderson said.
"The last thing you want to do is do something the wrong way for an audience of people whose job it is to make fun of things. So, yes, it's a daunting responsibility."