A Sneak Peek Inside the National Comedy Center’s George Carlin Archives
Beginning today, the weeklong Lucille Ball Comedy Festival invades the southwestern New York city of Jamestown, the birthplace of the legendary comedian who lent her name to the annual celebration before passing away in 1989. Presented by the National Comedy Center, a non-profit cultural institution dedicated to all things comedy, this year’s theme is “Comedy and the Human Condition.” Standup lovers can look forward to performances and talks by Jim Gaffigan, Kevin James, Robert Klein, Lisa Lampanelli, Lewis Black, W. Kamau Bell, and many others at the 4,000-seat Chautauqua Institution amphitheater.
But the attraction generating perhaps the most buzz at this year’s edition of the festival is the unveiling of a portion of the George Carlin archives. Highlights of 25,000 artifacts from the exalted funnyman’s career, gifted to the National Comedy Center by Carlin’s daughter Kelly in May 2016, will be on display in a free exhibit called “Stuff I Saved” inside the Jamestown Gateway Train Station throughout the week.
“When my dad died [in 2008] he had three big storage units,” Kelly Carlin says, “but one of them was filled with steamer trunks and had all of his career memorabilia in it.” Kelly and her husband brought the trunks home and, as she developed her solo show A Carlin Home Companion about life with her dad, she looked through the artifacts for inspiration, sometimes with her director, standup comedian Paul Provenza, in tow. Kelly quickly realized she was unlocking comedy treasures like George’s handwritten set list from the first time he performed on The Tonight Show. “It’s like the fucking Shroud of Turin for comedy!” she says.
Kelly continued to share the posthumously discovered items with a number of comics who revered her father and came into her life after he passed. “It was just this great joy,” she recalls, “and it really helped me with my grief and a huge void in my life because my father was bigger than life.”
According to Laura LaPlaca, director of archives for the National Comedy Center, the exhibition at the Jamestown festival was in fact named by George Carlin himself. “We found, in his own handwriting, a slip of paper that read ‘Stuff I Saved,’” LaPlaca shared in an email. “Visitors will read his handwriting on the walls, explore over 100 never-before-seen artifacts – arranged just the way that he left them – engage with rare audiovisual materials, browse selections of original comedy material, and learn about how the National Comedy Center plans to continue to preserve and celebrate Carlin’s legacy.”
“The juiciest stuff are these Ziploc bags of my dad’s handwritten notes, and each bag has a different topic label on it,” Kelly Carlin says. “Some of them are jokes, some of them are just thoughts, some of them are just ideas, but they are the raw materials he would use to build his act.” Kelly also says she and the Center are trying to generate an interactive experience between the fans and her father’s papers.
Here’s another sneak peek from the archives — a list Carlin kept of all his television appearances in 1978:
The entirety of the Carlin archives will be one of the permanent attractions at the physical home of the National Comedy Center, a $50 million complex featuring more than 70 exhibits that’s expected to open next summer.
LaPlaca, who has run her fingers across each piece of Carlin memorabilia in the collection, helping to create this year’s showcase and the Center’s future exhibit, wrote: “His thoughts and impressions were scrawled quickly – sometimes almost illegibly – as though his pen was trying to keep up with his mind. The experience made me laugh out loud, it made me wonder, and – more than once – it made me pause just to marvel at the sheer scope of this artist’s devotion to his craft.” LaPlaca also explained that she is preparing a large-scale digitization plan to “ensure the longevity of over 1,000 hours of audiovisual content and 50 boxes of paper ephemera.”
This year, after taking in Carlin’s stuff at the historic train station, festivalgoers can also view Desi Arnaz memorabilia, displayed there in observance of his 100th birthday. Tours of the Lucille Ball Desi Arnaz Museum a few blocks away are also available, as well as Lucy-centric tours of the city. Additional programming this week includes a comedy master class taught by Kliph Nesteroff, host of Viceland’s Funny How? series and author of The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and the History of American Comedy. More information and tickets for all of these events can be found at LucyComedyFest.com.