Culture

Andrew Cuomo’s Boondocks Boondoggle

(Reuters photo: Brendan McDermid)
New York State is going to help build a comedy museum in a remote upstate town.

No matter how awful a comedy club may be, you will scarcely find any lackluster Laff Lair or cheerless Chuckle Factory that charges $10 million for its two-drink minimum. Yet in a wacky scheme that could have been devised by Seinfeld’s buddy Kramer, that is exactly what Andrew Cuomo is proposing to charge you, New York State taxpayer, for a dismal comedy venture you’ll likely never set foot in, or even near.

To mark the end of summer, New York’s governor is barbecuing $10 million in public funding as the state’s contribution toward construction of a comedy museum in Jamestown, N.Y. Jamestown? It’s a place of “empty storefronts and underused buildings,” according to the New York Times. It’s three hours west of Ithaca. Three hours north of Pittsburgh. Six and a half hours northwest of Manhattan. Home to some 31,000 souls, it doesn’t exactly scream “arts capital.” There’s a reason the most popular museums tend to be concentrated in cities rather than scattered randomly in rural areas, hamlets, and deserted islands: One museum, especially one small museum, isn’t usually enough to make tourists to go much out of their way. Especially a museum that proposes to offer stuff few want to see in the first place.

Jamestown is on the comedy map, barely, because Lucille Ball grew up there. Since Lucy is hardly known to anyone under 45, and her brand of comedy (incessant mugging and slapstick) went out of style in the Nixon administration, her memory isn’t fertile ground in which to grow tourism. Nevertheless, in her honor there is a small museum, as well as an annual four-day comedy festival in August named after her. Headliners this year included Kevin James, Lisa Lampanelli, and Jim Gaffigan. The town hopes to build comedy’s Mecca from the existing museum, proposing a $50 million, 37,000-square-foot National Comedy Center that will house various artifacts and an exhibition featuring holograms of comedians.

Does that tempt you to get in the car and head out for a six-plus-hour drive, East Coasters? “I believe this is going to be a national attraction,” Cuomo said last month. Let’s look at what else he believes: He avers that the project could create “scores” of jobs, according to the New York Times. Wow, scores? As in, maybe 40? Most of them presumably in such areas as custodial work, gift-shop attendant, and ticket-sales clerk, with a handful of cushy “curator” gigs steered toward reducing by two or three society’s surplus of holders of Ph.D.s in “culture studies”? If 40 jobs result, that’s $250,000 Cuomo is spending per job.

Backers say the $50 million museum will make a profit if it can draw 114,000 visitors per year paying $18 to $20 each — almost as much as you’d pay to enter the Museum of Modern Art or the Metropolitan Museum of Art, each of which is $25 and has the good sense to be located in a place where lots of people actually live. If a comedy museum is such a slam-bang idea, though, why isn’t Wall Street rushing in to earn a nice profit? And even if it did make sense, wouldn’t it be wiser to place it in a city that already has lots of other attractions? True, Lucille Ball isn’t from New York City, but a few other comics are: Seinfeld, George Carlin, Adam Sandler, Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock etc., etc.

About 300,000 people a year visit the less out-of-the-way Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. (four hours from Boston or New York), and it seems unlikely that the comedy museum will soon build up anywhere near as much lore as that palace of hero worship, notwithstanding that the comedy curators have already acquired such artifacts as Carlin’s handwritten jokes. Comedians, for a start, aren’t gods. Their success consists not in thunderous, awe-inspiring impossibilities like smacking a ball into orbit but in puzzling over the quotidian, calling up our ordinary frustrations. Louis C.K. speaks about the hassles of boarding an airplane, and we say, “I’ve been there.” Hanging out with Conan O’Brien might be fun. But who wants to touch the hem of his garment?

Cuomo’s comedy boondoggle is just the latest in a long series of desperate moves to conjure up jobs of dubious sustainability using bales of taxpayer money.

Cuomo’s comedy boondoggle is just the latest in a long series of desperate moves to conjure up jobs of dubious sustainability using bales of taxpayer money. Among his previous bets were $600 million to build a factory for an Austrian chip maker that bailed on the deal; $15 million for a film-production facility in Central New York that today stands empty; a tax break called Start-Up New York that has been credited with creating 408 jobs but spent $53 million on TV commercials alone; and a $750 million handout to billionaire Elon Musk’s money-losing panel manufacturer SolarCity for a forthcoming factory that supposedly will eventually create 5,000 jobs — at $150,000 for each of them. As each of these projects goes up in flames, an unchastened and perhaps unchastenable Cuomo dreams up more of them.

If Cuomo wanted to deliver real jobs for depressed areas of New York, he’d simply step out of the way of industries that wish to harvest the state’s natural bounty: Jamestown sits atop the Marcellus Shale, a natural wonder that bestrides western New York and Pennsylvania and is estimated to employ some 30,000 workers in the latter state, which also counts another 60,000 jobs supported by the industry. Natural gas is helping to drive dirtier coal out of business, and fracking, which Cuomo stupidly banned in New York, is so safe that even President Obama did little to impede its growth. Marcellus Shale gas production increased by nearly 1,000 percent during his presidency. These are real jobs, by the way, not ones that involve tearing tickets: Average annual pay in the Pennsylvania oil and gas industry was $83,000 a year in 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, compared to Pennsylvania’s annual average wage of $48,000 a year. Yet for Andrew Cuomo, it’s entirely fitting that he is ignoring the vast potential industry right under his feet and instead wasting public money on a comedy museum: The governor’s economic policy is a running joke.

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