Long before Comedy Central existed, or HBO and Netflix streamed a perpetual roll-out of comedy specials, a hit parade of household names from Jerry Seinfeld to Jon Stewart performed at Carolines on Broadway in midtown Manhattan. But the comedy club's founder isn't the type to deliver punch lines: Rather, Caroline Hirsch is a behind-the-scenes den mother of sorts, who for decades has offered a high-profile forum for standups and helped launch some of comedy's most notable careers.
She's one of the best in the male-dominated business. Hirsch has run her influential comedy clubhouse for 35 years by listening to her gut. "You get this small inkling that there's this special talent hidden in them," she tells ELLE. "The way they think about things, the way they tell a story in a manner that makes you go, 'Oh wow, I never thought about it that way' — that's what distinguishes someone. I can't tell you how I get that feeling; I just know."
Hirsch expanded her reach beyond the storied walls of Carolines on Broadway by launching the New York Comedy Festival back in 2004. The 14th annual iteration takes place in New York this November. Ahead of the event, Hirsch chatted with ELLE about the moments that made all the difference in her career.
Where did your passion for comedy come from?
As a kid, I grew up watching a lot of sitcoms with Lucille Ball and Joan Davis, and I also watched Johnny Carson — he basically introduced every comic to American audiences. I was working in retail early on in my career at Gimbels [department store], and in 1981, the store was closing, so I was out of a job. My friends said, 'Let's open a cabaret,' so we did in 1982. It wasn't quite working, and I said, 'Let's hire Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld, David Letterman.' There was something happening at the time with these guys and observational humour, and I took the cue.
What was the comedy scene like at that time, and how did Carolines fit into the picture?
Carolines was the start of something very new: A group of comedians that started at the club were bringing in their fans–it was a cult-y little thing. Paul Ruben, a.k.a. Pee Wee Herman, would come perform a few times a year; I remember the night Andy Warhol came in, wearing his pajamas, to see him, and he brought all the social kids at the time. One night when Howie Mandell was performing, while he was starring on St. Elsewhere, I turned around and Denzel Washington was sitting at a table with that big, beautiful smile of his.
"Judd Apatow used to sneak in when he was in high school. David Letterman came in to scout for talent."
Meeting people early on in their careers was something that happened a lot at Carolines. Judd Apatow used to sneak into Carolines and "interview" people when he was in high school. He would tell people he worked for a radio station and would come in with a little fake microphone and recorder, but he actually used it for a book he was writing [Sick In The Head]. David Letterman came in to scout for talent. It was an interesting period, but I really didn't know the scope of where this was going to go.
A few years after we opened, Comedy Central channel launched, as did Ha!, another comedy channel. In the late '80s, HBO used standup as cheap programming, and an hour-long special with Robin Williams or Steve White would do well. It proved there was an appetite for standup specials. Comedy was ready to explode, and Carolines was there before that all happened.
How did you end up in Times Square in 1992, long before the area's revitalisation?
I was here before Disney! The original space was on Eighth Avenue between 26th and 27th Streets, and we needed a bigger space. I thought moving uptown would be much better — a bigger room, with record labels, movie companies, and talent agencies nearby. There was nothing else around here at the time. The area started to turn in 1997, 1998. I knew that was going to happen. I just felt that in the air.
What were some major turning points in your career?
When I was asked by A&E in the late '80s to produce a comedy series, Carolines Comedy Hour, that was a pivotal point. The show was on for six years, with 26 episodes a year – most TV shows don't do that many episodes. That made Carolines a national brand, and the show was seen by over a million people each Sunday night. Those were really terrific numbers way back then. Moving the club to Broadway was another pivotal point. Then, 14 years ago, we created the New York Comedy Festival: It launched because we'd done a 20th anniversary show at Carnegie Hall, hosted by Louis Black, and people that had graduated from Carolines came back to perform, like Denis Leary and Jon Stewart. It was such a great event, and people said afterwards to me that I should be doing more of that. So I created the Comedy Festival, which allows me to do more outside producing in other venues, featuring people that have graduated from Carolines.
Have you encountered challenges or sexism as a woman in comedy throughout your career?
Funny enough, when I opened, I never felt any of that. Everybody was so nice – I was actually paying comedians [sufficiently], as opposed to showcase clubs, which pay someone $20 to go on stage and try to figure out a set. So, I was kind of praised by the industry at the time. As a woman, you have the normal things that people think they can take advantage of, or people don't think you're as bright as a guy. But I didn't think about it.
How do you think women are faring in the comedy industry now?
When I started, 25 percent of standups were female comedians – it's still the same ratio, but there are so many more comedians, both male and female, doing it today. When I started, it was Elayne Boosler, Sandra Bernhardt, Carol Leifer, Rita Rudner, Marsha Warfield. Now, you have Chelsea Handler, Amy Schumer, Ellen DeGeneres, Sarah Silverman; there are so many female comedians. Women really did break through.
"I remember a speech Lena Dunham gave...She said, 'I got into comedy because my mother brought me to Carolines one New Year's Eve.'"
They grew up getting their news from Jon Stewart, as comedy got bigger and bigger — Carolines was part of that: I remember a speech Lena Dunham gave when she won the Director's Guild Award for Girls. She said, 'I got into comedy because my mother brought me to Carolines one New Year's Eve, and I saw Lisa Lampanelli, and I knew I wanted to be in that business.' When I met Lena a few years later, she said, 'Oh my God, I took comedy classes at Carolines as a kid!' Acquaintances are always coming up to me and saying, 'My daughter just wants to be a stand-up comedian or writer." When I first started doing this, people looked at me like I had two heads!
Right now, I'm enjoying how many young women want to be in the comedy business, and I like helping them. There's a show we're doing at Carolines called Sisters of Comedy, and I've been helping get that off the ground.
You've also had talents like Tracy Morgan at Carolines early in their careers.
We loved Tracy! He used to come in here, and people complained. They didn't get him early on. Now, he's making the same kind of jokes, and people find him funny. Jon Stewart came to work at the club as an opening act, and then when I had Carolines Comedy Hour, we hired him as a writer and producer. And then Jon started to explode. I was asked by Joy Behar's agent to please put her on, and I did; there's a hundred other stories like that.
Who are the young comics on your radar?
We lot of good people come out of our New York's Funniest show, like Michael Che, Ricky Velez, and Matt Povich. There's a young woman coming to work with us, Yamaneika Saunders, who I love. There's a whole group coming up the ranks that I love, like Sara Armour, Michelle Wolf, Liza Treyger, and Vir Das.
What advice would you give yourself when you were launching Carolines in the '80s?
I probably would've been much more aggressive when I was younger. I didn't realise what I had in my hands. I also would've been much more involved with producing TV shows than I was. But that's okay, I'm doing it now. You pick and choose your battles in life. Sometimes, it's not the right time to do something, and then when you're older, you realise it's right to do that thing now, when you're so much wiser. I don't regret anything.
Have you ever thought about doing anything completely different?
No, not to make a living. I like what I do, and that's why I keep doing it. There's something so fun about walking out into the club and seeing a ton of people having a great time, and you're the one that put that all together. It gives me a lot of joy.