Caroline Hirsch

By Daniel G. Hall

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Comedy, by definition, is a humorous occurrence. Some researchers say laughter is the best medicine, helping you put the spring back in your step. BELLA had the opportunity to sit down with the queen of comedy herself, Caroline Hirsch, for an exclusive interview about how she’s carved a career out of funny – and has helped others do the same.

A Brooklyn native, Hirsch began her comedy career in 1982 by opening a small cabaret in the Chelsea section of Manhattan. With the popularity of stand-up comedy on the rise, she began booking comedians, including such then-unknowns as Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld, Garry Shandling, Sandra Bernhard, Pee Wee Herman, Billy Crystal, and, later, Chris Rock.

In 1987, Hirsch decided to move the cabaret to South Street Seaport, where it became a full-fledged comedy nightclub – the first of its genre to offer high-quality entertainment and equally excellent food in a sophisticated, upscale environment. In order to meet the growing demands of the business, Hirsch then moved her club uptown, where it has played an integral part in the revitalization of Times Square.

Throughout her illustrious 30-year career, Hirsch has consistently proven herself as an entrepreneur, visionary, and innovator in the entertainment industry. In November 2004, she launched the New York Comedy Festival, an annual weeklong event that features the industry’s biggest stars performing in New York’s most prestigious venues, including Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, Harlem’s World-Famous Apollo Theater, Madison Square Garden, Town Hall, and Caroline’s on Broadway. She also co-founded the NYC event Stand-Up for Heroes to benefit the Bob Woodruff Foundation, raising more than $27 million for the cause. Hirsch is the ultimate New York City artist, giving back to so many in her storied career through laughter, hope, and charity.

Listen in as we get to know the woman behind the laughs …

What inspired you to get into the comedy business?

I was always a fan of comedy. As a child I watched the early sitcoms, especially “The Tonight Show.” I used to beg my parents to stay up to watch. Although I was passionate about comedy, I began my career at Gambles department store as a market rep. They eventually went out of business, and I found myself unemployed. Some of my friends who had bars in the city asked if I would be interested in opening a cabaret. So we did. 

Eventually, we realized that the cabaret business was not what we wanted to do; we wanted to be in a younger business where people were going out. At the time, the crowd that went to cabaret shows was older and didn’t go out as much. So we decided to make ours a comedy club instead. We hired Jay Leno, followed by Jerry Seinfeld, Billy Crystal, Sandra Bernhard, Rita Rudner, and Garry Shandling, and Caroline’s was born. It was the first headliner nightclub in the United States. When I opened the club, everybody was asking, “What is she doing?” In 1982, it was unheard of.

What’s the major difference between Caroline’s and other comedy clubs, particularly in the way you choose your acts?

There have certainly been a lot of imitators in New York since we opened. What sets us apart is headlining great acts that are ready to go, to perform an hour-long act on stage in front of a crowd. We found so many amazing people early on, like Jon Stewart and Ray Romano. We have people here on stage who have TV experience, concert experience, and movie experience, and they already have a following.

What is the best advice you ever received?

Be enthusiastic. If you’re not enthusiastic about what you’re doing, it’s boring. Find something you want to do, and be enthusiastic about it. 

What is one of the proudest moments of your career?

We did a 20th anniversary of Caroline’s that we produced at Carnegie Hall in 2003. Lewis Black hosted it, and on the stage was Lewis Black, Jon Stewart, Richard Belzer all people who have been a part of Caroline’s. At the end of the show, Richard pulled me out on stage and said, “You must come out here,” so there I stood on the stage at Carnegie Hall for the 20th anniversary. That was very special.

What do you want to be remembered as?

Caroline’s, because it’s a New York institution; it’s known worldwide. It was nice to be part of creating something like this. I have learned about business, I’ve made a living out of it, and I have been able to give back to people from it. For example, we have an annual stand-up show for Madeline Kahn for ovarian cancer research, and so far we’ve raised close to $2 million.

It must be an amazing feeling, knowing you have launched so many people’s careers.

It’s just unbelievable. You should be here on our new talent night; it’s really funny. You get to see people just starting out and get to see who’s who. When I first started out, I must have had 50 to 60 comedians a year working here. Now, I have 200 comedians a year working here and more than 200 working the festival week.

What is your favorite part of NYC?

I’m a midtown person, but it’s nice to see what’s happening downtown as well. It’s also nice to see what’s happening above 114th Street. It’s all good.

What advice can you offer to upcoming comics?

You have to love it, want to succeed, write your own material, and get up on stage and work really, really hard. It doesn’t happen overnight, and it doesn’t happen over five years. You are just beginning. It takes a while.

Do you ever encounter situations where you see a comedian not doing well on stage?

Pretty much all of the people who perform here are more seasoned, so we know what we’re getting. But you can have a really bad audience one night. You can have a crowd that is not connecting with the comedian, or a comedian who might not be connecting with the audience.

What’s next for you?

I produced some TV stuff in the early ‘90s and I did a series that aired on A&E for six years and was very successful. I would like to get more involved in production, whether it’s broadcast cable or digital.

Our tagline at BELLA is “Beauty defined by you.” How would you define beauty?

Beauty comes from the soul; I don’t think it’s a physical thing. As humans, most importantly, it is how we treat each other.

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