Interview With Founder Caroline Hirsch
The New York Comedy Festival returns for its 13th year bringing 200 comedians to all five boroughs for more than 60 shows from November 1-6. Among the headliners are Tracy Morgan, Tig Notaro, Dane Cook and Bill Maher who will perform at some of the most prestigious venues throughout the city like Carnegie Hall, The Theater at MSG and Caroline’s on Broadway – the birthplace of the festival. In association with Comedy Central, the NYCF is produced by Carolines and the woman behind it all, Caroline Hirsch, sat down with NYC Monthly. She gave us more details on what sparked the week-long laugh fest, what to expect this year, and what it’ll take to win over the New York City audience.
When you first opened Caroline’s in Chelsea it was a small Cabaret club, but you as a lifelong comedy fan began booking stand up performers.
I think that’s sort of how it went. Yeah. I know it went like that.
There just weren’t enough cabaret acts to fill up the slate. It was the beginning of what was happening in comedy today. The start of young comedians with more of this observational humor that kind of followed the steps of George Carlin. They were coming into their own in the early 80’s.
And some of those names are now the most legendary in comedy.
They sure are. Jay Leno. Jerry Seinfeld. Pee Wee Herman. Billy Crystal. That’s how he got Saturday Night Live. They saw him there at the club. He was passed the first time around but they saw him and they put him on the show and it started a whole new career for him. Garry Shandling. Sandra Bernhard. Everybody’s started…
This is where anyone who’s anyone got their start.
Yeah, pretty much.
Do you remember seeing a particular act where you just knew in that moment that person was gonna make it in the business?
Bill Maher. I think that was one. He had very strong stand-up. Very opinionated at that time too.
Was it well received?
For some people. This 38-year-old had a lot of opinions.
And after all these years who’s some- one that can make you laugh still, every time?
You know what, I’ve watched everybody again do it. Jerry Seinfeld. Bill Burr is a fabulous act.
These legendary names that you’ve seen come up through the business, you recognized them when they were first starting out. So, who would you say is someone to watch this year at the festival? That’s unexpected or lesser known that you have your eye on that people should pay attention to?
Some of the bigger shows here are pretty much people that kind of have arrived. I mean, we have J.T. Miller here for the first time. Tig Notaro is doing Carnegie Hall. Tim Minchin is at the Beacon Theatre and… I don’t know if you know who Tim Minchin is. He’s an English musician, lyricist, comedian who wrote Matilda, the show. He just wrote also the show called Groundhog Day, which is coming to Broadway soon. And he will be at the Beacon Theatre, so we are excited about that.
What would you say it takes to win over the New York City crowd as a comedian?
I think smart humor. That’s the winner. It just is.
What would you say is smart?
It’s just opinionated right to the point kind of humor. That’s pretty much what we produce. That’s pretty much what we do. That’s the kind of people we like to work with.
When you first launched the festival what was your initial reasoning for doing it and the whole thought process about putting it together?
What happened was I did this 20th Anniversary special at Carnegie Hall. It was 20 years at Carolines. We invited everybody back that had worked at Carolines. And doing it we had Lewis Black as an M.C. and Dennis Leary. We had Mario Cantone, we had Jon Stewart. We had people that came back to do like 10 minutes and it was so much fun. I said we should do more of that. That’s kind of where we got the idea to do the festival. There wasn’t a festival in New York at the time. This is our 13th year of doing it.
How have you seen it grow in the last 13 years? What has changed and what have you been very diligent about making the same year after year?
We’ve gone from Town Hall, you know, from 1,400, 2,800 seater to 5,500 to Madison Square Garden. And doing two shows in Madison Square Garden with Kevin Hart in one night. There you’re selling 30,000 tickets in one night. We made that jump and we’ve gone from maybe 10 or 15 shows to over 70 shows in the Five Boroughs. And you know, there’s really something for everyone. There really is something for everyone.
With the current political and social state of the world today why do you think comedy has such positive impact?
I think the impact; it’s come because it travels well over the internet. What’s number one on the internet? It’s comedy. Where it makes these quick satire or social statements, it just travels well and I think that’s why it’s gotten to be so popular.
This year, as a part of the festival, marks the 10th Anniversary of the Stand Up For Heroes. How has that event exceeded your expectations or your initial vision and where do you hope to see it go from here?
It’s just unbelievable. How people around the country know about that. We’re very, very proud. Right now we’re close to 40 million dollars that we’ve raised in 10 years’ time. All of the money goes to help vets. Either it goes to vet organizations in the local markets, or sometimes it even helps an individual if they really need it.
Knowing that you are one of, if not the individual that’s spear-headed this and all the wonderful things that have come out of it for so many people, how does that make you feel?
I have to tell you that it hasn’t hit me. About how much this has… How it’s grown over the years.
It went from being an idea in May, me watching a T.V. program about Bob Woodruff and at the end [it] saying, “Contribute to the Bob Woodruff Foundation.” I go, “I have an idea that I think might work for them.”
I always wanted to do something for vets ’cause I just got so upset seeing the lists on Sunday morning on George Stephanopoulos, reading, “In memory of…”. I really used to start to cry because young boys that went to…they went into the service to try to get an education and a career. And got caught in the middle and they were back for four tours.
By November we had an event. So that was pretty fast. You have to thank the comedy community because they are the ones that give all of their time. We do the production out of here but they give all of their time. Every year to come back and do this. I think Louis C.K., it will be his third time back. Jerry’s [Seinfeld] third time back. Jon [Stewart] has been there a number of years and Bruce Springsteen is the constant.
Beginning with starting Caroline’s back in the 80’s, you have played a key role in molding the modern day idea of New York City comedy. Would you say that the hard part is done or only just beginning?
I think the hard part was done. When I first did that people thought I was absolutely crazy. “What do you need another club for?” But it was a time where I took one person, like a Jay Leno or a Jerry Seinfeld, and they were able to do their hour. Jerry said to me, talking about the old days and he said, “God, I was headlining at Carolines for New Year’s Eve. That was like the highlight of my career.” That was pretty amazing. That was way back in like 1984. Somewhere like that.
It’s only continued to grow from there. Imagine. So now that was the hard part.
Do you have any future plans for Carolines?
There’s always brand extensions that we think about. Not necessarily a club. The brand extension was the festival. Which proved to be a good way to go.
Is there anything else that you would like to add?
I just think that people should come out. Have a good laugh. Buy three or four tickets, 3 different nights. You’ll have a great time and you’ll have something to talk about.