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Funny Business: Caroline Hirsch and Her Comedy Empire

The woman behind New York Comedy Festival reflects on her career, Carson, and not telling jokes

There’s something very intimate about stand-up comedy. One lone soul takes the stage, armed at most with a bottle of water or a beer and at the very least, a microphone and a litany of observations that they hope will fill the room with raucous laughter.

The fanfare around this quirky art form has increased in recent years, with streaming powerhouse Netflix releasing stand-up specials at a pace of one per week in 2017. But comedy—and the business behind it—is anything but new. It was back in 1982 that Caroline Hirsch, along with friends Bob Stickney and Carl Christian, left her job at now-defunct retailer Gimbel’s and opened a Chelsea cabaret club, which quickly changed shape into something much funnier.

Adam Sandler, Colin Quinn and Caroline at Carolines in Chelsea.

Adam Sandler, Colin Quinn and Caroline at Carolines in Chelsea.

“Singers and some comedy, but not a lot,” Hirsch tells me of the first iteration of what would eventually become Carolines on Broadway in Times Square. “We dabbled; the first comedian we hired was Jay Leno and then we just decided to go full-fledged comedy,” she says. Since the beginning, the club has moved twice (first to the South Street Seaport in 1987, then later to Times Square) and has become synonymous with the sort of big-name star power infiltrating the business more prominently now.

Caroline and Jerry Seinfeld

Caroline and Jerry Seinfeld.

“As a kid, I used to watch Johnny Carson and comedians would come on and say they were performing at Mr. Kelly’s in Chicago,” she tells me. “I always remembered that so I said, ‘we’re going to find our comedian to go on David Letterman and Johnny Carson and have them say that when they’re in New York, they’re at Carolines.’” With this, and later a show on A&E called Carolines Comedy Hour, Hirsch became widely known for spotting and launching serious talent like Louis CK, Jay Leno, Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, Kathy Griffin, Colin Quinn, Amy Poehler, Seth Meyers, Ellen Degeneres, Adam Sandler and Wanda Sykes, among others.

“I don’t go around telling jokes,” she says so bluntly that I laugh out loud. “I have a sarcastic attitude, but I don’t tell jokes. I know what’s funny, I know what sells.”

Louis CK onstage at Carolines on Broadway

Louis CK onstage at Carolines on Broadway.

At its core comedy is an art form best enjoyed live, and come November, Hirsch will produce the New York Comedy Festival, a weeklong extravaganza of real-time laughs she began in 2004, for the 14th time. This year, headliners like Bill Maher, the Impractical Jokers, Iliza Shlesinger, Nick Offerman and more will take stages around NYC, including Madison Square Garden, Carnegie Hall and, of course, Carolines.

“I’ve always had a feeling that comedy had this very outlaw kind of thing,” says Hirsch. “It was never really accepted and I always knew it was going to be. I knew way before anybody embraced it. Right now, you can’t get away from it—it’s the hottest arts medium today.”