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New York Comedy Festival: Meet the woman who's synonymous with stand-up

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Caroline Jerry Seinfeld
Carolines on Broadway

If comedy has a Dorothy Parker, it’s Caroline Hirsch. The nightclub that bears her name on Broadway at the north end of Times Square is her salon, and for more than 30 years now, Carolines has been hosting the funniest and most famous stand-up comedians. From Jerry Seinfeld to Dave Chappelle to Louis CK and Tracy Morgan, Carolines has been more than a prime showcase for the most hilarious people alive — it’s a room every comic has to conquer in order make his or her bones in the business.

Hirsch will be the first to admit that she herself isn’t funny. But she knows it when she sees it. “I’ve met incredible talent along the way, and when people say to me, ‘How do you know what’s funny?’ I go, “Are you kidding me? Do you know who I’ve worked with?” Hirsch says. “I mean, I sat with people who were truly geniuses.”

In 2004, Hirsch was perfectly positioned to organize the first New York Comedy Festival. Dozens of comics who’d performed at Carolines returned, and Roseanne Barr and Denis Leary headlined the inaugural events. It was an immediate success, and it’s only grown since then. On Wednesday, the Festival kicks off its 10th year with the all-star Stand Up For Heroes gala event at Madison Square Garden. Seinfeld, Jon Stewart, Bill Cosby, and Bruce Springsteen are just four of the enormous stars who will perform to raise money for American military veterans. Other NYCF events this week include a sitdown with Stephen Colbert and his Colbert Report writing team, and a conversation with Larry David.

Hirsch recently sat down with EW to discuss the Comedy Festival, how her name became synonymous with stand-up, and how the Internet had changed comedy — for better and for worse.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Carolines has been open now for more than 30 years. How did you ever get involved in this crazy business?

CAROLINE HIRSCH: If anybody would’ve asked me, “When you grow up, what do you want to do?” it would’ve been the farthest thing from my mind. I mean, I knew comedy from growing up with TV and watching Carson all the time. But I was in retail, working for Gimbels as a market rep. They were closing so I had some friends who owned a disco in New York and said, “We want to open a cabaret. Why don’t you come and be a partner with us. You might like it.” And that’s how it started, as a small cabaret, where we would do a night with soap-opera stars or we’d do a jazz act singing. And that kind of morphed into the Jay Lenos and that was the start of that. Comedy really just started to explode after the early ’80s. It was a different mode. A different group coming up. Originally, the first person that kind of worked together at the club was Leno, and then Richard Belzer, Sanda Bernhard, Jerry Seinfeld, Billy Crystal.

Billy was probably already famous at that time, right?

Yeah, it was kind of after Soap, and he wasn’t really doing anything. He really didn’t do clubs, but an agent friend of his says, “Go to Carolines. It’s a lot of fun. She’s got all the great young comedians there. You’ll love it.” He came there, and Dick Ebersol came in [and saw him], and then put him on Saturday Night Live. That was the rebirth of his comedy career.

I imagine with 30 Rock just a few blocks away that SNL‘s people have popped in from time to time over the years to find fresh talent.

They did. They came to see Pee-wee Herman. I had him first in New York. It was like a fluke that he even got there. I’m sitting with an agent and I said, “You know, I’d really love to get Pee-wee in.” And he said “Why?” I said, “I just think he’d be a great act.” He put it in his ear to do it, and Paul said, “I don’t really do clubs but let me think about it. It might be an extension of what I’m doing.” He goes and he tries it out somewhere, and he says, “Okay, I’m ready to come to the club.” And that was the start of him doing that.

This is when Carolines first opened, when the club was located on 8th Avenue and 26th Street. In those early days, was there ever a concern that you wouldn’t be open in a month, that the club would fail?

Yeah.

When did that feeling go away?

After Pee-wee was there. That turned things around. He was really popular. I remember Andy Warhol coming in to see him. He also brought a lot of celebrities to the club, not that that really matters. But it was the start of taking these pop-culture figures, like these comedians were. You know, Jay was a great example. Every time he came to New York, he’d be on David Letterman and he would say, “I’m at Carolines, I’m at Carolines, I’m at Carolines.” That gave us a national claim. That’s what we needed.

People sometimes forget how Jay was such a comic’s comic, especially now that some of comedy’s cool kids have decided he’s not part of the gang anymore.

I have to tell you what’s so brilliant about Jay: I know that he’ll be leaving in February, but it’s unbelievable how smart that show is right now. I try to watch all the intros, the monologues, just to see exactly what’s going on, and [his show’s] writing is so right on. He’s going to go out on such a high. I think Jimmy [Fallon]’s got a lot of charisma, but they’re not going to get [Leno’s] numbers. It’s going to be interesting.

Is it more difficult to break into standup than it was 30 years ago?

Easier.

Why’s that?

Many more clubs for stage time. I mean, the Internet has helped, too. It’s easier to break in if you got the goods, but there are a lot of people out there who are doing it for 10 minutes and think they’re stars.

Interesting about the Internet, because I know some comics have talked about how things like YouTube have made their life more difficult. It used to be a comedian could master five funny minutes and feed his family for years. Now that classic bit pops up on the Internet and audiences are suddenly like, “What else you got for us?”

But sometimes that great five or 10 minutes is why somebody went out to see them at the club [in the first place]. I always compare it to a band going out on the road and having the audience yell out, “Play me your greatest hits!” which they really want to hear. Listen, I know. I’ve seen shows over and over, but I know sometimes I want to hear somebody do that [same] joke that always makes me laugh.

Do you allow cameras at your club?

No. They’re told not to take them out. You’re not supposed to do it. It’s hard because you get a well-known comic that’s trying something out one night, and he doesn’t want to have that out on the market. That’s not a good thing. They’re trying to work out their joke to see where the laugh comes or how to rearrange it, but then it’s out already, so it’s not good for them.

One of your former doormen — I suppose one of those people who’d tell people to put their cameras down — has gone on to make something of himself… Idris Elba.

No one wanted to get into his way. You did what he wanted you to do. He worked at Carolines for about a year. He was kind of a soap-opera star over in England, and the story is that he’s working the door on the weekend and he gets this call that he’s got this part on The Wire. Bobby Funaro was a doorman, too. James Gandolfini came in to interview him at the club, and he went on to The Sopranos. Working here is a real drawing card for people in the arts, whether it’s waitresses, bartenders, assistants. I can’t tell you how many assistants that I’ve had that come from Ivy League schools that want to be comedy writers. It’s amazing. The kids are drawn to us, because they know that agents and managers hang around. And it’s a creative place.

You’re a female entrepreneur who runs one of the most famous comedy clubs on the planet, which I point out because Christopher Hitchens and others, at various times, have made the argument that women aren’t funny. What say you?

It’s very funny that you say that because Bonnie McFarlane did a movie, a doc she made called Women Aren’t Funny. It won the audience award at the Athena Film Festival at Columbia. It’s hysterical, she does a take off on Hitchens. [I think] he meant it in the vein of the ordinary lay person. I don’t think he meant the woman comedian. But you know being funny is very aggressive behavior. And not all men can put up with it. They can’t. They can’t put up with a woman running the whole table, which is usually what happens. I mean, when I’m at with a comedian, they run the table. They just do. And Bonnie went on and did this whole movie about it, where she got Wanda Sykes, Lisa Lampanelli, she got everyone to talk about it.

In addition to celebrating more than 30 years at Carolines, this week begins the 10th New York Comedy Festival, which you began with Andrew Fox and Louis Faranda in 2004. How did it get started?

What happened was, I did the 20th anniversary of Carolines at Carnegie Hall, and we called back a lot of the people who started at the club, from Lewis Black and Denis Leary and Joy Behar and Mario Cantone and Jon Stewart, and we did this big gala. And it was so much fun, I said I’d like to do more of these. That’s kind of how we got the idea to do the festival. To me, it just seemed natural.

The festival’s biggest event might be the Stand Up For Heroes gala, which takes place on Wednesday. How did that become part of the festival?

I was watching a documentary on Bob Woodruff — [the ABC news anchor who was nearly killed in Iraq in 2006] — and I got very very tearful. I used to watch George Stephanopoulos on his Sunday morning show, and at the end of it, he would always list the servicemen who died. And I got very upset about it, because I knew that these young boys went there because of economics. They tried to get an education, they thought they’d get a job. They went in [to the service] and they got caught in the middle of all this. Just 21, 22 years old. It really got to me. So I said, ‘Why don’t we do something.”

We got Conan O’Brien to host the first one, and of course, Bruce Springsteen. That was good. The connection with Bruce was that they put Bob in an induced coma when they treated him, and [later] he kept saying that he was hearing Bruce Springsteen [music] when he was in his coma. I guess Bruce got wind of it, and when Bob asked him would he help out with this, he said, of course. So that was the start of that, and it grew and grew and grew. It’s really something. People go from, “I’m crying, and then I’m laughing, and then I’m crying again.” It’s very very heartfelt. And everybody does it for free. We’ve raised close to $20 million already that’s been given away through the Bob Woodruff Foundation.

Jon Stewart plays a big role, and you know him from his early days, pre-Daily Show… pre-anything really.

We had a kids show that we did [when the club was located] at South Street Seaport. Now, I wish I had the pictures of him with his cape on. His manager said to me, “Do you have those pictures? I’d love to see them.” But I don’t have pictures of him doing it.

You’ve kind of been a witness to history at Carolines. So many amazing comics have been on stage. Are there certain nights, though, that stand out?

There were so many, but Sam Kinison was crazy. It was 1987. The Space Shuttle crashed on Monday. He was there on Tuesday night, and I said, “How long is it going to be until there’s going to be something about the Shuttle crash.” Well, I think it was Friday night. And it was a wild, wild week. I can’t remember the joke, but it was every night. Robin Williams would come in and onstage with him so the two of them would go at it. It was unbelievable. It was sold-out every single show. It was amazing. He was some entertainer. He was so funny.

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New York Comedy Festival Schedule of Featured Shows

Stand Up For Heroes

Featuring: Jerry Seinfeld, Bruce Springsteen, Jon Stewart, Roger Waters and other surprise guests.

The Theater at Madison Square Garden

Wed, Nov. 6, 8 p.m.

Hannibal Buress

NYU Skirball Center

Wed, Nov. 6, 8 p.m.

Stephen Colbert

BEHIND THE SCENES AT THE COLBERT REPORT: A LIVELY DISCUSSION WITH STEPHEN COLBERT AND HIS WRITERS

Town Hall

Thu, Nov. 7, 8 p.m.

Jay Pharaoh

Carolines on Broadway

Thu, Nov. 7, 8 p.m.

Wanda Sykes

An Evening with Wanda Sykes

Beacon Theatre

Thu, Nov. 7, 8 p.m.

Charlie Murphy

Carolines on Broadway

Fri, Nov. 8, 7:30 p.m., 10 p.m.

Maria Bamford

NYU Skirball Center

Fri, Nov. 8, 8 p.m.

Nick Swardson

Town Hall

Fri, Nov. 8, 7 p.m.

Bill Burr

Live at the Beacon

Beacon Theatre

Fri, Nov. 8, 7:30 p.m., 10 p.m.

Kathy Griffin

Bite My Big Apple

Carnegie Hall

Fri, Nov. 8, 8 p.m.

Whitney Cummings

Tough Guy

Town Hall

Fri, Nov. 8, 9:45 p.m.

David Cross

AN EVENING WITH DAVID CROSS

Paley Center For Media

Fri, Nov. 8 6:30 p.m.

Nick Kroll

OH HELLO: KROLL SHOW

Interviewed by Seth Meyers

Paley Center For Media

Sat, Nov. 9, 4:00 p.m.

Charlie Murphy

Carolines on Broadway

Sat, Nov. 9, 7:30 p.m., 10 p.m.

John Mulaney

Town Hall

Sat, Nov. 9, 7 p.m.

Jim Jefferies

Carnegie Hall

Sat, Nov. 9, 8 p.m.

Bill Maher

An Evening with Bill Maher

Beacon Theatre

Sat, Nov. 9, 8 p.m.

Anthony Jeselnik

Town Hall

Sat, Nov. 9, 9:45 p.m.

Charlie Murphy

Carolines on Broadway

Sun, Nov. 10, 7:30 p.m.

Larry David and David Steinberg

In Conversation

Town Hall

Sun, Nov. 10, 7:30 p.m.

For a complete schedule, click here.