After 30 years in the New York comedy scene, Caroline Hirsch has seen it all. The owner of Caroline's On Broadway in Times Square has helped launch the careers of some of comedy's biggest names today and continues to make her mark with the New York Comedy Festival, now in its ninth year.
I sat down with Caroline ahead of the NYCF this weekend at the club that bears her name to get her take on the state of comedy today. She revealed some her comedy pet peeves (guys, stop trying to be so self-deprecating), discussed recording in clubs, Jon Stewart's former children's show and what she thinks Christopher Hitchens really meant in that 2007 Vantiy Fair essay, among other things. Hear what she had to say in the Q&A below:
Huffington Post: When people talk about comedians who got their start at Caroline’s, you always hear Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld and Paul Reubens mentioned. Who else are you really proud of?
Caroline Hirsch: Billy Crystal, Sandra Bernhard, Garry Shandling, Lisa Lampanelli, all those kinds of people started here. Also Jon Stewart.
HP: How did Jon start out?
CH: Jon Stewart was somebody that we kept an eye on. I think I first met him down at the South Street Seaport. It was the late eighties and we brought Jon in as kind of an opening act, a middle act, at the club and used to do a children’s show with him on Saturdays at the Seaport.
HP: A children’s show?
CH: Yeah, I wish I had the pictures, I could blackmail him now [laughs]. He used to wear a cape. It was a little children’s show, you know, like super hero characters and whatever he played. It was a long time ago.
HP: That’s adorable. You obviously have a knack for finding people. What do you look for in younger comedians who are coming up?
CH: Just that unique voice. You have to have something that distinguishes you from the next person. Some people just pop. It’s that. But that doesn’t happen automatically. People have to learn how to be on stage, what they are most comfortable with on stage and what kind of jokes they really feel they want to get behind because it’s part of their inner being. Like, let’s talk about Jon Stewart. It took a number of years for him to pop. First he had the show on Comedy Central in 1992 with Patty Rosborough co-hosting. I remember doing that show. That was Jon’s kind of introduction to TV, but later they pulled him to go to MTV and it was that type of show [a talk show] that set him in the mode of stardom.
HP: Is there anything in comedy today that you’re just sick of?
CH: I mean, there are all different kinds of funny. And I personally I’ve always loved that dark, black humor. I gravitate towards that. But I’m sick of the self-deprecating bullshit that I hear. That’s what I can’t stand. It just doesn’t… I don’t know it just doesn’t do anything for me.
HP: Well I know you like Louis C.K. and he’s pretty self-deprecating.
CH: But there’s a truism about Louis. There was one joke I was just reading this morning, a quote about his act where he says you get to a certain point of your career and a woman will go out with you “even if you look like me,’ he says. And it’s funny because the reverse is true. He’s saying, ‘now I get the chicks because they know me, but I still look like this. Years ago I didn’t get the chicks when I looked like this.” There’s a truthfulness there and when it’s the truth, it’s fine, but when people have to go out of their way to [be self-deprecating], I don’t like that. It seems to be a thing in comedy now where people put down success. That’s something I’m seeing.
HP: Like it’s cool to put yourself down.
CH: If you want to be in comedy, I think you really want to be a star. You want to shine. You want people to laugh at you. I mean, that’s what you really want. Even Larry David in his kind of convoluted way wanted to be a star. And you know he’s probably the best comedy mind today.
HP: How do you think comedians releasing specials direct to consumers online is changing the industry?
CH: Well, I can see a lot of people that I would never get to see in the club now because any rising comedian can probably YouTube me something. So that’s a good thing. About delivering it for $5 a video or whatever it is, I mean it’s something that Louis did, he produced it during the festival last year at the Beacon show. He was able to do it because he is really the hot, hot comedian at this point. Others have followed and have not been as successful as Louis. He set the bar pretty high. He made a little more money than [he would have with a network] and then he re-sold it again to FX. It’s owning your own content; you’re king then.
HP: Do you think that comedy clubs still groom comedians like they used to or is it more important now to have that online following?
CH: I think it’s all a part of it. Usually when people do send me a tape they’re at some small club somewhere, on stage, because you must learn how to do that. You must learn how to deliver. You must learn the audience. You must learn to get comfortable in your own skin on stage and know how to work the joke. Even the professionals do it. Louis will come here and work out stuff and he’ll do a joke five different ways to see how it gets the best laugh. It’s all part of that live experience, which will always be here. You need to have that relationship with people. And the other great thing about live comedy is that when you have a community in a room with you, laughing, it’s infectious.
HP: What do you feel makes the best room for comedy or what is your idea of a bad room for comedy?
CH: Well, bad sight lines for one. Having some columns in the middle of the room or a low ceiling. I just think it’s the intimacy, the acoustics that are important. There’s a reason there’s carpeting on the floor in here. We have such a great room where you’re never too far from the stage. There’s something very special: having an intimate relationship with the performer.
HP: Stand-up comics have had a problem in recent years with audience members recording sets in clubs and uploading them to YouTube, often causing a scandal. How do you prevent that from happening at Caroline’s?
CH: We do not allow cell phones. We make an announcement. When somebody does that, they’re stealing content. They’re stealing from the comedian. They’re stealing from the club. And it’s really against the law to do that. Chris Rock has said it before: he doesn’t want to go into the club and have somebody tape him, you know, trying a new set out. It’s not fair to do. You don’t own that.
HP: What is your first reaction when you hear about someone getting publicity for saying that women aren’t funny?
CH: OK let’s set this straight about when this was said in the Vanity Fair article by Chris Hitchens: I really think he meant the laywoman, not the professional female comedian. I had to read it twice to get to the bottom of what he was trying to say. I think he meant that women are generally not funny in the real world, in their relationships, because it’s a very kind of threatening power to have over someone, to be funny. It freaks out a lot of males; they’re intimidated by funny ladies. The man wants to be the funny one in the relationship because that’s his power. It’s a very powerful tool. When I first started this business 30 years ago we had a fraction of the amount of comedians appearing at Caroline’s as opposed to now. And as far as the percentage of women then vs. now, it’s still not 50%. It’s still around 25%. We have more men and we have more women, but the percentages are still about the same.
HP: You mean that the ratio of men to women hasn’t really changed.
CH: You have to understand, it’s not an easy industry to break into. It’s very, very hard. It’s very aggressive. When you get on stage, you either kill or you die. I mean those are not like, “Oh did you have a nice day at the office.” The tenacity that you need to go out every night to get that stage time and make yourself known, write your jokes during the day and then go out at night, it’s a lot. It’s not for everybody. And then a lot of people try it and a lot of people aren’t that talented and don’t have the power to stay there and stick with it. It does not happen overnight. It didn’t happen overnight for any of the geniuses around today.
HP: What do you think it is about the city that specifically breeds great stand-up comics?
CH: Oh, the melting pot of all the different nationalities, for sure. The density of people. Not only are they home-grown but they come from all around the United States to go to New York to hone their craft because it’s the greatest city in the world. We have Broadway here. We have great venues in the city like the ones we’re using in the festival: Carnegie Hall, the Beacon, Madison Square Garden... Where in the United States do you have those kind of venues? So New York is kind of the comedy capital of the world.
HP: After 9/11, was closing the club a difficult decision for you or was that just something that you felt clearly needed to happen?
CH: It was a decision that was not really even in my hands at that time. It was just something that the city was going through. You needed to go out to dinner because you had to eat, but you didn’t need to go to a show. And at that particular time it was not only the audience feeling bad about it but also the performers. How does he or she go on stage after that? So we closed for a while, because we also had people that worked here, people who needed to heal. And comedians needed to get back on stage but it took some time to do it. I think Rosie O’Donnell was a big help at that time. She had her show on the air and she encouraged people: “Go out at night! You know Mario Cantone’s at Caroline’s, go see Mario Cantone. Go have a laugh this weekend. Go have a good time. We’ve been through so much.” So that kind of brought about people being comfortable going out again.
HP: Any plans to expand?
CH: No I think the expansion really came through the festival. That is where we’ve put our efforts. It gives me a chance to work with people that I worked with early on [as well as new comics] so it’s a little more satisfying for me. And that’s kind of how the festival was created. We did the 20th anniversary special at Carnegie Hall and we had such a great time doing it, we said we should do more of this. And that’s kind of what spurred us to start doing the festival. Now we put people there and in, say, The Apollo. Jim Gaffigan’s playing there. He’ll be the whitest thing on 125th street
HP: [Laughs] So that was intentional, Gaffigan at the Apollo?
CH: Uh huh.
HP: Who else are you excited to have at the festival this year?
CH: We’re just excited about there’s so many great shows. And of course, Kevin Hart at Madison Square Garden. Two sold out shows at the Garden.
HP: Even though he’s had a lot of success, do you think Hart is underrated, critically?
CH: Yeah they’ll go, “Kevin Hart who?” And he sold out Madison Square Garden, twice. We’ve produced him a number of times in the festival. And he kind of started off on this stage, here, years ago. Now people know him from “Think Like A Man” and I think he has two movies coming out at the end of this year, plus a TV show that’s a very, very funny premise. He has his following and a big Twitter base [...] But it’s kind of a different culture and he has not crossed over yet. It’ll be funny to see him in a movie with Kevin James. Oh, those two.