Laugh Lines: With Caroline Hirsch

Posted on Mar 22, 2018

Caroline’s On Broadway is one of the most famous, most successful comedy clubs in the world, and one of the few run by a woman, the remarkable Caroline Hirsch.  Many clubs have opened and closed in New York over the years, but Caroline’s continues to draw top talent and sell out regularly. Additionally, Hirsch produces award winning television specials, a nationally recognized comedy festival and high grossing charity events for multiple foundations.

FRIARS CLUB: It started in1981, when your friends approached you about opening a cabaret space. You started booking comedians there, and they were so popular that soon that’s all you were booking.

CAROLINE HIRSCH: Comedians sold more tickets. They also drew a younger, hipper crowd. 

FC: Had you run a club before?

CH: No, and everyone said, What are you doing? You’re crazy! But I had a hunch.

FC: There were other clubs around at the time like Catch A Rising Star, The Comedy Cellar, The Improv.  What made Caroline’s different?

CH: I paid the comedians.

FC: Didn’t everyone?

CH: No. The showcase clubs didn’t.  But I wanted headliners. I knew I could sell tickets, so I wasn’t worried.

FC: Was there a specific moment that opened the floodgates for Caroline’s?

CH: Late Night with David Letterman was big in the 80’s, and Jay Leno, who was a regular at the club, would go on the show and  Letterman would ask what he was up to, and Leno would say, “Well, I am appearing at Caroline’s…” It was like a national plug for us. He did Letterman so many times, cause they were buddies, and each time he would mention the club. It wasn’t long before everyone in the country knew who we were.

FC: It’s nice when successful people remember their roots. If it weren’t for Caroline’s, he may never have perfected his act and gotten on Letterman… Today, Caroline’s On Broadway is so in demand that you’re open 365 days a year.

CH: I think we took Christmas off last year.

FC: Okay, 364. I think the question everyone’s dying to know is, when do you do laundry?

CH: Oh, it’s all in the planning…

FC: You’re a master of that at this point, no doubt. When did you first get involved with the Friars Club?

CH: I think it was 1989.

FC: And why do you think they accepted someone like you as a member? 

CH: Ha! Why wouldn’t they? I was hiring comedians and paying them!

FC: You’ll be sainted for that one day. At least in the hallowed halls of The Monastery. Which comedians made you laugh hardest when you were growing up?   

CH: Joan Rivers, Myron Cohen, Jackie Mason, Jonathan Winters.  Most of the comedians on Ed Sullivan and later, The Tonight Show. When I was a kid, that was the only place to see them. It was a really big deal to be on those shows. It’s not the same today…   But back then, there were only one or two to watch, and everyone did.    

FC: It’s interesting to look at comedy through the #metoo lens. Do you think female comedians are finding equal ground? 

CH: Women have come a long way and there are more female comedians now that ever.  I think Tina Fey and Amy Poehler opened the door to a whole new world for women comedians.

FC: They’re both prolific talents. To what do you attribute the progress?

CH: I think The Daily Show with Jon Stewart turned a lot of young people, young women in particular, onto the possibilities of being smart and funny. This is where they were turning for news. Comedy Central, in general, inspired a younger generation of women and I think it helped their own sense of humor.   

FC: You’ve dedicated your career to nurturing young talent. Is there one quality that successful comics share?

CH: Talent. True talent. But that doesn’t happen over night. It can take ten years for a comedian to find his or her own voice. To be comfortable in their own skin.

FC: The Friars Club Roasts have taken heat lately for being as bawdy as they are. Are they endemically sexist?

CH: I think the Roasts, in context, are pretty funny. And there are always women on the dais. But there’s definitely a shift that’s happening that we’re in the middle of and we’ll have to see where it goes. There’s a lot of different ways to be funny without being sexist. Let’s see who can rise to the challenge.

FC: You’ve risen to another set of challenges in all the work you do for charities. For the last two decades, Caroline’s has hosted an annual fundraiser called The Ms. Foundation’s Women of Comedy, presented by you and none other than Gloria Steinem. 

CH: Gloria and I created the event in 1989 and we’ve featured such talent as Susie Essman, Lizz Winstead, and Joy Behar, to name just a few. In 2017, the Ms. Foundation hosted its 22nd Comedy Night at the club, featuring some stellar female comedians and raising money for the foundation.

FC: We’re looking forward to the 23rd Comedy Night, for sure… Then there’s the highly celebrated Stand-Up For Madeline, for the Ovarian Cancer Research fund, in honor of the late great comic genius, Madeline Kahn. How did that come about?

CH: After Madeline passed from ovarian cancer, her husband, John Hansbury, came to me with an idea to do a cocktail party / stand up show in her honor, that featured comics, and it really couldn’t have worked out better. We’ve raised hundreds of thousands of dollars on her behalf.

FC: Is there anything better healing than through comedy? The Friars prides themselves on the Gift of Laughter program for Wounded Warriors. We raise money and invite them to all of our events as a giant Thank You for their service. You present Stand Up For Hero’s for the New York Comedy Festival, which is so popular, it’s held at the theater at Madison Square Garden.

CH: We created the event for the Bob Woodruff Foundation. Bob was injured while reporting in Iraq and almost didn’t survive. He was in a coma for a month, but made an amazing recovery. Andrew Fox and I had an idea of putting on a show to raise money for the foundation, which directly helps injured veterans. To date, we’ve raised over $45 million dollars.

FC: It’s a stunning achievement… When is the next one?

CH: November 7th this year, and it’s going to be great.

FC: Undoubtedly… Okay, last question, and answer as honestly as you can… If you were living an alternate life-- and after all you’ve done I’m not saying we’d want this-- but IF… What could you see yourself doing?

CH: Hmmm, all I can say is, I’d probably be a much better golfer.