How Caroline Hirsch Shaped 30 Years of Comedy Without Cracking a Single Joke
For nearly 36 years, Hirsch—while not a comedian herself—has run one of the country’s most successful comedy clubs, where Jerry Seinfeld, Jon Stewart, and more got their start.
The New York comedy club Caroline’s on Broadway is, as advertised, on Broadway. The basement-level performance space sits in a northern tangle of Times Square, smack between 49th and 50th streets, hemmed in by a crowded gift shop, a fluorescent Ruby Foos, and a colossal, ever-changing billboard. By comparison, Caroline’s looks nearly nondescript. The façade is pretty simple: double doors, a wall of posters, a sign above the entrance. Its most eye-catching feature is a pattern—a distinctive arrangement of jewel-tone diamonds, sort of like checks, only crooked—which shows up between the posters, around the sign, and all over the club’s interior.
The omnipresent motif is a riff on Harlequin, a mute jester character from Italian Commedia dell’arte, whose reappearance throughout the history of dramatic satire has made him—and his trademark diamond outfit—a kind of formal shorthand for the very idea of a joke. The pattern douses the whole space with a comedy vibe, subtly signifying parody without having to actually drop any punchlines. In that sense, the visual pun draws a tight parallel to the person who commissioned it: the club’s owner and namesake, Caroline Hirsch—a woman nearly synonymous with New York comedy, who’s had a hand in the rise of half the country’s most famous comics, but one who rarely, if ever, cracks a joke herself.
For nearly 36 years, Hirsch has run one of the most successful comedy clubs in the country—one where Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld, Jon Stewart, Roseanne Barr, Carol Leifer, Sandra Bernhard, and PeeWee Herman have headlined since their heyday, and one that continues to serve as a kind of litmus test for comedians’ national viability. She produced a four-season weekly comedy show in the ’90s on A&E called Caroline’s Comedy Hour, and started the New York Comedy Festival in 2004 which partnered with Comedy Central in 2011, and just wrapped its 15th season last Sunday. She’s made herself into the kind of industry name whose mere mention can coax major comedians into clearing their schedule. “I was with her once to see Tracy Morgan,” said one guest at a recent event called “Women in Comedy” (the 23rd iteration of an annual fundraiser for the Ms. Foundation and yet another Hirsch production), “and he was so excited, he was like ‘Caroline? Oh, anything for Caroline.’”
Caroline Hirsch is, almost by definition, a comedy insider. But she’s also a total outlier: For one, she’s a woman, in a world which—it hardly bears repeating—skews boy-heavy. But perhaps more unusually: in a scene overrun by people tripping over themselves to get a laugh, Caroline has never been particularly interested in writing jokes, delivering them, or performing in any capacity, whether it’s on stage or in a casual context. Her whole mien telegraphs a kind of reserved, Upper West Side wealth that might seem better suited to running a gallery or museum (earlier this autumn, the New York Times published a feature on the art collection in her Hamptons house), though that impression stems somewhat from a kind of social modesty. “She was always a pretty quiet girl,” said Lorraine Kostyra, Hirsch’s best friend and confidante “through thick and thin, boyfriends and breakups, new boyfriends, more breakups and marriages,” as she put it. “I would say she was more on the shy side. A quiet girl. She wasn’t someone who walked in a room and, you know, blasted through the doors.”
In the early 1980s, when Caroline first opened her club, she wasn’t just unusual for comedy, she was a total aberration. Here was a quiet woman with no entertainment or venue experience, who headlined comics (they never got top billing: most performed as openers or as part of a showcase) and—weirder still—paid them. Almost 40 years later, while some women are still knocking on the boys’ club of comedy, Caroline sits as one of its gatekeepers.
These days, Hirsch lives uptown, but she grew up in various neighborhoods of Brooklyn—first Williamsburg, then Borough Park, then Flatbush. She went to Catholic school, and got along well with her mother and father: two equally quiet parents who worked in umbrella manufacturing. “They made things with their hands,” she told The Daily Beast, “back when umbrellas were made in the United States.” Hirsch didn’t see her parents often, because her younger twin brothers lived with several mental disabilities and required more care. “One of my closest friends told me that was why I always liked comedy,” she said. “I was always watching TV, because I was always by myself.”
Her friend’s assessment was not far off from a comment many made to the Daily Beast about Caroline: namely, that Caroline is a watcher. She is a type—a kind of person that everyone has met at some point—that person with a weirdly keen eye, who’s just good at picking stuff out. The person who can identify what will resonate with both a wide range of people, whether it’s finding comedy acts with mass appeal, or getting a really great gift (specifically: the kind of gift that people don’t even realize they want, that only seems necessary the moment it appears, which, according to her friends, is the only kind Caroline gives). “Caroline could always spot—in terms of clothing, in terms of style, in terms of comedy—she can just identify up-and-coming things very clearly,” Kostyra said. “She had this uncanny ability to spot something and know if it was going to work.”
You could chalk this up, as one or two acquaintances did, to having “great taste.” But while taste often has so much to do with class and cultural capital, what Caroline’s friends described in her seemed more instinctive; it’s something almost like performing—like being able to read a room. “It’s kind of a sixth sense to me,” comedian Carol Leifer, known for her stand-up on David Letterman, said on the phone. “If you look at her early lineups, she always had a good knack and a good eye. I don’t think it’s something you can cultivate. I think you’re kind of born with it.”
Caroline’s eye was her bread and butter. In college, after futzing around with a biochem degree at the City University of New York, Hirsch transferred to the Fashion Institute of Technology, graduated, and took a job at a department store called Gimbel’s. For nearly a decade, Caroline worked at Gimbel’s as a buyer, watching shows and flipping through catalogues. “I was a person who went in the market and saw all the new items,” she said. “Gimbel’s had a number of chains all across the country, so I was the person who was in New York, [who reported to] the other buyers and told them, ‘Oh, this is the scarf, this is the handbag, this is what the trend is.’”
When Gimbel’s started to go downhill in the early 1980s, Hirsch was approached by her two friends, Carl Christian and Bob Stickney, to come work with them and help open up a cabaret—something that, though not at first apparent, ultimately required a similar skill.
The club opened quickly. Bob and Carl approached Caroline in 1981, just three months before opening night at a small, dive-y spot on a Chelsea cross-section of 10th Avenue. Almost immediately, Caroline found herself in familiar territory. “I watched trends,” she said. “It was the same thing [as at Gimbel’s]... It was about knowing what people want. You kind of have to know what your audience wants, when they want that, and put it out there.”
In her first year as a co-cabaret owner, Hirsch realized that what her audience wanted wasn’t cabaret. “Cabaret didn’t move me,” she once told Variety. “It was fun, it wasn’t tapping a pop culture nerve.” In 1982, she stopped booking so many variety acts, and slotted more comics.
Hirsch had been into comedy since her teens, when she’d snuck into a George Carlin set at a bar down on Bleecker Street. She’d collected comedy albums as a kid, watched Johnny Carson, and kept up with all the guys (mostly guys) who did stand-up on his set. (“David Steinberg used to go on his show all the time,” she said. “And when he would go on Johnny Carson, he would talk about how there was this club in Chicago called Mister Kelly’s, and I remember as a little kid going ‘Oh my God, I gotta go to Mister Kelly’s in Chicago if I want to see David Steinberg.’”)
By the 1980s, she had noticed that a shift was taking place in stand-up—a sea change that had really started with George Carlin, but was working its way across the spectrum into the acts of younger comics. Performers were moving toward a more observational kind of humor. “It was still punchline and a joke,” she said. “But they just talked about daily things in their lives that they thought were funny.” Later that year, she booked Jay Leno for a full week of shows. Ticket sales shot up.
“This feeling for what was happening with comedy—I didn’t imagine it. It was what was happening. It was just something,” Hirsch said. “These young people had these small followings at that time. Like Jay Leno and Jerry Seinfeld, Garry Shandling. Sandra Bernhardt. I hired Sandra right after her movie King of Comedy, and she was like going on to be a really big star after that. I knew there was something happening in that type of entertainment.”
This new, more quotidian comedy was something not so far from what Caroline was doing as a producer—namely, trawling through the vast database of daily experiences, and identifying elements that would ring true to hundreds of people. “Until you make a joke about something, you might be thinking ‘Well, I’m the only person that thinks that way,’ Liefer, another observational comic told the Daily Beast. “And sometimes, when a joke bombs, you can go home that night and think, ‘welp, I am the only person that thinks that way.’ But when you have another good joke about something and people laugh at that, you realize you’re not the only person who’s made this observation.”
In late October, on the night of the Ms. Foundation’s Women in Comedy fundraiser, Caroline took the stage only briefly. Standing against the backdrop of the club’s diamond motif, Hirsch delivered brief welcoming remarks. She thanked the crowd for coming, tipped her hat to the Ms. Foundation, and applauded the lineup—a list of now-famous women comics from Sasheer Zamata to Judy Gold to Michelle Wolf, many of whose early stabs at comedy had happened at Caroline’s.
Then, Hirsch took her seat and gave the performers the stage. As she watched, she kept her eye trained less on the comics than on the crowd. “When I watch a comic, I usually know their entire act,” she told the Daily Beast. “When I come in the room, I just wait for that same joke. I wait for them to do the same joke, so I can watch everybody else laugh. I love that part of it.”