Laugh Legend Caroline Hirsch of the eponymous Caroline’s on bringing the funny, luring tourists, and laughing off a recession.
Point of Origin: I was born in Brooklyn and moved to Manhattan when I was, I think, 24 years old and went to City College and FIT, which is how I ended up in retail. I was working at Gimbels, which was going out of business, so as market reps, we were out, too. Because I was collecting unemployment, I had a little time to look around. Then I kind of fell into this business, the business of comedy — it just happened. Bob Stigley just loved to go to a comedy club called Freddy’s on 49th Street, and before long, he and a couple of other friends wanted to open a cabaret. Bob decided to use a woman’s name for the cabaret we planned to open in Chelsea, and that was the start of Caroline’s.
As a buyer, you had to know what people wanted to buy, and it was the same with talent. We went for the best talent we could afford. Mark Shaman came in and played piano; there were some great stand-ups, and there was a lot of enthusiasm. But it just wasn’t happening with a young, hip crowd — and to be successful in this business, you need the 20- and 30-year-olds who go out a lot, unlike the 50- to 60-year-olds who don’t. It was the time when David Letterman had just gone on to television after Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. He was continually introducing a slew of young comedians, so every time somebody like Jay Leno came to town to do Letterman’s, he’d say he was playing Caroline’s. So by the seat of my pants, we won. I promoted things I liked, and because we didn’t have any money for advertising, we tried marketing and publicity with newspapers and television shows. We had people come in and review our shows. Comedians would get press by talking about the club.
When in 1987 Wall Street was crashing, we opened at the Seaport in April. It was one of Wall Street’s biggest depressions, but even in a recession, people have to laugh. When the CEO of A&E came to me and wanted to do a stand-up comedy show with a New Yorker, I produced the television program, Caroline’s Comedy Hour, starting in 1989. We stayed at the Seaport for five years and then came uptown. This is the best decision I have ever made in my business career. People walk up and down the streets around Times Square, they see a poster outside, and even if they don’t know the name of the comic, they saw that person on TV, and make a reservation to come in. The television show went on until 1995.
Occupations: I miss it and am working on another show now, but, meanwhile I’m producing new artists on DVD.
Not the Web? Actually, right now, Caroline’s is a site where people come to get information about the club, but this will be relaunched as more of a content site, and I’m working with a lot of people — talents before anybody else knows they’re talents — to get the job done. We’re working on a lot of stuff.
Any non-industry projects in the works? We do our fair share of fundraisers here that I support personally. We do a stand-up fundraiser every year in honor of Madeline Kahn with her husband to raise money to fight for ovarian cancer research called “Stand up for Madeline Kahn.” Another is for the Scleroderma Research Foundation, a big fundraiser in conjunction with the New York Comedy Festival, which I also produce. We do other work for charities who find that it costs so much to rent out space in a hotel — it’s cheaper to do an event with comics and me!
Are you funny? I have a great sense of humor, but I’m not funny. But I know what’s funny. You must be funny to be on stage.
Favorite Hangs: To unwind, I go out East to my house at the beach. I look forward to that, and go out for the long weekends in the summer. I don’t go to clubs anymore. We’ve been going for 25 years, where else is there to go? For me, it was a different world before I opened Caroline’s. We went to Studio 54, Limelight, Xenon, every single night. I don’t’ miss it. We had fun then, but I don’t miss the whole scene. Now there are a whole bunch of young clubs, but you have to understand that things have changed. There is no club where, at the stroke of midnight, you have to be! When I had the club on 8th Avenue, we’d go to Limelight afterward. Or we’d go to Mr. Chow’s for dinner, then to one of the clubs.
Industry Icons: All of the icons. I just didn’t want to be any of them. I didn’t want to copy anybody else. I just wanted to do it better. We didn’t have a club like Caroline’s when we started this one. We had showcase clubs where people came to try out material before they went to Vegas or Atlantic City. Jay Leno had an hour and a half of material, so I developed the club with an opening act for him, a lead-in. The people we have here are really professionals. Bill Bellamy is coming in this weekend, and he has a polished hour-and-a-half stand-up; it’s different than the showcase clubs. The caliber of entertainer who works the club is really, really funny, and I laugh at the same joke a hundred times.
Who are some people you’re likely to be seen with? Comics like Joy Behar and Susie Essman are girlfriends of mine, and I still see Carol Leifer, who is an executive producer for CBS right now, and of course, Judy Gold. Those are pretty much my girlfriends, and they all make me laugh.
Projections: The future is a big place. Now we’re partnering with Comedy Central after five years of doing the New York Comedy Festival. It will begin to air next year in a multi-year contract with the network. We have a wonderful line-up in various venues all over New York, from the day after the election, November 5 until November 9. For instance, I met Craig Ferguson many years ago in Montreal. He really took off on The Drew Carey Show and will be performing in the New York Comedy Festival at Town Hall, as will Joel McHale. Frank Caliendo will play Carnegie Hall, as will Kat Williams. Mike Mencia’s mind will implode at Avery Fisher Hall, where Brian Regan will also play. Sarah Silverman will be at the Hammerstein Ballroom. Tracey Morgan will be “Coming Back Home” at the Apollo on November 8 — and panel discussions will be held at the Paley Center with the writers of The Daily Show and Conan O’Brien’s show. And something at the 92nd Street Y to watch will be “We Have A Winner” with Lizz Winstead, who co-created The Daily Show.
What are you doing tomorrow night? I go to restaurants where people know you, usually in the neighborhood. I leave work and go to dinner at Buddakan tonight, and tomorrow I might try to stop by a new place in the neighborhood where L’Impero used to be in Tudor City, Convivio. Although Convivio is now a no-name restaurant today, Michael White is the chef, so it won’t be no-name for long.
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