- Caroline Hirsch is the cofounder and owner of the New York comedy club Carolines and is behind the annual New York Comedy Festival.
- She’s been respected for over 30 years for the way she’s able to spot and showcase emerging talent ahead of huge fame, like Jon Stewart, Dave Chappelle, Jerry Seinfeld, and Michelle Wolf.
- She explained how thinking from a customer’s perspective has been foundational to her success.
For more than three decades, Caroline Hirsch has been a legend in the comedy industry. As the cofounder and namesake of the New York comedy club Carolines, she’s discovered or helped develop some of comedy’s biggest names: people like Jerry Seinfeld, Jon Stewart, Dave Chappelle, and Michelle Wolf.
She’s also the visionary behind the New York Comedy Festival, which turns 15 this year.
From the time she booked her first comedy act, then-rising star Jay Leno, she’s been motivated by one experience, she told us for an episode of Business Insider’s podcast “This Is Success”: “This room packed with people laughing and having a great time, this is what it’s about. People having a great time.”
When she got into the business in 1982, Hirsch’s only qualification was a love of standup.
Listen to the full episode here:
Subscribe to “This Is Success” on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, or your favourite podcast app. Check out previous episodes with:
- Nasdaq CEO Adena Friedman
- “Million Dollar Listing” star Ryan Serhant
- Business coach Marie Forleo
- Skinnygirl CEO Bethenny Frankel
Transcript edited for clarity.
Caroline Hirsch: So back in the early ’80s, I was working in retail, and I worked for a big department store in New York City called Gimbels, and Gimbels was closing. So I had two friends in the city at that time who owned bars in the city and they decided they wanted to open up a cabaret, and they found this little space on Eighth Avenue, on 26th Street, and they decided to name it Carolines. And they said, “Well, would you like to be a partner with us?” And I said, “OK, sure.”
Richard Feloni: Did they name it after you before you were even approached with this offer?
Hirsch: Almost, almost. And I guess Carolines had that … Yeah, now, it’s a pretty popular name around, but then it really wasn’t. So it was fun. It was fun to be part of something to build early on. And did I know anything about it, about running a cabaret? No – but learned very quickly. I did know about the comedy business from growing up, and I always was a fan of “The Tonight Show.”
Feloni: Did they approach you because you were just a fan of comedy?
Hirsch: They were friends; they were personal friends. And they knew I wasn’t working, they said: “Well, why don’t you come and do this with us? It will be fun.” And that was it.
An eye for talent
Feloni: What were you bringing to the table?
Hirsch: I brought a little bit of money. That always helps.
Hirsch: And just that I’d be part of it with them, and we wanted to work together. They were really good operators. So we started out doing that and we learned a lot. We learned a lot about the life and the business. But about a year into being a cabaret, we found that there weren’t enough acts going around that could draw up people. So we had this idea and we said, “Let’s turn it to comedy.” It was the rise … It was this time when David Letterman was going on at 12:30 at night and was bringing on all of these young observational comedians – Jay Leno and Jerry Seinfeld.
Feloni: So that’s when it was really emerging, like that style of humour.
Hirsch: Yeah, absolutely. We had the ’60s, when George Carlin kind of broke out, and George was known because he started that observational humour. And then, like 20 years later, you had Jay Leno and Jerry Seinfeld kind of taking off from where he was on that, and then you saw a whole string of comedians come out of that. So we turned the club into basically doing only comedy and we found that we were getting a great group of people coming in. We’re getting all contemporaries at the time. So we were bringing in people who really were not appearing in New York City at all, and then we were drawing this young group of people to come in, which is kind of what every advertiser wanted, was people in their early 30s. So it paid off for us in the end.
Feloni: So was it a matter of doing research on these people? Or is it a matter of just seeing them like from the audience, like this person’s got it?
Hirsch: Right now it is. After being in business for so long and seeing so many people, you kind of …
Feloni: You get that click.
Hirsch: You kind of get to know what’s going to happen, but it takes a long time to develop into a talent. So yeah, we’ll see some people who are just starting, I mean, just starting, that’s three or four years, that’s just starting, and you’ll see that they might have this little something and we watch them. And that’s really how we develop talent at the club.
Feloni: If you were to be in the audience seeing an up-and-coming comedian, what would be things that you’re looking for?
Hirsch: A unique voice. And how a person finds that voice doesn’t happen overnight. It takes a lot of stage time. It takes a lot of them knowing how to react to the audience, even changing a pronoun around to make the joke better.
Feloni: So at this point, stand-up wasn’t mainstream yet?
Hirsch: Oh, no. Oh, no, not at all. Not at all. No, it was like I had to beg them to come in. I said, “You’ve got to see these people. This is part of our new generation of what’s going on here.” And then it started to click. It really started to click when Stephen Holden, from The New York Times, was calling me about some comedians who were going to appear at the club. And we started talking and he said, “You know what. This is not about the comedians. This is about Carolines and what it is doing right now.” When we had this article in The New York Times, it kind of pushed us over the top, and that also made for other comedians wanting to work there.
Another thing that I learned from watching “The Tonight Show,” which I go back to, is that when I was a kid and I was watching a comedian on “The Tonight Show,” like a David Steinberg, he would say, “Well, I’m appearing at Mister Kelly’s in Chicago.” And I remember that, and I remembered as a kid, “I want to go to Chicago and see David Steinberg at Mister Kelly’s.” So I got the idea that when Jay Leno was going on “The David Letterman Show” that he always had to mention he was at Carolines, and he did.
Feloni: So you had that connection before he was even on the show, and then you could use him to like advertise the club.
Hirsch: We did, we did. It was our marketing, it was our national play then because this went around the country, so now the country knew about Carolines. So these were things that I had to put together early on, opening that club, so things you learn because you have to learn them.
Feloni: So this was like a turning point for the business?
Hirsch: It was.
Feloni: It seems like with this you started to build a lot of momentum that created a network effect.
Hirsch: Well, you also have to convince the industry that you are doing the right thing, too, not only with our customers. I had to convince the agents and managers that this was a place to take people to, this was a place they needed to work. So we set that up also. So we’re also known … We’re known, what Carolines is, as a place to come to for comedy, but we’re also known as the industry that treats the talent right, and we get behind them and we do the right thing. So that’s half of the battle there.
Feloni: And then you moved to Time Square, and that was before it was like a bustling place, right?
Hirsch: Yeah, it was way before Mickey Mouse got there, way before. What happened was I had the Eighth Avenue spot, and then we went down to the seaport for about five years. And I really wanted to be uptown again, I wanted to be in the entertainment area, and Times Square was just about blooming at that time. It was making a turning point. I went to look at one spot uptown and that didn’t work out and I said, “You know what, I really want to be here.” So we took some space, I took some space in the building I am now and it’s worked out. So I’ve been in that space since 1992. That’s 26 years in that particular space.
Feloni: Yeah. Even in that, it kind of seems like you have an eye for like what’s happening next, even in terms of like picking where you’re going to have your place.
Hirsch: It was a good move, it was a good move, and people followed, and they use Carolines as part of the draw for a lot of other things that were coming around at that time.
Feloni: So yeah. This year you’ve got the 35th anniversary of Carolines and the 15th anniversary of the New York Comedy Festival.
Feloni: So what is exciting to you right now, in 2018?
Hirsch: That we are still in business and we’re still going strong, considering what is going on in the city right now with restaurants closing, clubs are closing, but Carolines is stronger than ever. And I guess that’s because comedy is bigger than ever, too. So we’re really happy about what we’ve achieved at Carolines. And we’re excited about all the talent that we’re able to secure for the festival this year.
Feloni: What are some of the upcoming names that you’re most excited about?
Hirsch: We find this emerging talent that we do kind of in the festival with Comics to Watch, and we also have New York’s Funniest. We were able to find the people who are now getting well known, like Michael Che, Michelle Wolf, this young man Tim Dillon. So these people break with us during the festival and then work at Carolines and come through. And actually even… Listen, when we had emerging talent years ago, her name was Leslie, which is Leslie Jones today. So those are the people that we find at the club and through the festival.
Feloni: What do you think is the common thread among all of these up-and-comers right now?
Hirsch: I think that all of those people worked on having their own true voice. They’re all so different from one another. Every single one of them is so different, and that’s how you really stand out. That’s what you really have to adopt to succeed.
In a constant state of adaptation
Feloni: What do you think it is about your business that you’ve been able to like have this longevity?
Hirsch: Well, I think basically what has happened is that we’re able to reinvent ourselves every week, we’re able to bring in new talent, like a restaurant will have to change its dishes all the time, but we just change the talent that’s at the club. And also because we do have quite a reputation in New York City after being in business for 35 years, I think people know where to go for comedy, it would be at Carolines. And then we do things for the community, we have lots of private events at the club, branding with advertisers. So it’s all these new businesses that have also helped Carolines stay in business for all these years, and the festival.
Feloni: And you see that as like a week-to-week transformation?
Hirsch: Yes, Carolines is kind of a week-to-week transformation. On Monday nights we’ll have a new-talent night where we get to see people who are coming up the ranks. We have a breakout series that we usually have once a week, then we have New York’s funniest comedians around during the week, and then usually our headliners are Thursday through Sunday. So we kind of have this little formula about what goes on.
Feloni: And with that quick turnaround, I mean, it happens in any industry, but in comedy specifically, something that could get a room full of huge laughs tonight, like a year from now it might be met with like dead silence.
Feloni: How do you stay on top of that? Is it looking at what’s next, or is it kind of like guiding where the taste is going?
Hirsch: No, we don’t guide the taste. I mean, I think the customer has a certain taste that they have, but I think that we’re always open to new people coming in. So starting out with Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Maher, Garry Shandling, and then finding the next Jon Stewart and that whole that came up from there, so we’re constantly doing that. The Dave Chappelle’s – Dave Chappelle started on my stage. He was 19 years old. He was a little showcase act that we had at the club and he evolved. Chris Rock was also another one and he evolved. So we’re constantly … Every 10 years there’s a new group that comes through at the club.
Feloni: What would you say the current climate for comedy is right now? What’s the current taste?
Hirsch: So, technology over the years has been responsible for what happens in the entertainment business. So when HBO went on the air, HBO helped us increase our business, because when somebody had a great special on HBO people wanted to come out to see it. Case in point: Steven Wright. And when Steven had his great HBO special people came out to see him. And the same thing has happened today. So today what we have, it’s not only the stand up specials, but we also have these YouTube stars that are around, so we kind of traced that also. We try to cover everything that a little something for everyone. It may not be my general taste, but it’s what people want. So we give people what they want.
Feloni: I guess that seems difficult in the sense that you have to figure out what other people would find funny even if you don’t personally.
Hirsch: Yeah, well, that’s the job of a producer. You may not always feel that it’s right for you, but you know it works for other people. So it’s part of what we do.
Feloni: In terms of when HBO started having all these comedy specials, was that almost, like, instead of, cannibalising the industry, it was almost like seeing like a live act – if you bought a band’s album, seeing them at Carolines would be like seeing a concert or something?
Hirsch: Absolutely. I always use that analogy because people used to say to me, “Well, we can see so much of it on TV; we’re streaming now.” I go, “But that’s the thing. You want to come out and see them in person.” It’s like going to the concert for the band’s new album. It’s exactly the same thing.
Feloni: And that still exists today, even with like Netflix, and YouTube, and things like that?
Hirsch: Absolutely. The thing about, like I said, about HBO and about Netflix right now, it’s kind of given the performer a platform. And that really makes people want to come out and see them. We had a young lady at the club in the beginning of like last summer, I met Yvonne Orji – Yvonne’s on “Insecure.” She came to do a guest set at the club and I said, “Oh, Yvonne, you must come back and do a set.” She came back a few months later and sold out. That’s because all the young women in the room that came to see her, saw her on “Insecure” and wanted to see her. So it does help somebody’s career.
Feloni: What do you think about in terms of what people’s sense of humour is like these days? There’s a lot of talk being like, this generation is so sensitive that you can’t play offensive stuff anymore. What do you think about that?
Hirsch: Well, it is sensitive, and I think that people are kind of minding themselves a little more onstage. I’ve always been asked how are the male comedians handling all the … I think that they’re much more respectful and I think that people have to really watch what … they watch what they say. I mean, they’re respectful of women at this point.
Feloni: With comedians, what if someone is like, “Oh I can’t, if I have to police myself, I can’t be a comedian anymore.” What do you say to someone like that?
Hirsch: Well, the thing about your art as a comedian is that it really needs to be true. I mean, that’s why you will see sometimes comedians crossing the line, and not a good way, because they just think it’s pushing, it’s always pushing that idea that they have. And the worst thing that really can happen to a comedian is when they kind of get a TV show and then the producers try to change what they are, and that’s a bad thing.
Feloni: And in terms of just looking at like on this point of comedians changing their material or how they present themselves, specifically male comedians looking at #MeToo specifically, and that whole movement and how it affected people like Louis CK, for example. How has that affected your role in the industry, like as you see new talent and what your club is going to be aligned with?
Hirsch: Well, we’re very respectful about the art, but we would not tolerate something that was not right at this point. We just wouldn’t do it. That person wouldn’t be working there.
Feloni: Yeah. And had that been in like such a male-dominated industry, was that something that you had to deal with through the years?
Hirsch: You know, I don’t think I ever really realised that it was so male-dominated. Like everything else was male dominated at that time. So I never put any thought to it, but there happened to be two other women at that time that were running clubs …
Feloni: Back in the early days.
Hirsch: In the early days … Bud Freeman’s wife in New York was running the Improv. So you had two other women running clubs. So to me, it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. But as I look back, I go, “Wow, it was really … I’m kind of proud of where the club came from, and kind of who had presented, and as being successful as it is today.
Feloni: And in terms of, regardless of any gender dynamic or thing, just dealing with comedians in general, they can be like huge personalities, sometimes very difficult personalities. How did you learn to deal with those people?
Hirsch: You know, early on I tried to be like really buddies with everybody. I tried to be there all the time for them and developed great friendships with a lot of people early on, and I think that’s how I’m able to kind of tolerate a lot of the behaviours.
Feloni: What do you mean?
Hirsch: Look, it’s not that everybody wants to… It’s a business, it’s business. So sometimes you’ll come into contact with somebody who won’t do the press and PR. All right, if it happens too many times, then you’re not working at Carolines anymore. So that’s just how it goes.
Feloni: Yeah. You hadn’t been in a management position before this, right? Before getting into Carolines?
Hirsch: No, no.
Feloni: How did you learn how to adapt to that?
Hirsch: You just learn. You learn how to deal with people. You learn over time. It was a small club then. It was maybe 20 people or less working there at the time. It was bartenders, and waiters, and waitresses, and two people in the kitchen, and a lady who helped do press, and myself. And that was pretty much what it was. And I would sit there in a small office and pay every bill. I knew where all the money was going. I was able to keep where the food costs were going, where the liquor costs were going, and knowing all of that, where the advertising costs we’re going. So I knew every line about what we were doing, and just learned. Then I learned years later that every week we should do a P&L report. So by doing a P&L report every week, I was able to keep things in check to see like, oh, that food cost may be going high, or that liquor cost, or that advertising’s out of line, and that really helped my business. But that’s something that I decided to do.
Hirsch: So you learn.
Feloni: It sounds like whether it was management or even like finding new talent, it was really just putting in the time.
Hirsch: It’s putting in the time, and it was just really by the seat of my pants, I have to tell you. But most ideas by the seat of your pants, most good ideas, I mean, online shopping. Who came up with that one, right? How many years ago when they’d say, “Oh, you’re crazy. That would never happen.” Well, now look what just happened. So it’s staying with an idea, and following through, and working your hardest to see if it succeeds, and not just saying, “I have to work hard at this,” because I have to put the time in, I have to make sure that I’ve covered everything that could’ve gone wrong. And I think that when somebody does that, they kind of succeed, or they pivot to something else.
A living legacy
Feloni: At what point did you realise that you had made it, that Carolines was something important?
Hirsch: I think in 1983 when we were hiring the first group of comedians coming through, and then celebrities were coming in to see them. I had Jay Leno there one night and he said to me, “Oh, Robin Williams is in New York doing a movie. He’s coming in.” So you knew when the TV stars were coming in to see the comedians that something was going on. David Letterman would then come in and even look at talent. One night Jay Leno was there and he said, “David’s coming in tonight to see me, but I really want to introduce him to Paul Reiser.” And I think he had Paul Reiser open for him, and that’s how Paul was known and then was on David Letterman’s show.
Feloni: At this time, this was when Judd Apatow was a kid, right? He would sneak in for interviews.
Hirsch: That’s something I didn’t know till later on.
Feloni: Yeah. So for background, he wrote in his recent book that as a kid, he would get into Carolines and sneak interviews with comedians like Jerry Seinfeld, pretending that he was a journalist, but he just wanted these for himself.
Hirsch: I think Judd was in high school at the time and you know you had to be 18 to come into the club. OK, that’s one thing. So I ran into Judd at the premiere of “Train Wreck.” So he was telling me how he was about 16 years old and he would sneak in and he goes, “You know, I snuck in and I saw Pee-wee Herman.” And he goes, “And I went downstairs. Now, I knew he was there because the dressing room early on was downstairs.” And that’s when Paul [Reubens] was working there. So I knew that he really did come to the club to do those interviews.
Feloni: And then like a few years ago too, Lena Dunham, when she was accepting an award so that she … The first reason she even got into comedy and acting and creating was when she saw a show at Carolines when her mum took her there.
Hirsch: Yes, this is when she was accepting a Writer’s Guild Award. And she said, “I just want to tell you how it got into comedy. My mother took me to Carolines one new year’s eve to see Lisa Lampanelli.” And she said, “I just loved, loved, loved comedy, and I met Lisa afterwards. My mum got me backstage and we met Lisa, and that was my comedy career.” Years later, I run into Lena and I had no idea is that Lena graduated from our comedy class at Carolines. She took the class, went onstage, and graduated from there. And so, I love that all these, and I love that these young women are so into comedy.
Feloni: Yeah. How does it feel to hear stories like that in terms of like a legacy of something that you’ve built?
Hirsch: I didn’t know about what she said at the award show, was sent to me, and I felt really good about it. I felt like, “Wow, I did something that people wanted.” You know, I’ll be at my office till early evening, and I’ll walk through the bar, and then I’ll walk through the showroom doors. And when you go in there and you see this room packed with people laughing and having a great time, it really makes me feel good and I’ve fulfilled my job as a producer because this is what it’s about, people having a great time.
Feloni: How do you personally define success?
Hirsch: I think you find the success in doing what you really love to do and happy to go to work every day, if you go to work.
Feloni: When did you realise that what you’re doing with the club was what you love to do?
Hirsch: It made me very happy to see the payoff. When the festival comes around, it’s a week where we don’t know where to go first because we do so many shows and it’s all good stuff, and it’s like I have a big smile on my face during the festival because it’s like, “Oh, what show am I going to go to tonight?” I see this one, that one, whatever else and be all over town. And then I’m watching and I’m in like the audience of the Beacon Theatre, which is 2,800 seats, and the whole audience is so into the show that makes me really happy.
Feloni: So it’s kind of like making a product where you want to be the customer?
Hirsch: Sure. That’s the best product to make. I mean, that is typically, you might say, what happened here. I was the person who loved the cabaret and the comedy shows and then I was able to do it. So I kinda knew what people wanted. It’s basically knowing what people want.
Feloni: Is that just kind of like trusting your own instinct?
Hirsch: I always trust my own instinct. I really do. As I get older and older, my instinct’s better than anybody else’s. You learn never to doubt yourself.
Feloni: Is there a point where you trusted your instinct ever and it just didn’t pan out?
Hirsch: I had a comedy-themed restaurant upstairs from Carolines once. It was a great real-estate deal for me. It worked out to be. The concept was really hard to pull over, but I had owned this fabulous lease. I was able to get out of it very gracefully. So it wasn’t a total loss. I mean, look, you can be successful, but lots of successful people go on to do other things and they’re not so successful, but they would not know that if they didn’t try. So maybe the second thing, then the third thing works, and then the fourth maybe, but then everything else works for you. You don’t know if it doesn’t work, if you don’t try it. And you just have to try it.
Feloni: And if you were to give advice to someone who wanted to have a career like yours, what would you say?
Hirsch: Oh, go for it. Why not? Why not? My career is much easier than being on the stage. Being on the stage is hard. Being onstage takes a real talent, and this is something that I learned. But to really be onstage, comedy is probably the hardest art form you will ever find. I mean, it’s much easier to be a serious actor than to be a comedic actor, even that part of it. But comedy is one of the toughest things to get onto your belt.
Feloni: How come?
Hirsch: Because you have to come up with this logic that’s different than anybody else’s, and spin it around, and make everybody in the audience wonder what’s going to come out of your mouth next. And the other part of it is taking that community in the audience and having they relate to all the same stuff. That’s what makes us laugh because we go, “Oh, that happened to me, too.” And that’s why we laugh.
Hirsch: So it’s hard thing to do. That’s not easy.
Feloni: Well, you’ve had to have some of those skills in terms of finding what works.
Hirsch: You find what work after … Yeah, like the same thing, you find what works, you have your challenges, things don’t work, you change it around. I mean, that’s why it takes many years for a stand-up to be successful onstage. And by successful I mean having a good act that they have, not financially, but just some sound material that they can go out with.
Feloni: What’s next for you beyond this festival?
Hirsch: Beyond the festival? Well, there are other projects that have gone into producing films and documentaries and busy doing that at this point, and then also developing my business even more. So we have this brand extension of Carolines where people come to us now to say, “How can we get to know your audience?” And that’s another part of our business right now, which we’re expanding. So whether it’s podcasts, whether it’s video, internet projects, they come to us for this. So that’s kind of an extension of my brand. So we’re constantly growing. I mean, years ago, I grew through the A&E show. I kind of backed off a little with TV production, but I’m getting right back into that. We’re doing more and more of that. So it’s all fun. It’s all good. It’s taking what we know and just spinning it around and doing it in another way.
Feloni: And are you hopeful for the state of the industry? What would you say to a comedian being like, “Oh, comedy is dead, stand-up is dead”?
Hirsch: Oh, no. My goodness – it’s not dead. Oh, my God, I’ve never seen so many emerging comedians as today. And I get asked by a number of students in college that they want to come and intern because they want to work around the club because it’s fun. I mean, the first day one of the interns was working there and Neil Patrick Harris is doing this branded social-media commercial for Jiffy peanut butter, and he was like, “Oh, my God, I can’t believe he was here.” It’s like there’s always something going on at the club. And like I said, women, oh, my goodness. I’ve had only women assistants in the last maybe 10 years of my office, and they come out of college and want to be in the comedy business. And I said to one of the young ladies one day, who I was working with, and I said, “Why don’t you ever want to do this?” She said, “Well, I used to watch Jon Stewart on Comedy Central and I always wanted to do what he wanted to do, and I wanted to be maybe a producer or a writer on the show.” Like Lena Dunham, it’s opened up this whole other industry, and I’m totally flattered that there’s a bunch of young women that want to be involved in it.
Feloni: Thank you so much, Caroline.
Hirsch: Thank you.
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