Who’s Here: Caroline Hirsch Queen of Comedy

The most famous comedy club in New York City is Caroline’s on Broadway. And Caroline Hirsch, on this day, is up in my office being interviewed by me as a “Who’s Here” for Dan’s Papers since, in fact, she has lived here for 30 years.

We talk a bit about comedians, and after a while, it inspires me to repeat this comedy routine I’ve memorized which originally was done around 1965 by Woody Allen in his stand-up comedy days.

“So here it is,” I say. “My favorite comedy bit.” I clear my throat. She cocks her head.

“One morning I wake up with a pain in my chestal area. I go out. This is terrible. If I go to the doctor, it’s going to cost me $50. Then I hear that my friend David has woken up with a pain in his chestal area. I think, I know, Dave will go the doctor and find out what’s wrong and I’ll save the $50.

“The next day, Dave is dead. I’m horrified. I check myself into St. Vincent’s Hospital and I tell the doctors to do everything, do every test imaginable and they do x-rays and probes and scans and everything else imaginable, and after two days I am lying in my bed under the oxygen tent and all the doctors are standing around the bed looking concerned and one of them says—Mr. Allen, we can’t find anything wrong with you. Go home. That will be $3,850.”

At this point, I look at Caroline and think—what the hell am I doing? She’s auditioned and discovered the greatest comedians in the world and had them at her club—Steven Wright, Billy Crystal, Sandra Bernhard, Joy Behar, Jay Leno—and I, a newspaper editor, am trying to make her laugh. She isn’t laughing.

“So I go home, and I think, I know, I’ll call Dave’s mother. She’ll know. So I call her up. And I say—did it hurt much? And she says not at all. Hit by the truck. That was it.”

Pause. A slight smile appears, but then it’s gone. Oh well.

“Okay,” I say, “now let’s talk about you.”

Caroline Hirsch was born and raised in Flatbush (now Crown Heights), Brooklyn. Her father was a worker in a garment factory in Brooklyn, cutting and sewing for the trade. Her mother was a housewife.

Caroline went to Catholic school (her maiden name is Perrone), then St. Brendan’s High School, then CCNY for almost four years before finally finishing up her college work at the Fashion Institute of Technology. She was interested in retail.

“Designing?” I asked her.

“Working in a retail store. I worked for Gimbels, the big department store chain for a while. They had 42 stores and a buying office in Manhattan. That’s where I worked. It was the 1970s.”

Hirsch is a beautiful woman with straight black hair, big dark eyes and a steady gaze. She seems very sure of herself.

“I first started coming out to the Hamptons in the 1970s, in high school, with my girlfriends. We stayed in share houses. I continued coming out here in college. It was a great time.”

“Then, just a few years out of college, I got married to Neil Hirsch. And we moved to a brownstone on Ninth Street, just off Fifth Avenue. And we took a place in Sagaponack.”

Her marriage to Hirsch lasted 13 years. There were no children. Then they divorced and she was on her own.

How the club Caroline’s came about was when she moved out to an apartment in the United Nations Plaza. Two of her friends, Bob Stickney and Carl Christian, said they’d like to open a cabaret with her and would she invest in it and be a partner in it? The three of them loved comedy. She said sure. They named it after her. In 1982 it opened as a small cabaret club in Chelsea.

“I felt a major responsibility for the club when I saw my name on it,” Caroline said.

At the time, most comedy clubs were dirty, dark rooms with a platform at one end pushed up against a brick wall. The one these three started had beautiful couches, bentwood tables and paneled walls and seating for 120. It was, she told me, often called the first comedy club for Yuppies.

“But it didn’t thrive,” Caroline told me. “The cabaret acts attracted an older crowd. I recall Chris Conner was a jazz singer at the club. We seemed to be going nowhere. But I kept it going. Bob and Carl moved to Boston and wished me luck.”

In 1987, Caroline had a chance to move the club to the South Street Seaport where it thrived.

The big break for the club came when Caroline decided to change the focus of the club to some of the younger talent.

“There were some very funny young and talented comedians in the city at that time. And I hired them.” She has a whole list of people who got their start at Caroline’s. Among them are Billy Crystal, Tim Allen, Gary Shandling and Sandra Bernhard. “They’d take a week or two at the club, with a warm-up act preceding them. Jay Leno performed there. In fact he sort of had his own show, and a big following of fans. All these people were in their 20s and 30s.

“One day, Dave Letterman, who did the late night show for NBC at that time, came by to see Jay Leno. Jay went on Letterman. It was a great time. Then it was back to the club.”

Soon, Caroline was working directly with producer Bob Morton of NBC discovering new upcoming talent.

And about this time, The New York Times discovered Caroline’s and wrote about it—and thus Caroline’s got to be known as the best club of its type in the city.

To meet the demands of the growing business, Caroline’s moved to the building on Broadway at the north end of Times Square between 49th Street and 50th Street, stunningly designed by architect Paul Haig, who worked on the design of the Royalton. Caroline’s on Broadway is a much larger space—seating for 300—and that is where it is today.

Around 1994, Caroline bought a house on Flying Point Road in Water Mill. She plays golf at Noyac, enjoys the beach and, with her life partner, Andrew Fox, hangs around evenings with friends.

The two of them watched a documentary about newscaster Bob Woodruff, who was seriously injured in 2006 while covering the war in Afghanistan. They felt moved to hold a comedy club fundraiser for Woodruff and those like him for their medical care. It was called “Stand Up for Heroes,” and it was a big hit with a whole string of comedians lending their support. Bruce Springsteen has also performed at this event. “Stand Up for Heroes” became part of “The New York Comedy Festival,” an event that is now in its eighth year in Manhattan and held in venues all over the city in November.

This year, over 20,000 people are expected to attend the festival between November 9 and 13. Venues include Caroline’s on Broadway, Carnegie Hall, Town Hall, the 92nd Street Y, the Paley Center and many others. Among the 100 performers will be Bill Burr, Louis CK, Ricky Gervais, Kathy Griffin, Jo Koy, Bill Maher, Tracy Morgan, Norm Macdonald, Russell Peters, John Pinette, Sarah Silverman, Wanda Sykes and more. (www.nycomedyfestival.com.)

I asked Caroline if she could tell me how she knows if a comedian is going to break out. Here is her answer.

“I get to see many people perform, some marginal, some with talent. But it takes more than just talent, you have to have the drive for it and you have to want it a lot.”

She mentioned Joy Behar among others.

“And then there are those who have all that, but still stay on the edges. Emo Phillips is terrific, but then he moved to England. Steven Wright, what can I say about Steven Wright—he is unique, but now he lives in Vermont or New Hampshire I think and just ventures out to do clubs.”

“Anything else?” I asked.

“It is also true that the audiences know who is who. When they cheer and sell out the house, that’s when you really know.”

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