Caroline Hirsch is behind the wheel of her 2019 Range Rover, cruising to her Manhattan East River–view condo from her Water Mill home. “I spend more than half of my time here,” she says of the East End house she shares with her partner, Andrew Fox, and two bearded collies, Stella and Sybil. “It’s a treasure which I never considered a ‘second home.’ I’ve been coming to the Hamptons from when I was a teen.”
Hirsch, a pioneer in the comedy club movement, is busy while driving, planning for her next annual Stand Up For Heroes, the annual event that started in 2007 when she reached out to broadcaster Bob Woodruff after watching a documentary about him. This year’s event has been delayed due to COVID (stay tuned for updates through bobwoodrufffoundation.org), but “so far about $60 million has been raised through Stand Up For Heroes for the Bob Woodruff Foundation,” she says. “It’s my way to help our vets, especially ones with traumatic brain injury.”
Born and raised in Flatbush, Brooklyn, she graduated from St. Brendan’s High School, then attended CUNY and Fashion Institute of Technology. Studying fashion and retail, starting her career with Gimbels, she didn’t have a clue that she would ever launch, own and operate what is today considered the icon for comedy clubs.
During the difficult 1979-80 recession, Hirsch found herself unemployed. It became a period for her to experiment as an entrepreneur. With several friends she opened a cabaret, which she soon realized was not working out. “In retail, I learned how you needed to offer what people wanted,” she says.
Between watching the comedians featured nightly on Carson and Letterman and by trial-and-error, she discovered how focusing on comedy entertainment was more profitable. So Caroline’s—now 300 seats—was born in midtown Manhattan in 1982.
As blossoming cable networks sought new programming, A&E Network engaged her for Caroline’s Comedy Hour, which received lots of attention. In 2004, Hirsch launched the week-long New York Comedy Festival, about 150 different shows showcasing more than 200 comedians throughout NYC (which has been cancelled this year due to COVID).
For all that, though, she does note there was a missed career opportunity. “After my A&E success, I didn’t go onto produce more shows, even as cable picked up more momentum. But now I am producing content, optioning books, optioning ideas…”
How do comedians impress Hirsch, who says she has reviewed literally thousands of them? “They need to be on stage a lot. They need to write, and write, and write. They must come up with new material and make their own, unique voice. Drugs or other substances cannot interfere with their pursuits,” she says. “Show me you are constantly working on your act. You do not grow, doing the same jokes for two years. I want to see a career reflecting diligence.”
She wants to see a comedian who works hard, “because their success doesn’t happen overnight. Only now with Internet success, sometimes it happens a little more quickly than it did three decades ago. A comedian had to get that first shot on The Tonight Show, and they may have spent years trying to prove themselves to get that opportunity!”
Countless comedians have worked for a shot at getting onstage at Caroline’s over the years, including numerous acts who would become legends such as fellow Hamptonite Jerry Seinfeld. But one comedian she was never able to convince to perform at the venue was Jonathan Winters. “He was hilarious, out-of-his-mind, crazy,” she says. “I would beg his agent, I called him at home a bunch of times.”
Caroline’s remains temporarily closed, and Hirsch doesn’t see the doors re-opening until the spring of 2021. “Our industry will be among the last to open again, so I hope these clubs can hold onto their space. At the same time, comedy is more important than ever, a big piece of what we see online now. Comedians not performing standup are online trying to make people laugh.”