Caroline Hirsch is the institution behind an institution — and a pioneer for women in comedy.
She’s the co-founder of world-renowned comedy club Carolines on Broadway, a New York City mainstay that’s been cracking up customers and launching careers since 1982. The “queen of comedy,” as some call her, has built the club, a 300-seat venue located in bustling Times Square, into a serious business. On average, it hosts 50 to 55 shows and sells up to 8,500 tickets a month.
Folks line up for the club’s headliner talent — Carolines’ upcoming calendar includes actors Marlon Wayans and Joel McHale, as well as Leslie Jones of “Saturday Night Live.” But Hirsch is also known for her knack for finding and featuring tomorrow’s comedy stars. Stand-up comedians Sam Kinison and John Mulaney, television star Dave Chappelle and actress Tiffany Haddish all found early opportunities at her club.
That’s the part of running a comedy club Hirsch loves most: “nurturing breakout stars and comics to watch” and “helping people get to the next step” in their careers. And she knows she’s good at spotting comedy’s next big thing. “No one does it like we do,” she says.
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These days, she’s focused on using that talent to add diversity to the comedy world, especially by nurturing women in the industry. “More and more women are doing stand-up, and more and more young women are working in this business,” she says.
It’s a far cry from what the industry looked like when she was starting out.
Elevating America’s Funny Ladies
When Hirsch’s career was beginning, Carol Burnett was still comedy’s “it” woman. But while Burnett was savvy about negotiating contracts and today’s performers recognize her significant contributions to comedy, Hirsch says Burnett “never got her just dues” during her performing prime.
And it’s been tough for other female comedians to follow in Burnett’s footsteps. Inhospitable work environments coupled with fewer opportunities and a persistent pay gap have combined to make the road to comedic success particularly hard for women to traverse.
But Hirsch detected a significant shift when “Saturday Night Live” alumnae Tina Fey and Amy Poehler co-hosted the 2013 Golden Globes. Their widely celebrated co-performance sparked a change in how female comedians are perceived — and the eradication of the “joke” that women aren’t funny.
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More recently, the #MeToo movement — by exposing sexist and distasteful behavior — has also begun to change backstage attitudes and comedy sets, she says. Today, Hirsch says, “men are watching their Ps and Qs.”
Back offices are changing, too. Only a handful of women worked behind the scenes when she started her comedy club, she says. “Now, I come into the office, and it’s a whole staff of young women” among her 15 full-time and 35 part-time employees. “It’s all changed.”
Hirsch says she is actively using her position to elevate women in comedy. In addition to nurturing individual performers and hiring women staffers, Carolines on Broadway hosts several female-fronted events, including HERsterical and Robyn Schall and Friends, as well as Sisters of Comedy, a showcase for black female comedians.
Creating a Comedy Mainstay
Hirsch, born and raised in Brooklyn, has loved comedy all her life — a passion that even drove her, as a teen, to sneak into a George Carlin show.
After moving to Manhattan and graduating from The City College of New York in 1972, she began working in retail at Gimbels and found comedic outlets in her personal time. She religiously watched “The Tonight Show” — then hosted by Johnny Carson — and every sitcom she could wedge into her schedule. “I love laughing,” she says, but didn’t yet have a way to turn that love into a career.
Then fate intervened. As the Gimbels franchise began to collapse, two bar-owner friends approached her about opening a cabaret with them. Eager for the career shift, Hirsch pooled her savings and sought contributions from friends and family to buy in. But she didn’t envision their space as a music venue. Rather, she urged her fellow founders to open a comedy club, and booked then-newcomer Jay Leno as its first performer.
“It was the start of something — I had a feeling about it,” she says.
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That hunch would pay off one year after Carolines on Broadway opened. In 1983, Paul Reubens — better known as Pee-wee Herman — performed there, and the club’s popularity exploded. Its notoriety grew and big names of the day packed the seats, even as the founders shifted venues twice. Hirsch and her team moved permanently into the Times Square location in 1992.
Expanding Into the Future
But Hirsch is not one to rest on her previous successes. To this day, she feels the same pressure to book high-profile talent and to promote their appearances skillfully. “That’s what goes into making it in this business,” she says.
She knows she must continually innovate to stay on top. “Businesses cannot be stagnant. I’m constantly looking for the next thing to do to make the business just a little bit different.” That drive led her in 2004 to launch the New York Comedy Festival, a large-scale, multi-day event hosted in collaboration with TBS.
Hirsch also uses her influence to advance several comedy-focused charity initiatives. A benefit she hosts for the Ms. Foundation for Women called 20 and Funny has been generating funds for the foundation’s social and reproductive justice initiatives for more than 2 decades. Ladies Who Laugh, a scholarship fundraiser also hosted by the club, is now in its 12th year of existence. And Stand Up for Heroes, a benefit concert for military veterans she co-launched with the Bob Woodruff Foundation in 2007, has raised over $45 million to date.
Hirsch is also taking steps into film, serving as a producer on “Ask for Jane,” a drama about a group of women who helped University of Chicago students access safe abortions. And she is working on several as-yet-unannounced dramatic and comedic projects, too.
But Hirsch’s first love is live comedy, and she’s excited by the diversity of the performance line-up at her club, and the discussion panels at her festival. She intends to keep using her position as a successful woman comedy club owner to lend a hand to a new generation of laugh-makers.
[Related: The Story Exchange examines opportunities for women in comedy and drama.]