Meet Caroline Hirsch, the woman behind comedy’s next big laugh

At some point in life, you’re likely to find yourself at a table at Carolines on Broadway.

Carolines, considered the Mecca of comedy, sits tucked just north of Times Square’s wacky tourist traps since 1992, beyond the blazing advertisements and panhandling Incredible Hulks and Spider-mans, on a squished Broadway just above 49th Street in New York City. Maybe your parents have told you about going there in their own youth, seeing the legends like Jerry Seinfeld and Jay Leno, or maybe friends have seen the likes of Rosie O’Donnell or Tracy Morgan. Or maybe, a friend of yours graced the stage for its young talent spotlight series.

One person has been there for all of it: Caroline Hirsch, the founder of Carolines and perhaps the world’s most popular comedy festival, the New York Comedy Festival, an annual comedy circus that features today’s top comedians performing standup all over New York City.

You won’t find Hirsch, 67, standing in front of a microphone unless its to announce a guest. She doesn’t consider herself very funny (“I’m very sarcastic”), but she does know something about how to get a laugh.

“God, do I know what is funny. I know what works,” Hirsch recently told Ladders.

caroline hirsch, jerry seinfeld
Courtesy Carolines

Comedy and social media

Since 1981, when Carolines first opened its doors in Chelsea before relocating, Hirsch has been a comedy’s headhunter for top talent. She was there for late-night televisions boom started by the “Late Show with David Letterman” to when the Comedy Channel and the Ha Channel merged to becomes today’s powerhouse, Comedy Central. And today, with the internet playing such a pivotal role with its accessibility and never-ending stage for up-and-comers to perform on YouTube, Twitter, or other social media outlets, Hirsch said comedy has undergone a positive cultural revolution.

‘There’s a lot of hacks who get away with stuff, but truly to be a superstar you have to have the goods.’

“(The internet) has been great for comedians’ careers,” Hirsch said pointing to her phone. “It gives them exposure that they’d never have before — it’s all free. The exposure they prayed for over 30 years ago would be on the “Tonight Show,” but you’re your own genius on (your phone). You’re your own brand manager on this.”

The technological shift has changed the ways she finds new talent, too. Gone are the days of sitting in tenement-like clubs. Hirsch said she relies on the internet to “scout” new talent, relying on the younger generation who work at Carolines to find the right talent for its stage. She mentioned finding new talents like Benito Skinner, a queer comic who got his rise through the internet, and Claudia Oshry — the brains behind “Girl With No Job” — who transformed a Millennial-focused Instagram meme account into a career in standup.

What the social media age has allowed is an attraction and a following that has led people coming out to watching social media stars perform live.

However, there’s a caveat: It doesn’t always translate to the club.

“You still have to be good,” she joked. “You still need great material. There’s a lot of hacks who get away with stuff, but truly to be a superstar you have to have the goods. There’s a lot of stuff on YouTube that gets a lot of attraction — it doesn’t mean it’ll translate for years to come.”

Women are funny too!

Beyond the technological transition, Hirsch has seen other changes in the comedy world — the rise of women.

When she first opened Carolines, she predicted that about 25% of the entire comedy world involved female comedians. That number has grown to about 30%, according to her calculations, which also accounts for the growth in comedy since the 1980s. That number encourages her considering when she first opened Carolines, she said that of the 30 headliners she had, only six were women.

“Women have definitely caught up,” Hirsch said, before correcting herself. “They’re catching up. I’m not saying its 50-50 because it’s not — it’s not.”

tina fey, amy poehler
Featureflash Photo Agency / Shutterstock

Two female comedians in particular — Tina Fey and Amy Poehler — were cited by Hirsch as being the pioneers for helping get women the recognition they deserve in comedy.

“Those are two women who worked very hard on ‘Saturday Night Live!,’” she said. “When they were accepted to host the Golden Globes [in 2013], that was where maybe the world said, ‘Oh, women are funny!’ That was a really good turning point for women in the comedy business. … They still didn’t get their rightful recognition.”

Am I funny?

While Hirsch herself wouldn’t do standup, she certainly knows a thing or two on what makes people laugh. She’s been the highest chair in comedy’s judicial system and knows what makes a comedian a comedian through her decades in the industry.

‘I think comedians are some of the smartest people around.’

Hirsch knows a thing or two on what makes people laugh. She knows what makes a comedian a comedian, saying she thinks comedians are the smartest people around.

“(Comedians) have a peculiar outtake on what’s around you,” she explained. “It doesn’t have to be peculiar, certainly in that sense — peculiar — but you have your own take on it and with a quirky part of it. I think comedians are some of the smartest people around.”

Hirsh tends to lean toward smart humor. Today’s comedy, for her, is a “little sophomoric” and she has a soft spot for someone like Ronny Chieng, a correspondent on “The Daily Show,” who recently performed at Carolines (“It was absolutely brilliant.”)

But for all the laughs she’s shared with millions of people, Hirsch has also seen the dark side of comedy. She’s seen the mistakes comics have made throughout the years make getting involved with drugs or alcohol, derailing once-promising careers.

“What I’ve seen in the past is you get lazy, you drink too much,” she said. “You have to be creative — you have to keep writing and writing and writing. You can’t smoke too much — you just have to be there, you have to be there. You can’t take yourself out of it.”

The New York Comedy Festival

Even with all the laughs shared at Carolines, perhaps Hirsch’s crowned achievement is the New York Comedy Festival. The week-long annual festival, which enters its 16th installment later in November, stars some of the biggest names in the game including Stephen Colbert, Nicole Byer, Trevor Noah, and many others this year. Scattered across venues from Madison Square Garden to Carnegie Hall, there are over 100 shows slated this year with pop-ups and activities throughout New York City.

caroline hirsch, seth meyer, jon stewart, john oliver
Courtesy Carolines

“I would never imagine it would be 16 years already,” Hirsch said about the festival, which recently went on sale to the public. “I think it’s the biggest comedy festival in the United States for sure — and it’s owned by a woman. That’s pretty unique — any festival owned by a woman. … We’re proud of the festival and we’re proud of what we’ve accomplished.”

The festival runs from Nov. 4-10 with over 200 comedians* spanning from late-night hosts to internet stars including headliners Nate Bargatze, Comedy Bang! Bang!, Vir Das, Kathleen Madigan, Bill Maher, Demetri Martin, Norm McDonald, Randy Rainbow, Tom Segura, Benito Skinner, Jenny Slate, Kevin Smith, and Jay Mewes, No Such Thing As A Fish, and Betches Media’s U Up? Live.