Louis C.K.'s Home Turf, Jerry Seinfeld's Roots and Young Jon Stewart in a Cape
The founder of New York Comedy Festival and the city's most famous nightclub, Caroline Hirsch reflects on 30 years in the industry and discusses the difficulties for women in comedy.
If you want to make it in comedy, you better get to know Caroline Hirsch.
As the founder of the famed nightclub Caroline's, the New York native is gatekeeper of the city's stand-up scene, the promoter and tastemaker who can put a young act's name on the marquee and send him or her to stardom. Hirsch started the comedy spot 30 years ago -- her first act was Jay Leno -- and has helped generations of comics make it big, from Jerry Seinfeld and Louis C.K. to Jon Stewart and Bill Maher.
She also now runs the New York Comedy Festival, a nearly weeklong series of events that includes stand-up performances, improv shows and film screenings. The fest started on Wednesday, with acts such as Maher, Aziz Ansari, Patton Oswalt, Rob Delaney and many others still scheduled to perform.
Hirsch spoke with The Hollywood Reporter at her club in New York earlier this week, discussing everything from C.K. and Stewart's early days -- The Daily Show host did children's shows while wearing a cape -- to late performance artist Andy Kaufman and the sometimes contentious debate about whether women are funny. The interview has been edited and condensed.
THR: How have you seen comedy change in the last 30 years?
Hirsch: More comedians. More and more and more and more and more ... We probably have 10 times more comedians than when I first opened my club.
THR: Is it quantity over quality now?
Hirsch: There is. There’s a lot. You can see how years ago, when a standup got a TV show, that it really meant he worked hard at it, he worked really hard at getting the sitcom down the right way. Now they throw deals out all over the place and let’s see what hits. Though it took Louis C.K. 20 years to get a show on like this. He worked a long time.
THR: He worked for so long, and he had an HBO show, but all of a sudden he exploded. Why do you think that happened like that?
Hirsch: Well, I think Louis stayed honest to who he was. He didn’t settle for doing some sort of sitcom -- although he had worked on a sitcom at CBS years ago, which was then picked up again, I guess they reworked it but it still wasn’t picked up. His show is honest and raw and it’s everything that he’s about. But he really came into his own -- I can go back and watch him 20 years ago, tapes of him doing stand-up and it was about dating. And now, basically, I think that the 40-year-olds that come to see him now relate to everything that he talks about with his kids and those life experiences. It does take a number of years. In your 20s, you’re exploring and doing things, but when you get to your 40s, you have a little more life experience to talk about.
THR: Do you ever see someone open up for someone early on, and you say that person has IT, and they become big?
Hirsch: Yeah, like Jon Stewart. It’s not easy, it takes a while, because you get to see that person and you think that person has a little something, but that doesn’t mean they all develop. They have to work hard at it and morph. Jon came into his own when he started out on that little MTV talk show that they produced, then it went on to be a Viacom syndicated show, but then he truly found his voice when he took The Daily Show.
THR: He had a children’s show for you, right?
Hirsch: He did. I had a club at the Seaport, and on Saturday mornings he would do a children’s show. I swear, I wish I had the pictures of him — he had a cape on.
THR: What did that consist of?
Hirsch: It was four or five comedians entertaining children at the Seaport. And he was a Captain Crusader type, with a cape on. A superhero type.
THR: I grew up loving Andy Kaufman. Seeing Man on the Moon really got me into him. Did you ever see Andy Kaufman perform?
Hirsch: I did. I met him many years ago at my first club. He was very good friends with Elaine Boosler, so they used to hang around together. He didn’t do stand-up, he did a little more performance art for shock value. Anything for shock value. But Jim Carrey played him beautifully.
THR: When you met him, what was he like -- a normal nice guy?
Hirsch: Usually in character. I have visions of him -- he fell asleep at the bar, and would just be sleeping there. Just crazy stuff that he used to do.
THR: The idea that some people could still be suspicious that he could still be alive --
Hirsch: Oh, no.
THR: Well, I just mean that it’s the ultimate tribute to a performance artist.
Hirsch: Well, we did that. With his alter-ego, Tony Clifton. We had a show here, and people were questioning what was going on. Bob Zmuda did that.
THR: The last few years, people bring in cameras to clubs, and people get in trouble for off-color jokes. Do you think comedy clubs should be a safe space to say things, or there is a responsibility to watch what you say?
Hirsch: Well, it’s a safe space for someone who wants to try something out. And the clubs were always that kind of place. My club here, on the weekend nights, is really not that kind of place. Look, when we hire Whitney Cummings to come in, we kind of know what she’s about. Is everything always politically correct? No. But with the advent of using those cell phones or getting the picture, where somebody can then tweet it out, everything becomes so available, and the problem that some comedians have is when they really are trying out new material. And you want to know something? That’s not anybody’s property. It’s not the property of anyone sitting there with a cell phone. They do not know that. It’s the property of the performer and the club where it’s taped at. It’s illegal to do, really.
THR: Jerry Seinfeld, a lot of people don’t know he still does a ton of stand-up. He certainly doesn’t need the money; people like that work for the love of it, right?
Hirsch: They love it. They can’t give it up. They need that. And I remember Jerry once telling me that, “It was my control. For one hour, I have you, and I control you for an hour."
THR: It’s a rush of some sort.
Hirsch: I think so. But then again, what else would he be doing? He has to do that. He has to be creative. He still hangs around with the same guys around him, like Chuck Martin and Colin Quinn. The old gang. Chris Rock.
THR: Was there anyone you thought you’d make it big, but didn’t hit it as big as you expected?
Hirsch: It’s funny. It’s almost like everything has to be aligned for you. And maybe not working for the right management, maybe getting lazy and keeping honing your craft and keeping current, always having a fresh act. I tell you, if someone comes in here and we love them, and we have them back, and they come back and do the same act -- if they do that, they don't come back for a third time. You have to come in here and be fresh all the time. Years ago, when Richard Lewis used to work at the club a lot -- he works here once a year, but Richard used to come in here three or four times a year when I met him -- he always had a new act. I would be out with Richard in L.A. and he’d be writing jokes on his hand, just to remember them.
THR: What do you think is the future of comedy?
Hirsch: More of the same. People ask me what makes a good comic. It’s having your own voice, staying with it, developing it over the years. Just like Jerry Seinfeld; it used to be about dating, and now it’s about the tone his wife uses. Those are the changes that I’ve seen since working at the club, just that the comedians that have first started, they have gotten older, who the Louies of the world, the Jon Stewarts of the world, they were in the second tier and now are in the third tier. Every 10 years it changes.
And more women are coming. Chelsea Handler, I consider her in the group -- she’s younger than Jon Stewart. She’s a little younger than Jon. Jon is mid-40s and Chelsea says she’s mid-30s, but I think she’s older than that. But seeing her as a woman dominating the late night slot, that’s pretty cool.
THR: When Bridesmaids came out a few years ago, everyone said, "Oh, it proves women can be funny." And that’s silly, but have you noticed more women comedians in the last 10 years?
Hirsch: When I first started, women were probably about 20 percent, and now they’re probably about 25 percent, but now that there are so many more comedians, the 25 percent is such a larger number. Sometimes we’ll have a lot of women in the festival and sometimes we won’t. Last year, we had Kathy Griffin and Rosie O’Donnell and Margaret Cho, and this year on the headliners, we don’t have any women. Because they weren’t available.
THR: Do you think it’s harder for women to break in?
Hirsch: Well, you know what it is, with "Are women funny?" When Christopher Hitchens wrote that article, I think he really meant the lay-woman. I don’t think he meant the professional comedian. Because women in general are not funny, because it’s kind of aggressive behavior that a lot of men can’t tolerate. It’s really like upstaging a man. A man uses humor to woo the woman. You always hear a woman, it’s, "Well what do you like about him?" and it’s always, "Well it’s his great personality, he makes me laugh." And I think the opposite doesn’t always work for men. Some love it -- most people love it -- but it doesn’t always work that way, because it is kind of an aggressive behavior. You have a funny woman sitting at a table of 10 people, who’s controlling that table? It’s a little more of a control issue, too.
THR: So to be a woman comedian is an act of bravery in a way?
Hirsch: I think so. I think it’s very brave.
THR: It's extra difficult to make it, let alone sell out arenas, like a Dane Cook.
Hirsch: Funny thing about Dane is that Dane did that all on e-mail. Dane was very big into colleges, and that’s where he got it from. Let’s go back to the mid-'90s -- I knew Dane when he was a kid, when he was really, really young -- he comes back, we book him in the club, and he’s got this following. He played a lot of colleges over the years, collected a lot of e-mails and stayed in touch with everybody. He’d answer them back, saying, “I’m here, I’m there,” and developed this following. We would book him here on Super Bowl Sunday and he’d sell out two shows, and that’s the crowd that’s watching football.
On the way up, nobody would touch him on radio. Because usually a lot of our clients here are on radio to promote their gigs, but no one would pick him up, no one even knew him. And yet he had this tremendous online following, and that’s what did it. And then I think the Times wrote a story on him when he had a new DVD coming out, and his CDs and DVDs were number one.
THR: He started suffering backlash.
Hirsch: I don’t know why that happens. People start having jealousy. It comes from other comedians, too.
THR: When you get to the top, you get torn back down.
Hirsch: I always felt that a lot of that was jealousy. About "I’m as funny as he is, but I don’t sell out those kind of arenas,” where he was selling out. We produced him maybe seven years ago, at Madison Square Garden, the big arena, 19,000 seats in the round, he sold out two shows on Sunday. And that time he was up in Rhode Island taping that film with Kevin Costner, he was just doing that at the time, and we were impressed.