Caroline Hirsch on New York Comedy Festival and Robin Williams

Caroline Hirsch and Jerry Seinfeld pose together in November 2013. Credit: Getty Images
Caroline Hirsch and Jerry Seinfeld pose together in November 2013.
Credit: Getty Images

On Monday, tickets went on sale for the 11th annual New York Comedy Festival, which takes place Nov. 5-9. This year’s lineup includes Maria Bamford, Hannibal Buress, Bill Cosby, Chris D’Elia, Bill Maher, Marc Maron, Tig Notaro, Nick Offerman and Amy Schumer.

We spoke with Caroline Hirsch, owner of the renowned stand-up venue Carolines on Broadway, who puts the fest on in coordination with Comedy Central.

You’ve dedicated your life to comedy. Why?

Everybody loves to laugh. I’m no exception. I have fond memories of watching some of the great television comedy classics. I think making people laugh is a tough thing to do, and I’ve always admired those who are able to do it so well.

Why does it belong in the arts category?

Comedy is just as much an art form as theatre, dance and art. It’s a performance. It comes from the heart and the mind and the soul in the same way that other forms of entertainment do. People want to be entertained and moved by these various art forms. Comedy is absolutely one of those art forms.

How did Carolines on Broadway become the institution it is today?

When people think of live stand-up comedy in comedy clubs, they think of the dark, smoke-filled rooms with the faux brick wall as a back drop. When I got into the comedy business, I wanted to elevate the experience of seeing live comedy. I don’t consider Carolines a “comedy club.” It’s more of a throwback to the old nightclubs of New York. Carolines is a place where you can get great food, great drinks and great live entertainment all under the same roof.

What’s your favorite memory of a guest or performance?

There have been so many great memories over the years, but if I had to single out one it would be the night when Jeff Garlin was headlining and toward the end of his set he was interrupted by a drunken heckler who was merciless. Jeff was very gracious in handling the heckler, but there was someone else in the audience who wasn’t. From the back of the room, in a loud and thick Irish accent, someone started to heckle the heckler. It turned out to be non other than Robin Williams, who made his way up to the front and joined Jeff onstage. Jeff took a seat and Robin gave an impromptu stand-up set for about 30 minutes. The crowd went wild. It was very special and rare treat.

How did the annual comedy festival come about?

In 2003, we celebrated the club’s 20th anniversary with a gala comedy concert at Carngie Hall. After that show, I had the idea to expand what we do at the club, by producing the biggest names of comedy — who came through the ranks by performing at Carolines — and having them perform in New York City’s most prestigious venues like Carnegie Hall, Town Hall, the Beacon Theatre and Madison Square Garden.

Who’s your favorite comedian, living or dead, who hasn’t been to Caroline’s yet?

I have so many favorites, but those who are among my very favorite who I always wished had performed at the club but never did were Buddy Hackett and Jonathan Winters.

Why is live comedy so important?

Like the old saying goes, “Laughter is the best medicine.” Studies have shown that laughing can improve your health. As I said earlier, everybody loves to laugh. Beyond that, I think we all need to laugh. Laughter helps to heal. Laughter helps take your mind off bad thoughts. I remember in the days after 9/11, when we had closed the club, people started to calling our box office asking when we’d be open again.

Was it ever challenging to be a woman in a field like comedy, not to mention as a business owner?

When I first started out, I think I was too naive to even realize it might be a challenge. I’ve always believed that women could do whatever men could, so it didn’t bother me as a business owner.

What are the characteristics of a great set?

A great set is one displays the performer’s unique personality and his or her distinctive voice. It captures and engages the audience right from the start and holds them right through to the end, and leaves them wanting more. It also helps if the audience gets the jokes.

Alcohol and comedy tend to go hand in hand. What drink do you recommend to go with a great night of comedy? And what’s your favorite item on the menu?

I personally enjoy a glass of chardonnay. I would recommend either our marinated skirt steak or baby back ribs. You can’t get any better than those!

On Robin Williams

Because we spoke with Caroline Hirsch on the evening of the passing of comedy legend Robin Williams, we asked if she would like to add a statement about his untimely death:

“We are deeply saddened by the tragic passing of our friend, Robin Williams. Robin’s unique comedic voice inspired a generation and cemented his legacy as one of the greatest comedians to ever live. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family at this difficult time.”

For more entertainment news, follow T. Michelle Murphy on Twitter: @TMichelleMurphy.


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