As the founder of legendary New York comedy club Carolines on Broadway, the only predictable thing about Caroline Hirsch’s schedule is that no two days are the same. Each day’s to-do list can include anything from booking talent for a charity show to dealing with a sudden power outage in Times Square (something that actually happened the night before we meet). Given this, I ask Hirsch if she has a favorite time of day. Late afternoon, she replies. Why? “Because it’s coffee time again,” she says with a smirk. “It’s very good for you—coffee. I’ll send you all the surveys.”
She’s joking—kind of. Hirsch doesn’t go near her email in the morning until she’s had her first cup of the stuff. But no, the truth is that late afternoon is her favorite because it’s when the most things happen. It’s when most talent is booked, and when the managers and hostesses arrive at the club for their shifts. People are excited, ready to put on a show.
Hirsch and her team especially need that energy right now. They’re in the throes of planning the New York Comedy Festival, one of the largest in the country. This year’s event takes place in November and boasts more than 200 comedians, including Nicole Byer, Stephen Colbert, and Jenny Slate. It’s a massive undertaking on top of the already demanding day-to-day operations, but it’s a highlight of Hirsch’s year. When it ends, she’ll take a week off from the grind. Then it’s back to work. She’ll finish any outstanding paperwork before asking her team, “Okay, who’s for next year?”
Hirsch is often credited with helping to jump-start the careers of some of the biggest names in comedy (including Jerry Seinfeld and Jay Leno). But comedy was never her intended path. She started her career in the ’70s working at small specialty shops in New York before going to now-defunct department store Gimbels as a market rep. There, she scouted the fashion market for trends. After the department store started declining, she found herself without a job and ready for a new start. In 1982, her friends Bob Stickney and Carl Christian asked her to partner with them to open a small cabaret in Chelsea, which was considered an up-and-coming Manhattan neighborhood at the time.
“I had no idea [what I was doing],” Hirsch says. “They had successful nightclubs in the city, so they knew what they were doing with food and beverage and all that.” But the cabaret acts they were booking weren’t pulling in enough customers. Hirsch saw an opportunity after watching Jay Leno perform stand-up on Late Night With David Letterman. She told her partners, “He comes to New York City. Why don’t we headline him? Why don’t we start doing that?”
“I’ll tell you right now, there was never a mentor…I had to figure it out on my own.”
That wasn’t really done in the early ’80s, Hirsch explains. There were showcase clubs where people could get up on stage and try out material, but this was a new concept: Jay Leno would headline about 12 shows a week for two weeks and plug Carolines when he was on Late Night.
Overnight, Carolines had national attention. Hirsch started booking more then-unknown talent, like Seinfeld, Sandra Bernhard, and Billy Crystal. She found other ways to bring people in, too, persuading editors at the Daily News and the New York Post to come write about this burgeoning comedy scene. Business was booming; within a few years, the club had outgrown its Chelsea space. They moved to a new venue in the South Street Seaport in 1987. But in 1992, after outgrowing even that space, Carolines moved into its current Times Square location.
Hirsch describes her role at the time as “everything.”
“I’d be on the phone with the agencies, I’d be paying the bills, writing checks—I did everything,” she says. “It was the best way to learn. We didn’t even have Google then. [People say,] ‘Oh, my God, how did you live without Google?’ You just had to figure it out.”
When I ask Hirsch if there was anyone to guide her or offer advice, she gives an adamant no. “I had no mentor. I’ll tell you right now, there was never a mentor,” she says. “Never, OK? Never. No one helped. No one really helped. I had to figure it out on my own.”
She’s not so much resentful as proud. And forget not having a mentor to show her the ropes—Hirsch also was without female peers. She tells me she could count on one hand the women she worked with during that time, though she didn’t realize how unique she was in the moment. “We were just onto something so new,” she explains. “I never went through this industry thinking, Oh, poor me—the woman. I just took it for granted that I could do whatever the guys did. And I’d do it better.”
Now, almost four decades later, Hirsch has tracked the ebbs and flows in the business, surviving each new trend and turn of tide. When Comedy Central launched in 1991, for example, it transformed the business. ”[Channels like Comedy Central and Ha!] were just getting developed when they saw what was really happening at Carolines because we had so many people come in,” Hirsch says. “They used to always be there, looking at the talent.”
“Comedy, it’s an emotion.”
And in 2019, Carolines on Broadway continues to be an incubator for new talent, booking with a sixth sense for what will resonate outside the traditional stand-up act—YouTube stars, podcast hosts, influencers like Jonathan Van Ness and the like. Even in that diverse roster, Hirsch insists that the best talent has one thing in common.
“That person on stage really has to have his or her own voice. That’s the ‘it factor.’ It’s how you put that act together and make it your own and nobody else’s. That’s how you succeed,” she says. “If you stay with that, and you’re true to it and good at it, you’re going to be a star.”
So who has that now? Hirsch puts The Daily Show correspondents Ronny Chieng and Jaboukie Young-White at the top of her list. “I saw Ronny the other night. He was so brilliant,” she says. “So brilliant because he was so smart. I love watching that. That’s what really gets me. And Jaboukie was just terrific. It’s honing in on your voice and understanding your life experience. Jaboukie really keyed in on that. He’s so young and is able to do that—it usually comes in your 30s—so god knows how great he’ll be in 10 years. My goodness.”
For Hirsch, the value of understanding your voice and experience pays dividends not just in comedy, but in life in general. “I used to tell people to take a job where they see a lot of things early on in their career, and be happy doing it,” she explains. “Because you don’t always know. You’re too young to know what you really want. Look, I found a career—10 years after doing what I was doing—which I really like a lot.”
She continues, “This job has taught me about a lot of things. How things work, why people accept certain things, why things sell. That’s given me an eye to know what will work on TV and not work on TV. Comedy, it’s an emotion. What makes us laugh is that we all sit in that room and the performer hits on something we all know about and we say, ‘Oh, that happened to me too!’ That’s what it's about.”
Anna Moeslein is a senior editor at Glamour. Follow her on Instagram @annamoeslein.
Originally Appeared on Glamour