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One On 1: Comedy Club Pioneer Caroline Hirsch

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NY1's Budd Mishkin continues his new series, "One On 1," with a profile of Caroline Hirsch, a successful businesswoman who has helped make us laugh for more than two decades.

"Let me begin by setting the record straight: I'm not funny, so don't expect any jokes."

Caroline Hirsch, the Queen of Comedy in New York, not funny? That's what she says, though a bit later in a recent speech to the New York chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners at Tavern on the Green, she did as all great comics do - she killed.

“I took a risk with a restaurant in the South Street Seaport about 15 years ago. By the end of the day, I knew it just wasn't right,” she told the crowd. “Although I believed in the comedic formula that I had established, I knew great success wasn't going to happen in a place where the smell of fish nearly knocked people out.”

Caroline Hirsch is the Caroline of “Caroline’s” on Broadway, perhaps the premiere comedy club in the city. It’s a name that has established a cachet in New York entertainment circles over the last two decades, and is mentioned on television shows and in the New York Times crossword puzzle.

"On ÎLaw and Order,’ when some guy who Jerry Orbach is interviewing is giving him a hard time, he says, ÎWhat do you think, you're doing standup at Caroline’s?’" she says.

That Caroline Hirsch, who grew up as Caroline Perrone in Flatbush, Brooklyn, would be in the business of making people laugh is itself a bit humorous.

"Home was comforting - you know, Italian family, aunts uncles, grandparents,” she says. “We all lived in the surrounding neighborhood.”

Before her name would adorn a comedy club, Hirsch spent ten years learning lessons far away from the Boadway lights, in retail. So, is retail the perfect entree into the comedy business?

“Well, not quite comedy, but it's kind of knowing what a market can bear, like knowing a product to sell," Hirsch says.

And she's sold that product well for two decades. She's a businesswoman lauded by others, savvy enough to withstand two moves within Manhattan and a mercurial market.

Where others might have seen obstacles, Hirsch saw opportunities.

“No, I can't say as a woman there were any doors closed to me. Maybe I didn't know any better,” she says. “What was the comparison? But there were a few ladies in the comedy business. There was a lady that owned the Improv New York and a woman that owned the Comedy Store in L.A., so I think that comedians were used to working with women. I don't think there was ever a problem."

From the beginning, Hirsch was more than just a businesswoman to the comics. She was part friend, coach, and advisor.

Her friend Lizz Winstead, who helped create "The Daily Show" on Comedy Central, came to New York and Caroline’s in 1990.

“She's definitely the mother hen who throws the little chicks out of the nest and forces them to fly,” Winstead says.

That support was particularly important to the women who, according to Hirsch, make up only about 20 percent of standup comics.

“It is a very aggressive art form to get on that stage,” she says. “You have to put yourself out there, and I don't really think it's part of the feminine psyche. You have to go to the other side to do that stuff."

So how does a girl from Brooklyn end up with her name in lights on Broadway? It's the answer to almost everything in comedy - timing.

It was the early 1980’s, and Hirsch was on, as she says, a sabbatical from the retail world. She joined some friends who were opening a cabaret, but she was thinking not music, but laughs.

“There was just something happening with comedy at that time,” she says. “David Lettermen was just going on the air late at night, and Jay Leno and Jerry Seinfeld, and I said, ÎThese are the kind of people we should hire. There is something happening here.’ And that kind of just took off."

But it took some time, and building the club was not exactly a 9-to-5 gig.

“You needed to be there late at night, I needed to be in early in the morning, and I needed to stay,” she says. “I needed to meet everybody in the press, I needed the contacts, I needed to greet all the agents, all the managers. It was tough. I mean, it was really tough. And it didn't start to turn around until we brought Jay Leno in and Jerry Seinfeld and Peewee Herman. Peewee Herman was kind of like the turning corner. It was like a Felini movie every night - people were lined up outside to come in."

One of the first lineups included Jerry Seinfeld, Larry Miller, Richard Lewis, Steven Wright, Paul Reiser, Richard Belzer, Harry Anderson, Larry “Bud” Melman, Fred Willard and Yakov Smirnov. That would take you from April through June.

Caroline’s eventually moved from Chelsea to the South Street Seaport, and created a weekly series on the A&E network. The thinking at the time was that the increased exposure of comics on television resulted in the closure of clubs like Catch a Rising Star and the Improv, clubs that featured five to six comics a night.

Hirsch doesn't see it that way.

“That all happened in the late 80’s, and there was a recession going on, and I blame it on that," she says. "The TV exposure made a lot of these comedians. I don't think it led to the decline of comedy - it boosted comedy."

Caroline’s continued to thrive, but there was no getting around the geographically undesirable South Street Seaport location.

"Downtown was just so out of the way for me, for clients to come back and forth, and I wanted to move uptown because I felt Times Square was going to happen, and it sure did," she says. “It was the early 90’s, and a lot of the buildings were bankrupt, so we moved into a building that barely had a landlord. I was the only person in this building. The building was about 40 stories, so we were here by ourselves. I have a philosophy about business that you have to keep on growing to keep it fresh, and I think when I moved from the Seaport to here, it really gave it a kick start. I mean, being in the center of Times Square has been really wonderful for business.”

Many of Carolines' alumni have gone on to careers in television and the movies: Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Jeanine Garafalo, Joy Behar, Dennis Leary, Brett Butler, and the host of "The Daily Show," Jon Stewart.

Some come back to the club, some don't. The faces change, but the process remains the same.

"I knew them when they were starting, when we believed in them, before other people - we had this small following and so we would come out to see them," she says.

Is there any element of sadness that she’s had him or her in the club, and she might not be seeing them for quite some time?

“Well, there's a sadness that I probably won't be able to afford to pay them anymore at the club any longer,” she says. “I'm happy for their success, but we move on, and every few years we just see a whole new crop of people coming up. So that's part of the process."

Hirsch long ago started using her forum to promote charities like the Ms. Foundation and the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund.

The next challenge for Caroline Hirsch is organizing the New York Comedy Festival from November 9th through the 13th, with comics performing at venues all around the city.

She says she's a great audience, and loves going into the room and hearing the same jokes again and again. And yet she's never taken the stage.

None of the many comics she's known and befriended through the years has ever dared her to get up and try it herself. If Seinfeld or someone who was part of the club early on said to her, “I'll donate whatever if you get up and do 10 minutes,” would she do it?

“Yeah, I'd do it,” she says. “I mean, I'd try it. I'd get some really coaching."

And there's no doubt she'd have no problem getting a little advice from any of the many comics she's helped for more than 20 years.

- Budd Mishkin

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