Whaaaat’s the Deal With Caroline Hirsch?

Queen Bee of NYC's Comedy Scene Still Reigns Supreme

Jerry Seinfeld and Caroline Hirsch.

Jerry Seinfeld and Caroline Hirsch.

Carolines isn’t just a symbol of stand-up’s ideal, though. It has also become a full-on moneymaking brand.

That night at Madison Square Garden at the Stand Up For Heroes benefit, which was the coup de grace of Carolines’ New York Comedy Festival, now in its 10th year, brought in $5 million in donations to the Bob Woodruff Foundation. For the event, Ms. Hirsch had busted out her impressive Rolodex to call upon performers like Mr. Seinfeld, Mr. Cosby, Roger Waters and Bruce Springsteen.

In fact, the entire week-long Festival featured some serious star power at more than 60 shows across the city, from Internet-buzzy breakouts like Jenny Slate (“Marcel the Shell”), Nick Kroll and John Mulaney to heavy-hitters like Wanda Sykes, Kathy Griffin and Larry David.

Happening concurrently to the festival is New York Comedy Week, a collaboration between Carolines and NYC & Company, the marketing division of New York City. Comedy Week functions similarly to Broadway Week or Restaurant Week by offering discounts to comedy clubs around the city.

“We know that New York is the comedy center of the world,” said Ms. Hirsch, whose nonchalant disdain of the West Coast betrays her New York heritage. “We offer deals that really help out the smaller venues and let people know all the variety that the city has to offer.”

She has also tried her hand at talent management and is constantly in talks to develop new TV shows or open clubs in other countries. Her name alone seems to inspire a higher caliber of humor.

“She really elevated the game of comedy to a whole different planet,” recalled Louis Faranda, Carolines longtime general manager and booker. “People don’t understand how important this is, but before Carolines, everyone was doing stand-up against brick walls. And she brought class to it.”

Conan O'Brien, Caroline Hirsch, Paul Reuben (Patrick McMullan)

Conan O’Brien, Caroline Hirsch, Paul Reuben (Patrick McMullan)

But where Ms. Hirsch is focusing her attention right now, at least in our conversations, is the World Wide Web. Emphasis on “worldwide”: “Because of the Internet, and stuff like YouTube, you see a lot of young comics getting their names out there in different ways than just the club circuit, and a lot of international comics getting traction in America,” she said. “I’m really convinced that comedy phenomena is around the world now, that American humor is No. 1. I’m convinced of that. It’s opened up a whole new world. And it’s different outlets. Bill Burr told me that his Netflix show gave him amazing exposure.”

Does that mean a content deal with Hulu or Netflix for Carolines? Ms. Hirsch demurred: “We’ll see.”

Not all the events during the comedy festival were home runs, however. The night after the benefit, we headed over to Carolines to hear Fran Drescher, Whitney Cummings, Samantha Bee and Delia Ephron on a panel called Women in Comedy. The moderator, Alessandra Stanley from The New York Times, opened the discussion with a question regarding the lack of racial diversity in female cast members on Saturday Night Live.

“How many black women work at The New York Times?” came a righteous cry from the audience, when Ms. Stanley tried to the press the point.

It was a tense room, but Ms. Hirsch didn’t mind. She thinks it’s important to spotlight women’s issues in the comedy world, an industry that is notoriously male-dominated.

“About two years ago, I got the idea to do a comedy show about if women ran the world. We were thinking about doing a TV show about serious stuff but also about girly stuff like what blouse to wear,” she said.

In fact, the panel came out of a request from the nonprofit New York Women in Film and Television for Ms. Hirsch herself to speak on a panel about the subject. Instead, she orchestrated a collaboration with much bigger names, displaying once again her magician’s ability of misdirection: Why be caught in the trap of having to answer uncomfortable questions when you can just as easily stay behind the curtain?

“It’s tough for women out there, for women producers,” she said. “There are more of them than there used to be, but it’s not like being a writer. You can star in your own comedy, but to produce your own stuff, like Whitney did, like Fran did, like Delia Ephron did, it’s harder.”

It’s important to have more female show runners and producers, she said, to represent women’s interests. She mentioned the blouse thing again: “Women care about different things than men comics talk about—that’s just the truth.”

It’s hard not to apply the gender matrix to Ms. Hirsch herself, as a female comedy club owner, though it’s not unprecedented: her closest equivalent being Pauly Shore’s mother, Mitzi Shore, who founded the Comedy Store in Los Angeles in the ’70s. But while the impulse to put Ms. Hirsch’s success into the context of growing female empowerment in the industry is strong, it was immediately shot down by Ms. Lampanelli.

“I resent that whole conversation,” she said. “Caroline’s not doing it as a woman. She’s just doing it.”