Laugh or Die at the ‘New York Comedy Festival’

(L-R)  Caroline Hirsch, Bruce Springsteen, Jim Gaffigan, Jerry Seinfeld, Bob Woodruff, Lee Woodruff, Louis C.K., Jon Stewart attend as The New York Comedy Festival and The Bob Woodruff Foundation present the 10th Annual Stand Up for Heroes event.

(L-R) Caroline Hirsch, Bruce Springsteen, Jim Gaffigan, Jerry Seinfeld, Bob Woodruff, Lee Woodruff, Louis C.K., Jon Stewart attend as The New York Comedy Festival and The Bob Woodruff Foundation present the 10th Annual Stand Up for Heroes event. Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

Caroline Hirsch is the queen of New York funny — but she’s no laugh a minute. Her high standards are reflected in the Flatbush native’s serious, show-me-the-funny face. She’s built a comedy empire on her taste as the founder and owner of Carolines on Broadway and the New York Comedy Festival, which runs until Sunday, November 6. It features the comedy stylings of Bill Maher, Trevor Noah and a conversation with the writers of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt including Tina Fey. The fest, which has grown from about eight shows to over 70 events, opened on Tuesday with a live recording of Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast, with guest co-host Whoopi Goldberg.

Gottfried has worked with Caroline “from the beginning.” Hirsch told the Observer: “I’ve worked with him for over 30 years since I opened my first little club. He was just coming off  SaturdayNight Live at that time and was doing standup. He’s weird. He’s not for everybody.  But I have to tell you that when he first started the 30 year olds came out to see him, which are now 60 year olds. So, what he also has is a very young crowd that comes to see him because of the podcasts.”

On the eve of the contentious Presidential Election, Hirsch finds the silver lining: “it’s great having the festival right before the vote. What else could you ask for? Bill Maher, Trevor Noah and Marc Maron will be hitting that material.”

But it won’t all be the Punch and Judy of Trump and Clinton. Waiting in the wings of Caroline’s basement is comedian Liza Treyger, who Hirsch describes as “a newcomer in the scheme of things.

“Liza was on our ‘Comics to Watch’ show four or five years ago. She came from Chicago and lives here now. She’s been strutting her stuff and learning and out hitting the stages every night, to get it down. That’s important: You have to write. You have to have your own voice.  And you have to get out there and perform it….Even Jerry Seinfeld writes a new hour a year but it takes him like a week to write the new joke and to get it down and perform it.”

Treyger, the single daughter of Russian immigrants who settled in Skokie, Illinois, sits down beside Hirsch and takes over, a bubbly dame. (She’ll be playing Union Hall tonight at 10 PM.) She advised wannabe comics at the Observer: “You want to be honest and write about what you know. You don’t want to be doing an imitation of a standup, or what you think a standup should sound like. You want to make sure you’re being yourself and being honest with the crowd, so if you feel nervous or weird, you can say something or if something doesn’t go well, you can be like ‘grrrr, that was goofy.’ You want to be in the moment. And you want to include the audience in this thing with you not just talk at them. It’s like a one-sided conversation, but they need to be connected. So honest, relatable and be in the moment — I guess would be the best advice.” 

Hirsch sees this as emblematic of contemporary comedy: “”There’s a realism to comedy now. It’s not ‘take my wife, please,’ jokes. It’s about what’s happening around us. If it’s happening to you, it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody. So you talk about it to relieve the pain of it. It’s that identification that makes you laugh.”

But there are times when, as real as the comedian may be, they can’t connect to the audience. And then, says Treyger, “When they don’t want to laugh and when they don’t like you and you handle it poorly.  Yeah, I feel like the worst is when you get mad at them.”

There’s no single answer for coping with a crowd, like a crazy ex, that’s just not into the performer. “I don’t know if I have it down,” says Treyger. “I try to give them what they want. If I come in with what I want to do and they’re not into it, I’ll step back and re-evaluate and talk to them and acknowledge what’s happening. I try to figure out their mood. If they want a ton of crowd work, I’ll give it to them.  If they want dirt, I’ll go there.”

It’s not always easy to keep it rolling with a laugh every ten or fifteen seconds before a bunch of folks who’ve had a few too many, or don’t want to hear about your lady parts. “Sometimes I’m mean and I’m like ‘I hate you guys.’ Like the more you groan–if people are groaning that makes me livid — the dirtier and more fucked up I’ll get. Sometimes if I’m just like not with them, I’m like, oh you don’t like this one? I’m gonna give you another Holocaust joke.”

But, when Treyger gets the audience to laugh along, it’s pure pleasure. The endorphins flow. Hirsch says, “A comedian on stage seeks the power to control that audience. Jerry Seinfeld told me ‘You know, I have them in my hand for an hour. It’s a great hour.’  If you can make people laugh, it’s very powerful.”

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