Beyond the Boardroom

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How one woman changed New York comedy

October 2, 2012: 10:22 AM ET

Caroline's founder Caroline Hirsch discusses how she built a classy joint in the gritty underbelly of the '80s New York comedy scene.

FORTUNE -- Caroline Hirsch says she reads the credits for lots of films and TV comedies. Usually, she sees the names of people who crossed paths with her at her club.

Hirsch owns a New York stand-up comedy club called Caroline's, which she co-founded back in in 1982. It started as a small outfit, featuring acts like Jay Leno and Jerry Seinfeld when they were first starting out. In the 30 years since the club launched, Caroline's has moved locations but has kept its status as a talent magnet. These days, Hirsch is making good use of her many connections to put on the New York Comedy Festival -- a project she started in 2004. This year it'll run from November 7-11 and pull over 200 comedians.

Hirsch spoke with Fortune about how she built a classy joint in the gritty underbelly of the '80s New York comedy scene, and the feeling she gets when she knows someone's act is about to pop.

An edited transcript is below.

Fortune: Was it difficult to crack into the old boy's club of comedy when you started Caroline's all those years ago?

Caroline Hirsch: I might have been very naive about it, but I knew what I wanted to do. I was taking someone like Jay Leno and presenting him for a good hour of his act. That was a new format that we created -- it was much longer. Jay had been around as a sort of opening act and so had Jerry Seinfeld, but there wasn't a place in New York for them to represent themselves like that. And that was the origins of Caroline's.

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How did you know it was going to work?

Just had a gut feeling. There was no place to see the new performers, and people wanted that. So I tried to build a better mousetrap.

One key distinction was that your mousetrap was a little cleaner than the typical gritty New York nightclub, right? 

We tried to elevate it. The New York Times quoted us in 1985, saying it was the first yuppie nightclub in New York.

But I'll tell you, I look back at the roster of people that have performed here over the years, and it's just quite amazing. And you know what? That all goes back to Caroline's. It's in how we built it. I was never there to exploit the talent; I was always there to back the talent in the right way. We tried to have nice food and drink and be very hospitable to customers. It was never, "Let me put a mike on stage and see if we can fill the room."

Have you ever had to vouch for talent that others doubted?

All the time. I'll give you one: Artie Lange. Arty Lange we produced at Carnegie Hall a few years ago. And Carnegie Hall likes to know about who they're booking because it really is a public venue, so they wanted to know a little bit about Artie. We said, "trust us, he's going to do great." They called us up and said tickets sold out two hours after they went on sale. So that is a case where we took a chance, we put him in Carnegie Hall where probably a lot of Artie's fans had never been. It brought a whole different crowd there. We brought the public theaters a whole new clientele.

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How do you know when someone is ready for the big show?

I could never put my finger on it. They're working for 10 years and maybe that 11th or 12th year, they're just fabulous. One line after another beats the line before, and somehow the audience knows it too and they come out for him.

I've watched Artie Lange do it, I've watched Kevin Hart do it, I've watched Lisa Lampanelli and Patton Oswalt do it. I've even watched Bill Maher do it. Way back, Bill used to work at Caroline's on 8th avenue. Now he's working the festival. Bill was one of the greatest when he worked at the club. Boom, boom, boom, one line after the other, the standup was so amazing.

What does it feel like to know that you helped build these mega-careers?

Well, as a producer, it makes you really happy when a show sells out and you're there, standing in the back of Madison Square Garden and everybody is hysterically laughing. I was standing in the back of Carnegie Hall and the ushers came to me and they said, "We always love when you bring the shows here, we have so much fun watching these shows." When the in-house people love when you bring a show there, you know it's great.

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And New Yorkers need a laugh these days.

Lord knows. Oh boy.

What with everything that's in the news, it's really something. We live in a country where we're allowed to laugh like this. A good part of the world doesn't laugh like we do. Case in point: Bill Maher, Jon Stewart, they can go on stage and criticize and criticize, and in many countries, that's not allowed.

I was just thinking about it, because of what we're going through in this world today and people's freedoms and women's' freedoms. God knows, I don't think in many places in the Middle East there are women running a club with this kind of freedom of speech on stage.

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Shelley DuBois
Shelley DuBois
Writer - Reporter, Fortune

Shelley DuBois writes on management issues for Fortune.com. Before joining Fortune, she was a producer for National Public Radio's Science Friday and worked for Wired. Shelley has a graduate degree in science, health and environmental reporting from New York University. She lives in Brooklyn.

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