Comics praise tough businesswoman's classy venue

HOLLYWOOD — Some comedy club owners, like the Improv’s Budd Friedman, are surrogate fathers to their standups. There was a time during Jay Leno’s club career when he slept on Friedman’s couch. Other owners nurture talent in a paternal way, like Stand Up New York’s Carey Hoffman, who has taken Zach Galifianakis under his wing since the moment he spotted the alternative comic outside his club.

Then there’s Caroline Hirsch, the proprietor of Carolines, Gotham’s longest-running comedy club. She may not be mother hen, but to many comedians, she’s the chairman of the board in New York’s comedy biz. Or as Sandra Bernhard calls her, “a real dynamic, sexy businesswoman.”

First yuppie comedy club

Given Hirsch’s tough-as-nails style, it’s no wonder that Carolines will be celebrating its 20th anniversary in March with a star-studded roster at Carnegie Hall.

From the onset when she opened the doors to her first club at Eighth Avenue and 26th Street in 1982, Hirsch strove to bring a touch of class to the comedy biz.

“My club was the first yuppie comedy club,” says Hirsch. “I wanted it to rival those of the old Latin Quarter. There’s no Copacabana anymore. My club took its place.”

Brick walls, fast food, free tickets and open-mike night aren’t a part of Hirsch’s m.o. Comedians who play Carolines usually have TV or film credentials. If not, they’re heavyweight road veterans. While Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld and Garry Shandling are counted as some of her freshman headliners, they came on her stage in the early ’80s seasoned with A-plus material. Carolines was never a showcase club with a potluck lineup, rather a headliner’s venue.

Soon after opening in ’82, Hirsch changed her cabaret venue to comedy in order to attract a younger crowd. Before a comedian took the stage, a typical ’80s night at Carolines featured waitresses in cocktail dresses, a Broadway singer as an opener and film composer Marc Shaiman on piano. It was a place where Andy Warhol came to watch, and get bonked on the head with a toy hammer by Pee-Wee Herman.

Upping the stakes

In 1987, she upped her seating capacity from 150 to 200 by moving her venue to the South Street Seaport area. When the comedy club biz bombed due to oversaturation in 1992, Hirsch’s longstanding competitors the Improv and Catch a Rising Star fell by the wayside. During these chaotic comedic times, Hirsch upped her stakes in the laugh game, seeking out rental property in an area that she envisioned would witness the second coming of chic entertainment: Times Square. Her current five-star address boasts a one-stage amphitheater filled with velvety seats and dressing rooms; a rarity for any hard-working joker.

“Carolines is the Ritz Carlton of comedy clubs. The service, the clientele, the food, the energy is unbelievably spectacular. It is the most prestigious gig for a comedian to work in New York City,” exclaims comedy manager Barry Katz.

Adds Leno: “She permitted comedians to get paid. As a working comedian that was a big deal. It wasn’t like you were doing 10 or 15 minutes. A headliner’s show had a beginning, middle and an end. Not many people did that in the early ’80s.”

The consensus among many comedians is that Carolines is Gotham’s top-paying venue. With 285 seats at the Times Square locale, a $50 weekend ticket can potentially generate $29,000 for a standup’s act in one evening.

“When she knights you into her roster,” says standup Jeffrey Ross, “you’re a made man in this town.”

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