Comedy Legend & Groundbreaker: Caroline Hirsch

Comedians are “neurotic and maybe you could say needy,” admits Paul Reubens, a.k.a. Pee-wee Herman. So anyone who makes scores of comics feel content and cared for, decade after decade, must be doing something right. Caroline Hirsch is that someone.

“Caroline nurtured everybody,” says Reubens. “She’s so personable and nice. She was the adult figure, the parental figure if you needed it. But she didn’t have to be your mommy, she could just be a friend.”

Rita Rudner puts it more succinctly: “She’s the antithesis of a comedy club owner.”

David Alan Grier points to other vital qualities he sees in Hirsch. “She’s really hot and filthy rich,” he quips. “I’ve routinely asked her to marry me. And while she hasn’t so far I think I’m breaking her down slowly.”

Lewis Black agrees with Reubens, calling Hirsch “supportive” and a “sweetheart,” but adds that Grier’s joke hits a certain truth, that Hirsch’s glamorous beauty actually has inspired several generations of male comics. “There’s a basic male instinct that kicks in, ‘Boy, I want to impress her,’ ” he says.

For these comics, performing at Caroline’s was an important and memorable milestone in their careers.

“She set a high bar,” says Black, adding that even when he was a playwright before moving into stand-up, he was always aware of who was playing at Caroline’s. “New York needed a headline room and she gave it one. People would say, ‘I want to play Caroline’s.’ It was always something to shoot for.”

Reubens made a name for himself as Pee-wee Herman in the early 1980s with a show in Los Angeles and an HBO special but he’d never done stand-up. “I told my agent to say I had only 10 minutes of material but I wanted to headline,” he recalls. A club in Minneapolis accepted those conditions and after a week there Herman felt he was ready for a real show.

“I said, ‘What’s the hottest club in New

York,’ ” he says. His gig at Caroline’s in Chelsea elevated his career to a new level — soon after he was performing at Carnegie Hall and making a feature film.

“The club was so hip, so happening,” he recalls. Andy Warhol dropped by in his pajamas to see Pee-wee. Reuben’s favorite bonding experience with Hirsch was leaving fake coins on the floor of the club and then sitting at the bar with her, watching customers bending over for them.

Rudner’s first Caroline’s appearance was at the Seaport. She was so thrilled at the opportunity to headline, she recalls, “I wore my only good dress, a white dress. I wore it five straight nights.”

The gig went well in several regards. For starters, the staff liked her. “Andrew ‘Dice’ Clay had been there the week before and they told me, ‘We so much prefer your crowd — they don’t go in the back and steal the food,’ ” she remembers. More importantly, performing there was crucial to her career. It gave her polish and confidence performing and “solidified me as a headliner,” she says.

Black, who middled at the Seaport before graduating to a headliner, says Caroline’s “was huge for me in every way.” Beyond the exposure at the club, Hirsch gave him his first television break, on her weekly A&E stand-up series.

Black also relished the new room when the club moved uptown. “I’d given up on being a playwright but this was Broadway so I was ecstatic — plus, unlike in a theater, there was food and liquor,” he says.

Grier also loves the idea of performing on Broadway, saying, “The audience is savvy and you have to be on your best game there.” (Once, an 18-year-old named Dave Chappelle preceded him on stage and afterward people were saying, “Great to see you, hey, who was that kid.”)

He remembers being booked there the week after 9/11 — the club canceled the gig, thinking it was too soon … until 80 people showed up anyway. “We just sat and talked to the audience,” he recalls. “It was like therapy.”

He loves Hirsch enough that he even let her cajole him into doing the worst gig of his life — a 10 a.m. school program in the Bronx.

“It was like going to a funeral or an execution,” he says of trying to make an assembly of high schoolers laugh early in the morning.”

Hirsch made up for it by inviting him to be part of her 20th anniversary gala in 2003.

“I got to play Carnegie Hall because of her,” he says. “She chose me, and that was a great honor.”

RELATED LINKS
Gotham’s first lady of funny

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more