New York Comedy Festival 2011

As the New York Comedy Festival rolls into its eighth year this month, the massive event orchestrated by Caroline Hirsch, Andrew Fox and Louis Faranda of the Caroline’s on Broadway comedy club looks like a well-oiled machine, with over 50 shows featuring the country’s top comedians happening in Manhattan and beyond. But getting here wasn’t as easy. Comedy never is easy.

“It was really difficult when we started, let me tell you. It was crazy at first,” recalls Faranda, who is the talent producer for the fest as well as the club. “The first two, three years were crazy, because we have a famous club, but we were not festival promoters. We weren’t theater promoters. But one of the things that Caroline used to say to me all the time was that we could do it better than anybody, because we live comedy, we live it and breathe it every day of our lives.”

The idea for the fest coalesced in 2003 when Hirsch and company celebrated 20 years of Caroline’s with a big show at Carnegie Hall.

“It was such a grand event, people had the best time,” the comedy impresario recalls. “People were like, ‘Oh my God, you need to do this more often!’ So that’s how it started. It was also a way for me to work with people who had graduated from the club and gone on to the concert circuit and I could still be involved.”

So with the help of her life partner, lawyer and business associate, Andrew Fox, plus Faranda, Hirsch jumped in to the festival biz.

“The first year we included about a 100 different comedians in about 20 shows throughout the city,” she recalls. And with Comedy Central along for the ride from the beginning, it was a good start.

But then things got rocky. Really, really rocky.

“After the first two years, the three of us, Caroline, myself, and Andrew Fox were fighting so bad, because it was so crazy trying to make it work,” admits Faranda, who has been the talent booker at Caroline’s for the past 16 years. “Caroline was ready to throw me out, and Andrew and I weren’t talking, it was just nutty. It was a turning point in the festival, because we all finally decided that people would love to see us just fail and walk away from the whole thing. And we weren’t going to let that happen.”

The trio struggled through the hard times, using what Faranda calls their collective “deep relationships” with so many of the world’s top comedians.

“It’s gotten to the point where the industry sees us as great producers. We have won over their trust in these eight years,” he says.

It has clearly helped to have Comedy Central in their corner since the beginning; that part of the puzzle of putting together a successful comedy festival actually came easily. Mitch Fried, senior VP of the network’s live entertainment, says, “I’ve known Caroline and Andrew Fox a long time, so when Andrew approached me originally about the festival, being that it’s in our back yard, we wanted to be involved.

“Caroline is one of the leading people in the industry when it comes to knowing comedy and the nuances of it, and having an understanding of the different levels of talent,” Fried continues. “She has a tremendous eye, to see that up-and-comer who has that potential. And that’s something that Comedy Central prides itself on as well. We grow them along the way, and so does Caroline. So it was a real natural fit between her approach and our approach to comedy in general.”

Promoting the New York Comedy Festival with “a little exposure on the network” in the beginning has now morphed into a much bigger presence, both via TV and the Internet.

“We’ve grown it a lot as the years have gone by,” Fried says. “We’ve extended what we do pretty dramatically. Last year we introduced a special show called ‘Comics to Watch,’ which is really young comedians who had never had exposure on television before, that we chose along with Caroline’s. We’re streaming that show on our website this year. And we’re also shooting the J.B. Smoove show during the festival to air later on the network, too.”

Plus, Fried was instrumental in one of the biggest changes in this year’s festival.

“I’ve had a lot of heart-to-heart conversations with Caroline and Andrew about expanding the festival out, making it bigger and broader,” says the Comedy Central exec. “We really wanted to figure out how to make it more inclusive and sell more great comedy. It’s not just about people in Manhattan, or New York City coming to the shows, it’s the New York tristate area. People who live in Connecticut and New Jersey and Long Island are going to drive in or take the train in to see the shows, so why not bring it out to the outer boroughs, too?”

They are literally taking their show on the road this year, going beyond such classic Manhattan venues as Carnegie Hall, Avery Fisher Hall, Radio City, Beacon Theater, Town Hall and the Tribeca Center for Performing Arts that they have used over the years, and heading for some new places.

“We always talked about going to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and this year it was available, and we had the right person to do it there, which is Sarah Silverman, so it made sense. And we’re sending Louis C.K. to Staten Island, so that’s quite interesting,” Hirsch says. “This is also in conjunction with what we’ve created in New York with NYC & Co. (the marketing arm of the city). The week of the festival is called Comedy Week, and it’s all part of bringing comedy to the whole city. We have some small shows in Queens, too, and J.B. Smoove will be in Williamsburg.”

Adding venues and “quadrupling the number of comedians this year,” according to Faranda, is obviously good for business. “We’ve gone from selling 20,000 tickets early on to selling 50,000 tickets!” Hirsch announces. Add in the “over $10 million” that the annual Stand up for Heroes benefit kickoff event (this year featuring Jon Stewart, Ricky Gervais and Bruce Springsteen) has brought in, and there’s little doubt that the shaky start is long behind Caroline and company.

“We’ll put this festival on until I can’t do it any more,” she vows.

HIGHLIGHTS

Nov. 9
What: The 5th Annual Stand Up for Heroes Benefit
Where: Beacon Theater, 8 p.m.
Who: Annual benefit for the Bob Woodruff Foundation, featuring Ricky Gervais, Jon Stewart, Jim Gaffigan, Bruce Springsteen and the Max Weinberg Big Band.

What: Comics to Watch
Where: Carolines on Broadway, 7 p.m.
Who: Jeffrey Ross hosts this showcase of up-and-coming comedians, new talent hand-picked by Carolines and Comedy Central, also streaming on Comedy Central’s website.

Nov. 10
What:Wanda Sykes Live”
Who: Wanda Sykes
Where: New York Comedy Festival

What: “Back on Ground”
Who: Russell Peters
Where: Carolines on Broadway, 7:30 p.m.

What: “Louis C.K. Live”
Who: Louis C.K.
Where: Beacon Theater, 7:30 p.m.

Nov. 11
What: “That’s What You Get”
Who: Bill Burr
Where: Carnegie Hall, 7:30 p.m.

What: “The Experience”
Who: Tracy Morgan
Where: Beacon Theater, 8 p.m.

What: “Louis C.K. Live”
Who: Louis C.K.
Where: St. George Theatre, Staten Island, 8 p.m.

Nov. 12
What: “Tired Hooker”
Who: Kathy Griffin
Where: Carnegie Hall, 8 p.m.

What: “An Evening with Bill Maher”
Who: Bill Maher
Where: Beacon Theater, 7:30 p.m.

What: “Sarah Silverman and Friends”
Who: Sarah Silverman
Where: Brooklyn Academy of Music, 8 p.m.

Nov. 13
What: “Life from New York…A Discussion with the ‘SNL’ Writers’
Who: Seth Meyers, Erik Kenward, John
Mulaney, Colin Jost, Marika Sawyer, moderated by Steve Gaydos
Where: Paley Center for Media, 4 p.m.

What:JB Smoove One-Hour Comedy Central Special”
Who: JB Smoove
Where: Music Hall of Williamsburg, 7 p.m.

What: “A Conversation with Ricky Gervais”
Who: Ricky Gervais
Where: 92nd Street Y, 7:30 p.m.

RELATED LINKS
Comics flock to New York Comedy Fest

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