The New York Comedy Festival, founded 15 years ago by club impresario Caroline Hirsch, features hundreds of standups, sketch and improv artists performing all over the city over the course of a week. Yet this year, the schedule revolved around a Broadway show that stars a guy with a guitar telling stories.
Of course, that guy happens to be Bruce Springsteen, who was the brightest star at the first 10 years of Stand Up for Heroes. This is the festival’s anchor event — the other performers this year include Jon Stewart, Jim Gaffigan and Seth Meyers — which has raised tens of millions of dollars for the Bob Woodruff Foundation. The foundation then distributes the money to organizations committed to helping veterans.
“Bruce has really been such a gift,” Woodruff says. “He put the event on the map.”
Last year, Springsteen’s Broadway schedule kept him away — the Red Hot Chili Peppers took his place — but, Woodruff says, he still pitched in, raising $600,000 by donating items to be raffled off on Omaze.com.
“Bruce really wanted to come back this year,” Woodruff says, so he and the festival organizers shifted the event to Nov. 5-11 and he is performing on opening night, a Monday, and Springsteen’s one night off from his show.
The ability to adapt and adjust is crucial to the success of Stand Up for Heroes and for the Festival itself. Woodruff says his event is expanding its online presence through Omaze this year, thanks to the addition to the lineup of Eric Church.
“For years the veterans in the first few rows of the event have wanted some country music,” Woodruff says. “This is a huge score.”
The overall festival has also been continually changing over its 15 years. In the beginning, says Louis Faranda, who produces the festival and who books Carolines on Broadway year-round, they had to chase talent, hoping to persuade artists to give this new concept a chance.
“Now I’m inundated with people calling from all over the country who want to be part of the festival,” Faranda says. “It’s mind-boggling and requires much more research — I personally greenlight every show.”
Hirsch says people will start soliciting them for a slot in the following year’s festival the day after the event ends. “We are the premier festival in the United States,” she says.
But keeping ahead of the pack means making sure the event offers something beyond what the others have offered and what the New York Comedy Festival has produced in previous years.
“Staying fresh is the hardest part,” Faranda says.
One way to stay on top is to keep growing. Hirsch notes that the festival will top 150 shows (in nearly 40 different venues around New York) and, in addition to moving Stand Up for Heroes to Nov. 5, they have added a full slate of shows around the city that night. She also cites the new partnership with TBS as a unique feature of the festival. This year, TBS will stage nightly shows at Sony Hall, featuring its talent; Conan O’Brien produces.
The festival has occasionally been criticized for lack of women headliners but Hirsch, who says the festival has continually grown more diverse as the world of comedy has followed that path, adds they are at the mercy of the comics’ schedules.
Faranda says there were seven major female stars invited this year who could not make it because of prior commitments, including past participants Sarah Silverman and Amy Schumer. He and Hirsch both add that the festival is now more diverse ethnically and racially. (For instance, the Facial Recognition show features six South Asian women on one bill.) “I think we have a nice mix,” Hirsch says.
The festival has evolved in other ways over the years. Faranda says he is now booking more comedians from abroad, including British comic Jimmy Carr. The festival has grown far beyond its Manhattan roots with dozens of shows set in Brooklyn’s flourishing comedy scene (and one in Queens). “One thing that makes our festival unique is that we have these fabulous New York venues: Carnegie Hall, the Beacon, Town Hall and Madison Square Garden,” Faranda says. “Plus New York is a mecca for comedy so there are clubs just coming out of the woodwork that offer the flavor of New York City. And Brooklyn has a specific comedy culture.”
In addition to the smaller clubs and the glamour afforded by the Brooklyn Academy of Music, he says, there are mid-sized clubs including the Bell House and Union Hall for comedians who are developing a following but are not yet ready for a 1,000-seat house. “We provide an economic boost for the smaller clubs,” Hirsch says.
She says certain aspects of the festival “ebb and flow”— past years have featured art installations and movie screenings and more discussion panels, such as one this year called That’s Offensive: Can Comedy Survive the New Sensitivity?
“We have a thousand new ideas each year,” Hirsch says. “But those panels don’t always work out because of people’s availability.”
For instance, a hoped-for panel featuring the cast and writers for “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” never coalesced.
The bigger disappointment, however, was the late cancellation by Stephen Colbert of a Carnegie Hall gig. “We thought it was done,” Hirsch says. “This is the first time in all these years something like that has happened.”
The festival may have fewer panels, but with more comedy overall they may not be missed. The event has broadened its comedic scope over the years as well. The most obvious change compared to the early days is the growth of live podcasts during the event — there will be at least a dozen this year.
“That number keeps growing,” says Faranda. “Podcasts are part of the comedy culture — I think every comedian has their own show. These podcasts all have an audience and sell out.”
Faranda says compared to the early days there is also more variety than in the past.
“There are more sketch shows and more improv and comedy game shows and themed shows developed by comedians,” Faranda says. “I love it. With this many shows, if it were all stand-up it would get repetitive. These are all part of the world of comedy — there are so many different ways to get people to laugh.”
What: New York Comedy Festival
When: Nov. 5-11
Where: 150 venues in New York