Caroline Hirsch got into comedy almost by accident. About 30 years ago, she and some friends started a cabaret in the South Street Seaport area of New York City, with a variety of types of acts. Comedy, however, took over — it probably didn’t hurt that the first comedian Hirsch hired was Jay Leno — and 21 years ago she moved her own club uptown to Times Square. That club was Carolines on Broadway and today Hirsch is one of the most powerful arbiters of funny in the comedy world. As Hirsch tells TIME in the video above, the club can now have 150 headliners come through during the course of a year.
Hirsch is also a founder of the New York Comedy Festival, now celebrating its tenth year. When the festival was conceived, it was all Carolines: Hirsch says that the idea was born at the after-party for a Carolines event at Carnegie Hall, when was clear that there was mainstream interest in bringing big-name comedians together. Now, the festival has expanded to multiple days and venues: beginning today and running through Nov. 10, it features performers like Larry David, Bill Burr, John Mulaney, Kathy Griffin and Wanda Sykes; the festival also includes Stand Up for Heroes, a Nov. 6 event that benefits the Bob Woodruff Foundation.
But festival size isn’t the only thing that’s changed about comedy in the ten years the NYCF has been around, and even more so for the decades that Hirsch has been involved in comedy. Sure, styles have changed, but one of the biggest differences is the sheer number of people who want to get involved in comedy and, unlike Hirsch, not by accident.
“Comedy is much more popular and I think comedy, hopefully, is appreciated as much more of an art form. I always thought that. I work with some of the most talented people around,” she says. “It’s also changed that there are many more people who do stand-up comedy and improvisational comedy today. The generation that I worked with created another generation of young people coming up that want to do stand-up comedy.”
One reason for the growth of comedy, Hirsch says, is that the rash of stand-up-to-sitcom success stories — Cosby, Seinfeld, Barr — showed that comedy could be a more than viable career. “It became big business. Then it became big business in books. Then it became big business in movies. So comedy’s gotten more and more popular,” she says. In addition to the growing number of comedians out there, there’s also been a growth in audience interest, helped along by the ballooning number of places to see comedy live, on TV and online.
The only problem with watching comedy online? Not all of it’s good. Hirsch says YouTube is generally good for comedy, and that she watches the comedy videos that come her way — so she doesn’t accidentally miss something great — but that she sees a possible drawback in terms of comedy’s recognition as an art: “What I don’t want to see is having a lot of junk out there that’s not funny and then people say ‘oh I’ve been watching all these videos on YouTube but there’s nothing really funny.’ That’s the only part of it that I find can sort of taint comedy.”
Which speaks to the other comedy caveat: just because more people want to be comedians than ever, says Hirsch, doesn’t mean more people than ever are cut out for it. Hirsch estimates that about 20 percent of the up-and-comers she sees have the materials and the personal qualities that are necessary to make it big. But even a lack of laughter doesn’t mean those qualities aren’t there, she warns. Her top advice to aspiring comedians is to use failure well.
“You don’t have to fail but if you do fail you learn something from it. You learn, oh, I should have paused at that particular time or I should have waited for the laugh on that joke,” she says. “People who want to succeed at it have to dust themselves off and say I’ll take the bad with the good. Look, the two terms for comedy when you’re on the stage are ‘I killed’ or ‘I died.’ Those are pretty aggressive terms to use for an art form, don’t you think?”