New York Comedy Festival founder on the pros and cons of Netflix, Louis C.K. being 'banished,' and the state of comedy in 2019
- The 16th annual New York Comedy Festival begins next week.
- Caroline Hirsch, the festival's founder and owner of the comedy club Carolines on Broadway, talked to Business Insider about Netflix's explosion into comedy and whether it's good for the industry.
- She discussed "Joker" director Todd Phillips' recent comments about "woke culture" destroying comedy. She didn't agree.
- Hirsch also spoke about comedian Louis C.K., who was accused by multiple women of sexual misconduct in a New York Times report in 2017, which he later said was "true."
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
Some of the biggest names in comedy, including "The Late Show" host Stephen Colbert and "The Daily Show" host Trevor Noah, will perform in New York City next week for the 16th annual New York Comedy Festival. The festival includes over 100 shows throughout the city at venues like Carnegie Hall, Madison Square Garden, and Carolines on Broadway.
And behind the curtain is a lesser-known name, though one that's been a major force in the comedy business for decades: the festival's founder, Caroline Hirsch.
Hirsch is also the owner of the Carolines on Broadway comedy club, which she founded in 1982, so her roots in the industry stretch back decades. Carolines helped launch the careers of comedians like Jerry Seinfeld and Jay Leno.
"I knew there was something in the wind," Hirsch told Business Insider of why she started the club. "Every generation [since] we've had more comedians coming through."
There are more comedians than ever before, but there also those who complain that the art form is dying. Most recently, "Joker" director Todd Phillips, who had been known for R-rated comedies like "The Hangover" trilogy, said that he stopped making comedies because of "woke culture."
"Go try to be funny nowadays with this woke culture," Phillips told Vanity Fair earlier this month. "There were articles written about why comedies don't work anymore - I'll tell you why, because all the f---ing funny guys are like, 'F--- this shit, because I don't want to offend you.' It's hard to argue with 30 million people on Twitter."
Hirsch doesn't agree. She said that there are respectful comedians, like Jim Gaffigan, who "don't offend anybody." But there are also the ones who know how to walk that "fine line" and strike a nerve in a funny way. She noted Bill Burr, Norm Macdonald, and Noah as examples, the latter two of whom will be performing at this year's festival.
"When comedy is really smart it can dangle on that line," Hirsch said. "People don't possess it early in their careers, but then it comes naturally."
But with the growth of comedy through various platforms, especially streaming, there are plenty of comedians who aren't ready for the spotlight, according to Hirsh.
'All the power to Netflix'
Netflix has broken through in the comedy scene in a major way.
While it's been cutting back on stand-up specials this year, the streaming giant released over 50 by October of last year, according to Bloomberg. It has reportedly paid comedians anywhere from $13 million (Amy Schumer) to $100 million (Seinfeld) in groundbreaking deals that have included specials, TV shows, and movies.
Hirsch said that Netflix is "helpful to the performer" in building a comedian's brand.
"Netflix is paying $20 million for a special," Hirsch said. "Comedians came a long way from making $20 for a stand-up set. That's progress."
But it's not all great, according to Hirsch.
"All the power to Netflix, they really get behind comedians," she said. "But there's a lot of junk, too."
"Some people aren't ready for an hour special," she continued. "It's boring. I find more and more of that lately because they [Netflix] need all of this content and a lot of people aren't ready for it. Great comedy is when you're glued to the device. I think they are plucking people way before they are ready for it."
So how does Hirsch know when someone is ready? She has an eye for talent, but said it's difficult to pinpoint what exactly the "it" factor is for a comedian. But they do have to have a unique, distinct voice to make them stand out in the crowd, she said.
"When you see that person on stage, you just know," she said. "They command it."
'How long can he pay for it?'
Hirsch's decades in the business has given her a front-row seat to the rise of those comedians who command the stage. The comedy festival, she said, was even born out of a Carolines on Broadway 20th anniversary reunion. She's met and befriended most, if not all, of the prominent names in the industry.
That also means she's had to confront some of their controversies.
In November 2017, The New York Times reported that multiple women accused comedian Louis C.K. of exposing himself and masturbating in front of them in the early 2000s. C.K. issued a statement the day after the report was published, saying "these stories are true."
C.K. has been largely out of the public eye since then, save for some low-key standup performances. The FX television network, where his series "Louie" ran for five seasons from 2010 to 2015, cut ties with the comedian. And his movie, "I Love You, Daddy," was shelved.
Hirsch, who said she's known C.K. since he was a teenager, questioned how long C.K. should have to "pay."
"It's almost two years ago with him being banished," Hirsch said. "If this were a crime, he would have gone to court and he'd have a sentence and gone to jail. So is two years enough for him to be in jail? How long can he pay for it? I don't know. He lost his income, his shows. I think he was punished severely for what he did."
"I do not condone anything he did, but there's a time," she added. "Louis was in his 30s and he made a stupid mistake."
After Hirsch spoke to Business Insider, C.K. announced over the weekend that he would be embarking on an international stand-up tour starting next week and running through January.
What to expect at this year's festival
Aside from the star-studded lineup - which also includes Jenny Slate, Kevin Smith, and "Big Mouth" cocreator Nick Kroll - charity events will take place during the New York Comedy Festival.
- The 13th annual Stand Up for Heroes event, a tribute to veterans, will be held Monday at 8 p.m. at the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden. Jon Stewart, John Oliver, Bruce Springsteen, and others will take the stage as money is raised for the Bob Woodruff Foundation.
- A new event, called Hungry for Laughs, will be held at the Helen Mills Theater on Tuesday and raise money for GMHC, a non-profit fighting AIDS.
The New York Comedy Festival takes place November 4 to November 10. The complete lineup of performers for the festival is here.