“I think it’s an accomplishment to be in business for 40 years,” says Caroline Hirsch, the founder of Caroline’s on Broadway. The now famous comedy club was created by Hirsch in the early 80s and has since been the starting point for some of the biggest comedians: Jon Stewart, the late Gilbert Gottfried, Billy Crystal. Caroline’s on Broadway is back this fall hosting the annual New York Comedy Festival.
The New York Comedy Festival started in the 2000s after Hirsch celebrated Caroline’s 20th anniversary by having a show at Carnegie Hall with major acts who had gotten their start from Caroline’s. “We said, ‘Why don’t we do more of that so I could work again with all the people that graduated from here?’ and we started doing the festival,” says Hirsch.
Major comedians performing this year include Wanda Sykes, Jenny Slate and Tracy Morgan. “Tracy’s one of my oldest and dearest comedians to come out of Caroline’s,” says Hirsch. Along with celebrity shows, the New York Comedy Festival strives to showcase up-and-coming talent. “We have probably over 150 shows all around the city and way over 200 comedians participating,” most of whom are not famous (... yet).
One of the many ways new talents get to showcase their skills is through the New York’s Funniest Stand-Up competition, which is open to anyone. “New York’s funniest always comes with the next big rising star in comedy,” says Hirsch. Past winners include Michael Che who’s known for his work on SNL. Geoffrey Asmus, an up-and-comer, is excited to participate in the contest, especially after he lost in 2019. But he qualifies his feelings about the loss saying “I lost to a guy who’s now an alt-right, anti-vax, conspiracy theorist [Tyler Fischer], so I’m like ‘Maybe I’ll get it this time. Hopefully I don’t turn alt-right from it.’”
From Law to Comedy
Zarna Garg is another up-and-coming comedian who’s excited to perform as part of two different shows in the festival. She rose to some notoriety posting to TikTok where she has over 600,000 followers and millions of likes.
Garg was a stay at-at-home mom for 16 years before she broke into comedy. She was desperate to go back to work but knew she couldn’t return to her old job as a lawyer. “I knew going back to law was not an option, for many reasons, including I wasn’t good at it.” So, her kids bullied her into trying standup comedy. “I think my kids love it because this means I’m out of the house nights and weekends. I think they’re in it for themselves,” Garg jests.
At first she assumed that she was shut off as a stay-at-home mom and the world was filled with comedians like her, but Garg was surprised when Louis, a booker at Caroline’s told her differently. “I had been like ‘Why don’t you put brown woman on?’ and he looked at me and said, ‘We don’t have any acts like that,’” says Garg. “We talked for a few minutes, and then he said ‘You do it.’” Caroline’s eventually became the first place to give her a headlining gig.
Garg’s comedy centers on her experience as a stay-at-home Indian mom in New York. “I come from a world where women doing comedy is not really encouraged, and women don’t even know it’s an option.” But that is also what makes her comedy unique. “I represent a brown mom perspective. I actually cannot think of a single other person on earth that does what I do.”
Garg recently finished taping her first comedy special. She couldn’t say what streaming service it would premiere on but commented that “Everybody on earth who has a streaming service has it.” When asked if it rhymed with “shmetflix” she did not respond. Garg is currently preparing to film her second comedy special.
Garg credits her success to her time performing at Caroline’s. “My comedy journey has deep roots with Caroline’s and everything that they do,” she says. “If they’re doing something you better believe I’m going to be a part of it.”
The New York Comedy Festival runs from Nov. 7 - 13. Every year the festival opens with a performance by Bruce Springsteen in an attempt to raise money for the Bob Woodruff Foundation through the Stand Up For Heroes concert. The show raises money to support veterans who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. Over the years the Caroline’s has helped raise over $70 million.
Then the rest of the festival is comedy all day everyday. Hirsch is excited for new venues this year, such as the Hard Rock Hotel. She’s also ready for big performers like John Mulaney. But mostly she wants to see the excitement in Caroline’s. “The action happens here in the club. We have a great bunch of people that are in and out and get to see all the fans,” says Hirsch. “I get to see many more people here than I do when I go to the, to the theaters.”
There is something for everyone this year and show tickets come in a variety of price ranges. Garg wants comedians like her to get support. “The world is gonna get to know who I am. There’s so much more to be said.”