How do you honor the death of a comedy club? First, you kill.
Walking onstage late Friday night at the final headlining show at Carolines on Broadway, which after three decades is closing its doors, Dave Attell handled that job quickly, spraying punch lines, roasting the front row and making sure the raucous audience knew it was part of history. In one galloping tangent, Attell urged anyone not laughing to leave. “Take a table and chair with you, because we have to clear this place out,” he said.
Attell has performed at Carolines between Christmas and New Year’s for 13 years, a holiday tradition for audiences who wanted something significantly dirtier than the Rockettes. This time, he mixed in a few heartfelt, even melancholy notes into his virtuosic deadpan rhythms to eulogize the passing of a legendary comedy room. But comedians mourn differently. When a waiter walked past the stage toward the door, Attell, dressed in a characteristic black jacket and baseball cap, asked him where he was going, pausing before the joke: “Unemployment.”
Like a drama queen writing her will, New York is perpetually and loudly dying. Hardly a day goes by without teeth gnashing over a beloved part of this city calling it quits. Every closed diner is the end of an epoch. The most mundane and predictable demise, the end of a Broadway run, receives extended soul-searching and public autopsy. To me, this seems (mostly) sensible. It’s healthy to mark the end of things, and what is better than a great finale? But I’ve been covering show business in this dynamic city too long to get too sentimental. We shouldn’t overly fetishize institutions. One of the legacies of “Stomp,” which closes next month after a 29-year run, is all the shows that did not get produced in its theater. Change is good.
And yet, I couldn’t help but feel a little melancholy walking down the steps into Caroline’s for the last time, a steep descent that gave you a chance to adjust from the gaudy lights of Times Square. Caroline’s isn’t technically gone; after a final show on New Year’s Eve, it is producing the New York Comedy Festival and other unnamed projects. Still, with the stage backdrop, stools and other parts of the club soon to be shipped to the National Comedy Center in Jamestown, N.Y., the loss of this room is significant.
When Caroline’s opened in Chelsea in 1981 (it had two homes before moving to the theater district in the next decade), New York comedy clubs were essentially dive bars with stages, featuring packed bills of short sets by lowly paid or unpaid comics desperate for performing time to work out jokes. Caroline’s introduced a new model: hour sets by more established talent, bigger pay days and a more upscale atmosphere. There was plush carpeting and a dressing room. Instead of a brick wall, the comics stood in front of a checkerboard pattern artfully missing a few pieces. In a 1985 story in The Times, Robert Morton, a producer on “Late Night With David Letterman,” described Caroline’s as “the first yuppie comedy club,” becoming maybe the last person to use that word as a compliment.
Many were exposed to the club via the television show “Caroline’s Comedy Hour,” which ended in the mid-’90s. Its impressive lineups offer a history of modern stand-up. On one 1992 episode, Attell performed with Dave Chappelle, Louis C.K., Jon Stewart, Susie Essman and Colin Quinn.
That Caroline’s was located in the heart of Broadway mattered, adding a touch of class to stand-up, an art form rooted in vaudeville and minstrel shows that was then rarely afforded the critical respect of theater and film. Caroline Hirsch, the founder of the club, played a key role in raising the stature of stand-up. You can even make the case that she helped set the stage for the transformation of Times Square, opening just a few years before Disney arrived in the neighborhood.
On Friday before the show, when I asked about her most memorable nights at the club, Hirsch recalled the time Robin Williams took over a Jeff Garlin set with some inspired heckling and a string of performances by Kevin Hart. She also told a story about how Don King walked into the club when John Witherspoon was telling a joke about him. Her recollections underlined the real importance of Caroline’s: the staggering number of memorable experiences had there. I had more than my share.
Caroline’s was the only place where I saw veteran stars like Dick Gregory, Richard Lewis and Damon Wayans. Before he was on “Saturday Night Live,” I caught Michael Che there. And years before he had a special, I knew that Ricky Velez would get one after watching him do an electric opening set. The most memorable part of a Tiffany Haddish show was when she spotted Whoopi Goldberg in the audience and tearfully described how important it was as a child to see the veteran star on television.
Caroline’s was not dogmatic about the kinds of comics it booked. It didn’t have a house style, which might have hurt its brand but made it unpredictable, featuring talent from an array of ages, backgrounds and styles. Bo Burnham cut an album there early in his career, and Phoebe Robinson got her start by taking a comedy class at Caroline’s.
One of the all-time funniest shows I ever saw was Rory Scovel doing an hour at Caroline’s. A decade before John Mulaney toured arenas with bits about fame and addiction, he performed a hilarious hour at Caroline’s in which he told jokes about his marriage and his alcoholism.
Caroline’s was also not above oddball bookings (Larry “Bud” Melman performed there). I once saw a 13-year old do a standup act and also made the error of taking my 7-year-old daughter to a Ron Funches show, only to rush out when the jokes became too dirty.
Toward the end of the night, Attell asked his opening acts, Ian Fidance, Jordan Jensen and Wil Sylvince to join him onstage. They riffed with one another, before Attell turned to the crowd and asked with an odd formality: “May I?” Then he took out a blue recorder, which he described as “somewhere between a flute and a bong.”
In between raunchy jokes, he played simple, wistful songs. He remarked on the sadness of the instrument’s sound. Then he opened his jacket and brought out a second recorder, a yellow one. Seeing this gruff, grizzled legend wield two colorful pipes was its own sight gag. It was also a reminder that while Attell’s much imitated delivery has its own musicality, when it comes to expressing certain kinds of emotion, no joke can really match a few notes played with conviction.
Then he beckoned Caroline Hirsch to the stage, called her “a force” and thanked her for “making us all better.” Describing the moment as “bittersweet,” she said she would be producing more shows in the future. Then everyone took selfies onstage to commemorate the moment and awkwardly shuffled off the stage.