The woman who helped make Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld and Tina Fey has advice on following your passion

The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and Tina Fey, episode 3229
NBC | Getty

Caroline Hirsch is proof that you don’t need to be an expert to make a success of your passion.

When she launched her New York stand-up club "Carolines on Broadway," she'd never worked a day in comedy in her life. In fact, by her own admission, she'd be the last person to get on stage and crack a joke.

Yet, today she's one of the most respected names in the funny business, credited with shaping the careers of world-class comics like Jay Leno and Jerry Seinfeld. Meanwhile, her efforts to open up the industry to comediennes have supported a new wave of female comics like Sarah Silverman and Tina Fey.

So, how do you pull off something like that? Well, according to Hirsch, like any good joke, it all comes down to watching the world, finding your niche and nailing your timing.

Caroline Hirsch attends Lincoln Center Corporate Fund's Stand Up & Sing for the Arts at Alice Tully Hall on June 19, 2018 in New York City.
 Michael Loccisano | Getty

It was the early-80s when Hirsch made her comedy debut.

She was nearing 30 and had just been made redundant from her buying role at department store Gimbels. When she was approached by some friends to open a cabaret club, she agreed, but quickly decided they should shift the focus: Hirsch had spotted a growing trend toward observational comedy and felt she could offer the platform for emerging talent.

"I thought 'there's something going on here.' It was kind of rock and roll-y," Hirsch told CNBC Make It.

Though Hirsch had no experience in the industry, she was passionate and "learned by the seat of her pants," calling agents and pounding the pavement to sign up stand-ups and fill the then-120 seat live comedy club. Soon, Carolines was showcasing then-little-known stars such as Robin Williams, Chris Rock and Billy Crystal.

"A lot of people in the TV and music business were coming in, so I knew we were onto something. No one was really doing it at the time and paying comedians a proper salary," explained Hirsch.

In the 35 years since, Carolines, which is now located in the center of Times Square, has become a go-to venue for U.S. comics, spawning a new wave of copycat live comedy clubs. Meanwhile, Hirsch herself has become something of a comedy oracle, known for her ability to spot and mentor up-and-coming talents like Dave Chappelle, Sarah Silverman and Kevin Hart.

To her, it's proof that you needn't always take the obvious route to build a career in your dream industry.

“You can have a passion for it and you may not be a great stand-up,” Hirsch noted. “Not everyone has to be stood up on stage to be in the comedy industry. They can be writers and behind the scenes.”

“If you have an idea, stay with it, stay tuned, stick your course," she added.

Seth Meyers, Jon Stewart, Caroline Hirsch, and John Oliver pose backstage at the New York Comedy Festival and the Bob Woodruff Foundation's 9th Annual Stand Up For Heroes Event on November 10, 2015 in New York City. 
 Ilya S. Savenok | Getty

But, for those looking to make it on stage, Hirsch has some advice.

"You need to have a distinctive way of coming across to the audience. You need to have something that makes you stand out, a strong stage presence and a unique perception of the world," she said.

Don't be disheartened if it takes some time to break through, though, she said. As with any job, polishing your act can take time.

"Young people often don't have enough stories yet. They don't have enough experience."

"Sometimes it takes a bit of time, but then there can be a turnaround one day that makes things fall into place," said Hirsch.

Correction: This story has been revised to note that Tina Fey has not worked directly with Caroline Hirsch. In 2016, she performed at the New York Comedy Festival, the live comedy event founded by Hirsch in 2004.

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