Comedy and Camaraderie
For Somers resident and IFC president Jennifer Caserta, laughter is a way of life at home and on the job.
Westchester has more than its fair share of high-powered executives with powerhouse résumés, but it’s hard to imagine there are many who have the comedic timing of IFC’s president, Jennifer Caserta. As the conversation ranges far and wide, she delivers droll punch lines with a touch of dry understatement that surely rivals some of her on-air colleagues at cable’s IFC comedy channel.
Caserta describes balancing family, work, commuting; too much to do in too few hours, expecting too much from herself, and the benefits of being surrounded by people who appreciate what a sense of humor brings to the day. “If I don’t laugh, I’ll cry. I have 8- and 12-year-old boys, a husband and a male dog. I’m the only girl in the house!”
Her two sons top her priorities list. She and her husband of 17 years, Anthony Priore, gravitate toward snarky banter and locating humor in any situation. “We are certainly not lacking material, between our personalities, the antics of our two boys and our funny-looking Bassador rescue dog, Herbie,” Priore says.
Caserta and Priore, who is a musician and stay-at-home dad, met at a party as teens. “I had my guitar and tried to impress her,” he says. “It’s not often that you meet someone and just know that person is special and have an instant bond. It is 30 years later, and that feeling is still there. As time goes on, I realize there’s nothing she can’t do... except maybe cook. But I can handle that.”
At 12, their eldest son, Dean, is enough of a teenager to roll his eyes at his mom’s tips on using a sense of humor to ease a hard day or catching adversaries off-guard with laughter. Caserta praises Dean as a wonderful big brother, protective of his younger sibling, Drew, 8, who has autism.
“It can’t help but shape you as a person,” to have a family member with disabilities, she says. “Dean knows compassion in a way others his age may not. He’s learning life lessons, just as I am, about what’s important, how everyone can band together to make a situation better and try to be stronger. All I want to do is raise happy children.”
After a lifetime of setting a high bar for herself, lately, Caserta has accepted that everything doesn’t have to be done perfectly — or singlehandedly. “Sometimes you know you have to call on experts, people to prop you up when things get tough. I’m more comfortable with that as I get older,” the 46-year-old says. “It’s a humbling position to be in. Families change as kids get older. But with a child who is nonverbal and has a hard time cognitively, it gets harder, not easier.”
Caserta volunteers with Autism Speaks, helping with its annual Celebrity Chef Gala fundraiser. “It’s a wonderful and supportive organization, and I have met some of the most incredible people since I became involved. It has helped us get through some of our most challenging times, being part of a community of empathetic, remarkable people with shared experiences,” she says.
Somers homeowners since 2004, the couple grew up in Bergen County, NJ, but had ties to Westchester. Priore spent childhood holidays with relatives in Yorktown; Caserta often visited her sister, a county resident since 1993. “I never thought I’d get my husband out of New Jersey,” she says. “But it’s a great community, and we saw ourselves building our lives and our family here. It was fate, in a way.”
A lifelong fan of all things entertainment, Caserta always loved both the content and the business side of showbiz. She recalls being just as entranced by TV commercials and promos as by the shows themselves. Early on, she experimented with performing, studying dance, exploring musical theater, and appearing as an extra on daytime dramas, including One Life to Live and All My Children.
Eventually, Caserta decided dance wasn’t for her. “It was a competitive craft that required a lot of time and devotion. I just didn’t have the level of passion any longer to outweigh the sacrifices,” she says. “I would not have traded my experience for anything. It built my character and discipline.”
Musical theater, too, fell by the wayside: “I couldn’t sing a note, which would have really gotten in the way of pursuing that dream,” she adds with a laugh. And don’t expect to ever see Caserta on one of her IFC shows. “I leave that to the pros and stay as far away from the lens and as much behind the scenes as possible.”
After earning a degree in media studies from Hunter College, Caserta noted the opportunities presented by the then brave new world of cable, embarking on a series of marketing jobs at the Food Network, Oxygen Media, and Court TV before landing at IFC in 2004.
Before the year was through, Caserta had earned a promotion, the first of several that carried her from marketing into management. “Jen has made IFC a network that punches far above its weight, and a brand that defines the smartest type of ‘slightly off’ comedy,” says AMC Networks’ president and CEO, Josh Sapan. “She’s done that by focusing on strategy, business achievement, management of a truly great executive team, and building attentive and long-term relationships with top-tier creative talent. She is that rare TV executive who gets to first place through skill and generosity.”
She may be behind the scenes, but there’s no doubt Caserta is a media star. “She has a strong mind for business and brand and what makes a network successful. Equally important, she’s the kind of leader people like working for,” says Ed Carroll, COO of AMC Networks. “Jen has the task of dealing with lots of comedians. This is sometimes less a barrel of laughs than one might imagine. Fortunately, she always keeps her sense of humor.”
Though Caserta still loves the performing arts, she’s never regretted changing directions. “I love what I do, and I consider myself fortunate to be in the business of making great content. This is such a wonderful time for TV. And being in comedy specifically, working with so many talented people, like Hank Azaria, Amanda Peet, Seth Meyers, Fred Armisen; not everyone has that kind of experience. Bringing people laughter and joy — how terrific is that?”
Actor-comedian Armisen, who has worked with Caserta for eight years, ever since Portlandia started on IFC, sees benefits to her ongoing love affair with entertainment. “I love that Jennifer is such a comedy fan,” he says. “If she has a note about an episode of our show, she expresses it clearly, which helps the writers and editors make any necessary changes efficiently. She sets the tone at IFC, and I’m lucky to get to collaborate with her on different projects there.”
For someone who spends a lot of time traveling and whose daily life is all about frenetic deadlines, high-profile projects, and glitzy industry events (“It’s an industry that doesn’t sleep,” Caserta notes), a staycation with lots of unscheduled time is a dream.
When a free day does present itself, she consults a list of fun activities that she keeps on her phone: “There’s always something beautiful to experience that’s just 20 minutes away.” Her ideal day might include “having a great walk, taking time for a good bite to eat and to connect, listening to music.” Venues like the Tarrytown Music Hall, Daryl’s House in Pawling, 12 Grapes in Peekskill, The Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, and The Heights at Brother Vic’s in South Salem are “totally fun,” she declares. Favorite restaurants include The Inn at Pound Ridge by Jean-Georges, Harvest on Hudson, One Twenty One, and Peter Pratt’s Inn. The North County Trailway is a frequent destination, and the Walkway Over the Hudson is high on her to-do list.
“Our home is our family oasis, and we appreciate our own backyard,” Caserta shares. “Our family always finds humor in things, and having fun is a priority. I am lucky.”
Elzy Kolb is a White Plains-based freelance writer, editor, and copy editor. Her work has appeared in The New York Times; O, The Oprah Magazine; and elsewhere.