Byron Allen is slightly suspicious of me as I enter his swank, art-appointed Century City office. Though he’s been on television consistently since his debut as a 19-year-old comedian on The Tonight Show in 1979, most people take him for granted. Many of us watch him, dreamlike, at 3 a.m., a soothing distraction when sleep won’t come easily. His friendly, inoffensive interview style and polished good looks make his series, Entertainers With Byron Allen, in constant rotation since 1993, the smooth jazz of late-night TV.
Allen is responsible for some 15 TV shows, which all premiered in syndication, most with names inspired by magazine titles, including Every Woman, The American Athlete, Global Business People and Beautiful Homes and Great Estates.
How did Allen go from an aspiring comic to media mogul?
He spent chunks of his childhood at NBC studios and UCLA film school with his mom, and started doing standup at the Comedy Store at age 14. He got his first break when he sold a joke to Jimmie “J.J.” Walker for 25 bucks — which gave him the confidence to quit his paper route and try writing and performing full time. By day he’d go to Fairfax High — Timothy Hutton, Demi Moore, Flea and Anthony were part of his very talented class of ’79. (“The Red Hot Chili Peppers were a garage band in our talent shows,” he says. “They made a lot of noise. Who knew?”) At night, he’d work at the Comedy Store alongside a newly arrived David Letterman, and Jay Leno in the days when the future Tonight Show host slept in his car to save money.
After Allen earned the spot on The Tonight Show, he was offered a hosting gig on Real People, a reality show before the genre was really established.
“Real People introduced me to America. It gave me a good sensibility of how to entertain, and what it means to come into people’s homes,” Allen says. “It’s just as important to be likable as funny. Never sacrifice ‘likable’ for the sake of a joke.”
During his years with Real People, which lasted until 1984, he was also introduced to the wonders of the National Association of Television Program Executives convention, which he’s been attending now for more than 27 years. NATPE opened his eyes to a bigger picture. “I quickly learned that it’s not show business, it’s business show. Learn the business and you can have as many shows as you want. I live by that. I haven’t been a gun-for-hire since.”
After a negative experience with a distributor during his short-lived Byron Allen Show, he decided to strike out on his own with a simple interview program; the pilot of Entertainers With Byron Allen included chats with Sinbad, Paul Rodriguez and Michael Richards, all Comedy Store cohorts. “I sat at my dining room table and called 1,300 television stations,” Allen remembers. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I asked them to carry my show for free; they all said no.”
Several home foreclosures later, Allen realized he could use his show’s format to further the agenda of Disney, Paramount and other movie studios. He sold them on the idea of, “if you support me, I’ll support you,” which allowed him to get his house out of hock and his phone turned back on. Allen then hit the pavement and sold ads to auto, soft drink and packaged goods industries.
“I made it my mission to know all the stations and have them know me. Know all the advertisers and have them know me. Entertainers is in its 15th year of syndication, and we’ve never canceled a show — in an industry with a 98 percent failure rate. Basically, I took the magazine stand and converted it into television. We control about 4,500 different time slots on ABC, NBC, CBS and FOX, [slots] those networks can’t fill. We’re in the television real estate business and no one has more real estate than [we], period.”
But Allen isn’t relying on the networks for his company’s future. “I’ve been buying up all the dot-TV names, because that represents what I consider to be the next wave of television. TV is only one platform. We built our company for new media — we’re content producers and we control all the rights.
Allen’s voice relaxes as he switches gears from businessman to showman and explains his newest addition to the Entertainment Studios roster, Comics Unleashed, which features the comedy circuit’s latest and greatest talents. Found at 1 a.m. on Sunday mornings, Unleashed was the first syndicated show to premiere in high definition.
“I created the show ’cause I felt the networks were doing too much reality,” he says. “I wanted to give people who truly have talent a chance to get back on the air. Yeah, you can get crazy about these reality shows, but let me tell you, the best writers are comedic minds — you’d be ignoring a pot of gold, and I’m not going to do it.”
As we wrap up, Allen asks me who my favorite comedian is. “Redd Foxx,” I blurt out. My embarrassingly candid confession brings out Allen’s familiar laugh, and one of his favorite bits: “Redd’s on a date, making out with his lady, and she says, ‘Redd, kiss me where it stinks.’ Redd says, ‘So I took her to El Segundo.’”
Photo by Kevin Scanlon