How Byron Allen Got the Last Laugh

The one-time stand up comic built a media empire worth billions. Now, he is eyeing politics, the NFL, and making Black ownership the new norm
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Byron Allen is already torn. The night is young, the party just beginning to bounce to remixed classic funk and soul. In a shiny black tux and shaved head, the charismatic 61-year-old is in Washington, D.C., on the edge of the night’s red carpet (beige, in this case), intoning about “Black excellence” and “Black ownership” to the press scrum assembled before him. But every minute or so, another esteemed guest from media, entertainment, or politics arrives, and Allen, the host of this shindig, excuses himself and beelines for a fist bump and photo op with Pete Buttigieg, President Biden’s domestic policy advisor Susan Rice, Congresswoman Ilhan Omar . . . .

It’s the night of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, the annual indulgence where D.C. politicians and the journalists who cover them drop all pretext of objectivity and openly revel in their codependence. For Allen, hosting this after-party at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture is a typically shrewd move in his relentless empire-building. He’s been a recognizable face for decades, first as a young comic and more recently as an increasingly prominent media tycoon. Allen owns the Weather Channel, local TV stations, multiple 24-hour cable channels and streaming networks, and is the producer and distributor of more than 60 syndicated TV shows. Entertainment Studios, the Century City-based company he founded to produce his content, is worth billions. Allen still doesn’t have the profile of a Michael Bloomberg or a Donald Newhouse, but people are finally paying attention. “I’m a 61-year-old overnight sensation,” he says with a laugh. “People just didn’t notice.”  

Now here he is in Washington to make a play for his brands but also a point. The after-party was ostensibly to raise awareness for TheGrio, the news and culture website and digital TV channel aimed at Black audiences that Allen acquired in 2016. (Tonight’s guest of honor is longtime White House correspondent April Ryan, poached by Allen from American Urban Radio Networks to lead TheGrio’s Washington coverage.) But the party is also a statement of purpose and show of force by Allen on behalf of Black entrepreneurs in the nation’s ultimate power center.   

“Until we have a real seat at the table—with ownership, equity, access to a real education, economic inclusion, equal justice, environmental protection—we can’t achieve one America,” he tells me as his party rages around him. “You can’t achieve one America unless you come to Washington, D.C., and you get politicians to understand: ‘You are nothing more than temporary hired help.’” 

MR. ALLEN GOES TO WASHINGTON On the steps of the Supreme Court in April. (Photo: Larry French)

Curtis Symonds, CEO and cofounder of HBCUGo.TV, a platform created to promote historically Black colleges and universities that was absorbed by Allen’s company last year, tells me, “People looked at Byron when he first got in the business, saying, ‘He’s a comedian, not a businessman.’ Now he’s showing the world, ‘I’m not going to do a show. I’m gonna own the show.’ That’s the thing that I admire most about him: he delivers.” Chris Tucker, the evening’s emcee, flew to the event on the Entertainment Studios Gulfstream G550. “This guy started out like me, a comedian,” Tucker informs the party once he’s onstage. “And now I don’t know how many buildings he’s got. He never tells me how much money he’s got. Never. I guess he don’t want me to borrow none of it.”

From that position of power and influence, Allen has filed a series of multibillion-dollar racial discrimination lawsuits—including a 2015 case against Comcast for not carrying Allen-owned stations and networks. That case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court before being settled out of court to Allen’s satisfaction. His latest is a $10 billion discrimination lawsuit against McDonald’s for racial stereotyping and refusing to buy what he considers a fair share of advertising from Black-owned media. “I’m not a litigious person,” he insists. “If I’m filing a lawsuit, it’s because I know we’re right.”

With no intention of running for office himself, Allen has been a frequent contributor to Democratic candidates and advocacy groups across the country but doesn’t pull his punches regardless of who is in the Oval Office. In 2015, he faced blowback for calling the nation’s first Black commander in chief  “a white president in blackface,” on camera to TMZ, no less, after Obama characterized looters in Baltimore as “thugs.”

“I didn’t criticize Obama until the second term. But I said to Black America, you’re not being strategic. You need to have an ask of Obama. We got a Black president, beautiful photos, eight years, and went backwards,” Allen says, not backing down. “Black people were mad. Then after he left, I was like, ‘OK, Black people, what did you get?’”

Allen mentions being especially moved by the Smithsonian’s solemn exhibit for Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Black boy murdered in Mississippi after whistling at a white woman in the summer of 1955. What caught Allen’s attention was in a glass case: an article in Jet magazine—the first to publish the shocking photo of Till’s beaten, mutilated face. It was essential fuel for an accelerating Civil Rights movement in America. “That’s Black-owned media—authentic, unfiltered,” Allen says. “We have to bring the truth.”

If Allen’s comedy career had gone the way of his contemporary Eddie Murphy’s, he likely would never have become the mogul he is today, buying up TV stations and vying for ownership of an NFL franchise. After four decades of triumphs and setbacks, Allen now speaks confidently of his goal to own the biggest media company in the world. Four years ago, he paid $310 million in cash for the Weather Channel, which he likes to point out is “America’s most trusted news brand.” (The weather has no agenda, of course.) And he recently launched the Weather Channel en Español, the first 24-hour, Spanish-language weather network. “Buying the Weather Channel obviously caught people’s attention,” Allen says. “It’s the very first time an African American has owned a mainstream news operation in this country.” 

CREATIVE LICENSE Allen at Entertainment Studios in Culver City. “This is our sandbox,” he says.

With close to 2,000 employees, Entertainment Studios is a family-run company in a world of corporate fiefdoms. Allen remains 100 percent owner and sees only a glide path to his ambitions for continued growth. There are contradictions between Allen’s social agenda and his businesses, as when he invested his own cash to join Sinclair Broadcasting’s $9.6 billion purchase of 21 Fox regional sports networks and Fox College Sports, and then told Bloomberg News, “I’m a big fan of Rupert Murdoch.” He wasn’t talking about politics but the Australian’s media domination in sports, which he called “some of Rupert’s best work.” 

The media landscape is littered with high-profile flameouts of cash and hype, like the recent failure of Ozy Media, led by another likeable on-camera entrepreneur, Carlos Watson. Even Allen’s friend, the hugely successful entertainment executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, saw his $1.7 billion Quibi streaming platform disintegrate shortly after takeoff. Allen reached his fortune and position less dramatically, though he insists he’s not risk-averse. “I do roll the dice,” he says. But his rise over the last two decades wasn’t based on gambling everything on a single monumental deal. His empire was built piecemeal with his customers and partners. His three rules of success start with having personal relationships with stations and advertisers. “Number 2, don’t run out of money,” he says, then adds with a laugh, “and, number 3, don’t break rules 1 and 2.”

Allen’s rise was steady and largely unnoticed by anyone not in business with him. That’s especially ironic, since he is the most hands-on and public of media moguls, his company’s best and most charismatic spokesman, and a frequent creator, writer, and on-camera host of its content. His ease at being in the spotlight is rooted in years of stand-up comedy and hosting gigs going back to his teens, when he got big laughs from a sultry Barry White impression at the Fairfax High School talent show and introduced an unknown garage band with future members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

“WE GOT A BLACK PRESIDENT, EIGHT YEARS, AND WENT BACKWARDS. AFTER OBAMA LEFT, I WAS LIKE, ‘OK, BLACK PEOPLE, WHAT DID YOU GET?’”

Allen is still an entertainer at his core, his creative and business selves inseparable, and he credits his training as an observational comic for his ability to recognize opportunity and unorthodox solutions. “As a comedian, you see things differently,” he explains. “You look for that nuance—for what’s missing. You’re filling that gap as a comedian, and you’re filling that gap as an entrepreneur. They’re very closely related. As a comedian, you understand human behavior innately.”

He frequently tells the story of paying $1 for a courtroom set that 20th Century Fox planned to throw away. Instead, the studio accepted his offer to save the estimated $100,000 it would have cost to dismantle it. Allen used the set on his first court TV show, America’s Court with Judge Ross—now one of six first-run syndicated courtroom reality shows that he repurposes on his 24-hour cable network Justice Central.

“My mind is very numerical. I love business. Judge Judy is a big business—it’s $100 million a year,” Allen says. “How do we get into the court business?”

Our first and longest talk is over Zoom, a medium he rarely used before the pandemic but has since become his preferred means of communication. Dressed in a white Adidas pullover, he leans into the conversation for nearly two hours and rarely checks his cell. Behind him are framed pictures of his wife,  TV producer Jennifer Lucas, and their children, Chloe, 13, Olivia, 12, and Lucas, 9, and a large photograph of a watery tropical paradise upon which is reflected a flickering image of Wolf Blitzer on CNN. Allen stays plugged in. 

His days begin early, with his first calls to the East Coast at 5 a.m. local time, followed by nearly back-to-back calls until 8 p.m. “I used to be that comic that didn’t go to bed until six in the morning,” Allen says. “I had to reinvent myself.” Before COVID-19, he might have three meetings a day but discovered a new level of efficiency during the pandemic, saving millions on staff travel expenses. “It took a physical toll on me because I never worked so hard in my life,” he says with no discernable regret. 

Two days after our call, news hits that Allen was leading a group in a bid for the Denver Broncos. The mogul was vying to become the first Black member of America’s most exclusive club: NFL owners. For years, Donald Trump craved entrée into that crowd, with a failed bid for the Buffalo Bills in 2014; becoming president was easier. While Allen’s play for the Broncos made it to the final round, the winning $4.65 billion bid, a record price for a U.S. sports team, went to Walmart heir Rob Walton and his family. With a personal wealth estimated at just under half a billion dollars, Allen wasn’t able to clinch a deal this time, but NFL team ownership is a long game, and it was a significant first step.

“It sets him up to interact with überwealthy people who might be amenable to supporting a bid that he would lead,” says Marc Ganis, president of Sportscorp and a longtime financial adviser to multiple NFL teams. “The NFL is far more than just a sports league. An argument could be made that the NFL is the single most significant asset in popular culture today.”

“Whether I become the first Black owner of an NFL team or it’s somebody else, it’s long overdue,” Allen says, adding that he’d earlier been approached by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft about buying a team. “It will serve as inspiration for a lot of folks in this country who deserve that—who need to not just see us play the game, but own the game.”

POWER PLAYERS Allen with Pete Buttigieg, U.S. domestic policy director Susan Rice, and journalist April Ryan. (Getty Images/Larry French)

In mid-June, Allen strolls into Entertainment Studios’ production complex in Culver City in a dark blue suit over an open-collared white shirt, smiling. He leased this 75,000-square-foot space, the former home of  ALF and TV hitmaker Stephen J. Cannell, a decade ago. At one end of the warehouse is the Oval Office set where he shot 36 episodes of his Obama-era sitcom The First Family, steps away from the shiny, retro-mod game show set for Funny You Should Ask, one of Allen’s flagship shows, which resumed shooting after two years of COVID-induced hiatus, during which cast member and close friend Louie Anderson died of cancer. (“God bless Louie Anderson’s soul,” Allen murmurs.)

Sitting beneath a ceiling crowded with cables and lights, Allen is in an upbeat mood. “This is our sandbox,” he says proudly. In less than 24 hours, We the People with Judge Lauren Lake goes into production—on a new modern courtroom set design that was overseen by his mother, Carolyn Folks, one of the show’s executive producers. “This is a part of my DNA,” Allen says, gesturing at the soundstage. “It’s home for me, being in a studio, creating, producing.”

Byron Allen Folks was born in Detroit at Henry Ford Hospital in 1961. His mother was 17 at the time, and his father, Alvin Folks, a few years older. His paternal grandparents owned a roller rink in town, and other family members were blue-collar workers for Ford and Great Lakes Steel. He remembers riding with his mother, grandmother, and an uncle on road trips to the suburbs, “where all the rich white people lived.” They drove past mansions owned by the Ford and Chrysler families and the Dodge brothers. “One day, they said, ‘This is Berry Gordy’s house,’ ” Allen recalls. Seeing the fabulous digs of the Black founder and owner of Motown Records left a mark. “It changed my perspective.”

Allen was six when he saw National Guard soldiers in the streets following the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., as riots erupted across urban America. “I watched Detroit go up in flames,” he recalls. “Two or three months later, we went to L.A. for a two-week vacation and ended up staying.” Allen’s father remained in Detroit, and his parents eventually divorced.

He and his mother settled in the Miracle Mile. (Among Allen’s childhood friends was the future food critic Jonathan Gold.) His mother went to school as a film and TV undergraduate at UCLA, got hired as a page at NBC Studios in Burbank, and worked her way up to publicist. She brought Allen with her most days. “I would sit and watch Johnny Carson do The Tonight Show, and then walk across the hall and watch Redd Foxx do Sanford and Son, then go across the hall to watch Freddie Prinze do Chico and the Man,” he says. One day, comic Gabe Kaplan, from Welcome Back, Kotter, was appearing on a Gladys Knight special at NBC, and Allen knocked on his dressing room door to ask for advice about breaking into comedy. Kaplan told him about the Comedy Store.

His mother agreed to take him, at age 14, to the club. “He had written a spec script for Sanford and Son, so he took some of the material from there and put together his first stand-up material,” says Folks. His first night onstage, Allen was spotted by a writer for Jimmie Walker, who recruited the high school kid as a joke writer, working alongside then-unknowns like David Letterman and Jay Leno. Byron’s first check was for $25, and he immediately quit his paper route.

“Since Byron was 14, we did kind of watch ourselves,” remembers Leno, then in his mid-twenties. “But he was sharp. Comedically, he was everybody’s equal. I’ve sort of had a fatherly thing from standing back and watching him become this mogul. It’s so hysterical. I’m really proud of him.”

FUNNY BUSINESS Allen, right, joined Jimmie Walker’s writing staff—including David Letterman, center—as a 14-year-old high school student.

At NBC, Allen learned how television shows are made, how writers, producers, and directors interact with network executives, censors, marketing, and the audience. He knew Carson taped The Tonight Show at 5:30 p.m. and was in his car rolling off the lot by 6:45. “I would go sit at Johnny’s desk when that studio was empty,” Allen says. “I’d stand on his spot and read his cue cards.” In May 1979, Allen, then 18, became the youngest comic to appear on The Tonight Show, delivering four minutes of jokes about life at Fairfax High. (“My best friend is like half-Black, half-Jewish—Abdullah Steinberg. Buys Afro Sheen wholesale. Wears his yarmulke tilted to the side . . . .”) As he waited to go on, he wasn’t nervous in the least. He’d spent much of his childhood at the studio and was a veteran of the Comedy Store and the Improv, sharing the stage with the great comics of the 1970s. He knew he belonged on The Tonight Show but understood how much the moment mattered. “I knew, standing behind that curtain, what was going to happen in the next five minutes after Johnny introduced me,” Allen recalls. “It was going to change the trajectory of my life and my family’s life.”

The offers started coming almost immediately—Joan Rivers wanted him for a sitcom. Instead, he signed on as a host-correspondent for NBC’s Real People, a prehistoric version of what would later become reality TV. Allen and a film crew were sent around the country to find examples of the hilarious and heartwarming, the quirky and the profound, meeting Americans far from New York or Los Angeles. “I was literally, in some cases, the first Black person they had ever met,” Allen recalls. “I would go to some of these towns, and it was segregated—like, really segregated.”

Real People was a hit, and it made Allen famous in a mainstream network context, where no sharp edges were allowed during the 8 p.m. family hour. “I quickly learned that it wasn’t show business—it was business show. Once I juxtaposed those two words, it changed the trajectory of my career.”

After leaving the program, Allen costarred with Charles Durning in Case Closed, a TV movie in the mold of Beverly Hills Cop. Swept up in the gold rush to syndicate late-night talk shows after Arsenio Hall hit, he hosted The Byron Allen Show from 1989 until it was cancelled in 1992. Throughout, he was on the road as a comic, opening big rooms for Lionel Richie, the Pointer Sisters, Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton, Gladys Knight, and Patti LaBelle. By most standards, his career was going well, but he began to believe the constant touring was keeping him from the world of TV studios and production—the landscape he wanted most. 

“I probably stayed on the road too long,” Allen says.

“You’re not in show business unless you’re in a studio.” 

In 1993, he got off the road and founded Entertainment Studios. While his mother handled the paperwork, he spent his days at the dining room table “smiling and dialing” hundreds of TV stations around the country. His first show, Entertainers with Byron Allen, was an ingenious concept that combined big stars with exceptionally low overhead, as Allen turned the movie industry’s weekly assembly line of media junkets into his own TV talk show. Then, as now, studios brought their biggest actors to the Four Seasons and other L.A. hotels to talk up their upcoming films with journalists. Studio press departments often provided the cameras, lights, and sound for five-minute encounters, placing the movie’s poster or logo prominently in the frame. Allen brazenly spliced together these short interviews, padded them with studio-supplied movie clips and a pleasant soundtrack of jazzy R & B, and, voilà, produced a weekly hour-long show with the biggest stars of the moment at virtually no cost. 

Allen offered the show for free to local and national TV stations and split with them the revenues from selling 30-second spots to advertisers. After a lot of rejection, 150 stations signed on. But ad sales were slow, and during a five-year period, his house went in and out of foreclosure. When his phone was turned off for nonpayment, Allen moved his office to a nearby pay phone. Money was so tight, he sometimes subsisted on meals provided at the junkets. Then the general manager of a station in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, told him that sales reps from Paramount Television were making it known to anyone who would listen that Allen wasn’t a real production company, just some guy making calls in his underwear from a dining room table, and Paramount was granted  the time slot promised to Entertainers. 

“That was very painful,” Allen recalls. “I said, ‘Listen, they’re right. I am calling you from my dining room table. I am in my underwear. But here’s where they’re wrong: tell the boys at Paramount I’m never going to cancel it, and it’s going to be on until the end of time.’” 

Allen eventually signed up a full roster of advertisers, and the show thrived. Today, Entertainers remains his longest-running show, though Allen is no longer host, with a revamped version—still fueled by press junkets—that airs across the country and every weekend in L.A. on KCAL 9. Another important leap for Allen’s company came when he secured six new high-definition channels from Verizon’s Fios TV service in 2009 and soon added more. The deal was made in connection with his purchase of a variety of self-explanatory dot-TV domain names: Cars.TV, Pets.TV, Comedy.TV, MyDestination.TV, ES.TV, and Recipe.TV.    

“I’ve always said to the world, we will end up being the world’s biggest media company,” Allen says. “The reason why is because we are better positioned for the digital revolution than anybody.” He’s expanding his company’s reach in other ways too. Entertainment Studios is now in the business of buying and distributing feature films—including the favorably reviewed dramas Hostiles and Chappaquiddick—and popcorn thrillers like 47 Meters Down and its sequel. 

Allen has rarely strayed from the cameras for long. On Comics Unleashed, he is introduced in every episode with a different throwaway—“The only man with a rotary cell phone!” But most of the attention is on the more than 650 comics who have passed through the show in a sort of finishing school—many making their TV debuts—who are Black, white, Hispanic, Asian, transgender, young, old, who lean left or right.

Earlier this year, Allen attended a tribute to the late Bob Saget at the Comedy Store, reuniting with old friends in the space where his stand-up career began and his path to everything followed. The unexpected death of their beloved colleague brought out an all-star revue of onetime regulars at the club—Chris Rock, Jim Carrey, Jon Lovitz, Paul Rodriguez, and Mike Binder among them—along with Saget’s musician pals Jackson Browne and John Mayer. Saget’s widow, Kelly Rizzo, told her first jokes on the famous stage, the same one where the 14-year-old Allen had so impressed that he was launched into show business before he knew what had hit him.

Allen took his place on the stage, hemmed in by the cohort of comedians who, with him, had changed the course of popular culture. Dressed in a blue sweatshirt and sneakers, he repeated a few of Saget’s famously filthy jokes but mostly shared memories of his old friend and colleague as the laughter and tears washed over him.

“We both started as teenagers,” Allen told the audience in the packed club, which in those years was making its transition from Ciro’s, a faded supper club catering to the sentimental entertainment favored by the World War II generation, to the searing rock-and-roll comedy of boomers like Allen and Saget. “I met him in 1978, right here,” Allen continued. “And I watched him for 42 years. Truly great.”

Earlier, Allen had confessed to me, “Once you’re a comedian, you’re always a comedian.” But that didn’t stop him from pulling off the road at the height of his fame, when he admitted to himself that he could succeed on terms that are now his gospel: Stop shoveling coal into someone else’s furnace. Own your material or others will own it and, by extension, own you. Allen veered into a life of media ownership for a reason—his own. He’s satisfied now to be funny at home, to tell a few jokes on his shows, and to advocate for a new generation of Black entertainers and entrepreneurs whom he hopes will build on the shoulders of his success. 

“I have buddies. They collect cars. They collect Ferraris. They collect Porsches,” Allen says. “I have buddies who can’t stop talking about and watching sports. But for me, it’s business. That’s my love. That’s my passion.”

(Photograph by Corina Marie at Tail o’ the Pup, June 2022.)

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