Funny Business: The Fortunes Of America’s Top Black Comedians

March 25, 2011  |  

by Steven Barboza

Black comics are adored by mixed audiences, studied by sociologists, and dissected by psychologists. Now it’s time to study their work at leading business schools.

Great black comedians are among the most astute business people in the nation. They have amassed some of the largest fortunes in entertainment, and have done so for more than a century.  Their secret: wise brand management. Like many successful CEOs, they know just how to broaden their base, widen their appeal, and extend their “product line” to become hot commodities in an otherwise cold market.

“A-list comics … are the commodity that people are buying into,” said Dionna Griffin-Irons, director of outreach and diversity for The Second City, the legendary improvisational comedy company that served as a training ground for Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert and many “Saturday Night Live” cast members. “You want that revenue success — sold-out houses. What you see comics doing is recognizing that their name is a brand. It brings people to the audiences. It fills seats, and so that brand translates into other areas — film, TV, CDs.”

Eddie Murphy, a great comic dealmaker, joined Hollywood’s exclusive billion dollar club years ago, having starred in films that earned at least a billion dollars at the box office. Murphy earned $40 million in 2009. Billion dollar club member Will Smith, who starred in the sitcom “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,“ had a net worth of $188 million back in 2004, according to Fortune magazine. And then there’s mini-mogul Chris Rock, who in a recent year raked in $42 million for being funny in all sorts of venues, including as host of the Academy Awards.

But the dean of black entertainers is Bill Cosby. Several years ago, Forbes estimated his net worth at $450 million. He was so rich back in the 90s that he informed NBC-TV that he might buy the troubled network, worth $4 billion at the time.

No doubt the Twitter generation considers Cosby old school. After all, he rose to prominence a half-century ago.  But no other black comic has matched his bankability.

Cosby is the wealthiest black comic on the planet. Except for Oprah Winfrey, who’s also a communications empress, Cosby is the wealthiest black entertainer who ever lived.

Cosby took lessons from Fortune 500 CEOs, spreading his risk and building his brand across multiple venues. He honed his stand-up routine in New York, and rose to stardom after TV appearances. Then he diversified, creating “line extensions” of his product – or his talent.

He ventured into comedy albums, winning multiple Grammys in the 1960s. He also launched cartoon series in the 70s, became the first black star on a prime-time TV series, wrote national best-sellers, appeared in numerous hit films, dominated television from 1984 to 1992 with “The Cosby Show.” He even expanded his comic repertoire by endorsing numerous products, including Jell-O, which he continued to pitch for three decades, providing a steady source of income.

The fundamental concepts used to build his empire haven’t changed, so comics can still take business lessons from Cosby. “Sometimes you are able to tap into a different market with different approaches, so the people who go to a live show may not be the same people who watch a DVD, and the people who watch Comedy Central may not be the same people who go to a live show or who buy a live recording,” said Adam Alter, marketing professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business. “So by extending your reach and by diversifying in that way, you may be tapping into different segments in different markets.”

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