Funny Business

Comedy is the catalyst for J. Anthony Browns family-owned empire

Comedian J. Anthony Brown has been doing what he does best for nearly 40 years. Not wanting to be known as your run-of-the-mill entertainer, however, Brown launched a company, It’s Just a Joke (www.janthonybrown.com), in 2002 to expand his brand. Though comedy still remains his bread and butter, the 57-year-old is serious when it comes to using a portion of his earnings to build the company.

He sold a hodgepodge of items under the It’s Just a Joke umbrella, ranging from men’s clothing to a signature hot sauce. But in 2008, Brown decided to merge his talents and take an ownership stake in the world of comedy at the same time. He spent about $500,000 to secure a location, renovate, and gain permits to open the J Spot Comedy Club in Los Angeles.

“So many entertainers attach their names to products and services but when they pass on, their name still lives, but they fail to continue to earn their royalties,” he says. “I would much rather leave everything to family.”

To ensure that his company does in fact become a legacy that will be passed on to future generations, Brown brought his son, 37-year-old Anthony Terrell Rivers, into the fold. “My father’s the money man, but I’m the one that makes it all happen,” says Rivers, who manages the day-to-day operations,which consists of overseeing  the company’s five full-time and 10 part-time employees, determining what comedians will perform, and making sure customers’ demands are met. Brown’s celebrity appeal is perhaps his greatest contribution to the club’s success, while Rivers is investing sweat equity. “I put in long hours, my time, and my dedication,” Rivers says. “I’m in it for the long haul.”

So far, the collaboration has paid off. In 2008, the club’s launch doubled the company’s 2007 earnings, from $350,000 to $700,000. But launching in the midst of a recession has its challenges.

Because of the economy, Brown closed his clothing store to make room for the comedy club, which he believes is a better-performing business during tough economic times. “People are losing their homes, jobs, and in some cases, even their families. Sometimes folks just want to escape, even if only for one night. They turn to comedy clubs to laugh a little, to feel good,” says Brown, who is confident patrons will help keep the business’ doors open.

The clothing line and Brown’s other products will continue to be sold in a souvenir shop inside the club. They will also be used as a marketing tool. “If I have 500 people come into my club every week, I get a chance to tell them about my hot sauce, my watches, my clothing line,” Brown says. He also promotes his company on the radio through his job as a co-host on ABC Radio Networks’ Tom Joyner Morning Show. With It’s Just a Joke on track to make $850,000 in 2009, Brown is hoping to take his empire to the next level by opening locations in cities across the country. The ability to thrive during these times is why Brown is all smiles regarding his company’s success. He adds, “Now that my club is operating I can show investors the numbers and it’s more lucrative for them to say, ‘You know what? I’d like a piece of that.’”

This article originally appeared in the June 2009 issue of Black Enterprise magazine.

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