Funny Money

Black comedians have always been among the funniest. Now, by tapping into the business side of the industry, today's comics are laughing all the way to the bank.

It’s not just another punch line. Always the irreverent funnyman, Chappelle may joke about inking a $50 million deal with Comedy Central to continue his highly successful Chappelle’s Show for another two seasons, but it’s no laughing matter.

Is Chappelle worth that much money? You bet. The second season of his show produced record ratings for Comedy Central, averaging 3.1 million viewers per episode. The show, which earned three Emmy nominations, scored high with both the network’s predominantly white viewers and gave the network a black audience for the first time. It has turned out to be a huge crossover hit, according to Lou Wallach, Comedy Central’s vice president of original programming and development. “[Chappelle] was really able to bring to the channel a much larger black audience than we had in the past without alienating — actually growing — the kind of traditional, core white audience that we had,” he says. “To me, that’s a huge testament.”

Have you heard the one about the DVD sales? The strength of side-splitting skits such as the “Playa Hater’s Ball” and an over-the-top portrayal of funk icon Rick James fueled DVD sales of Chappelle’s Show. Approximately 2 million units sold grossed more than $40 million. As DVD sales become an increasingly lucrative revenue stream for networks and studios, it’s taking a spot next to syndication as a crucial deal-making point for profit participants.

Ask Jeff Clanagan, president of Urban Works Entertainment, a black-owned DVD distribution and film production company based in Thousand Oaks, California. He maintains that back-end deals, like Chappelle’s, can produce more dough than a cookie factory. Here’s how it works: A DVD that retails for $19.99 costs roughly $10 to manufacture and distribute. Standard distribution fees are about 25%, or $2.50. Manufacturing and marketing costs average around $1. Total costs can add up to as much as $5. If a comedian has a back-end deal in place, he or she stands to make up to $5 from every DVD sold.

Among the hottest sellers for Urban Works, which grossed some $25 million last year, is the Def Comedy Jam series and, you guessed it, the Dave Chappelle Platinum Series, a video of the comedian’s funniest performances. Says Clanagan: “Comedy is the No. 1 selling genre for us.”

Chappelle is tapping into the business side of entertainment, and he’s not the only comedian doing so. African American entertainers are the driving force behind comedy.

Chappelle and Chris Rock have produced some of the highest—grossing comedy concerts. Damon Wayans’ My Wife and Kids is the one of the highest-rated shows on ABC, while The Bernie Mac Show, which airs on FOX, is slated for syndication. Chris Tucker of Rush Hour fame is among the highest-paid comedians in Hollywood, earning $20 million per film.

There’s little doubt that comedy is big business. Twenty-two of the top 100 highest-grossing movies in U.S. history are comedies — totaling nearly $5 billion. Many of today’s entertainers have learned from the mistakes of their predecessors and take a hands-on approach to directing their careers. They

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