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understand there’s big money in making people laugh. Just like corporate executives, they’re forming joint ventures, hammering out lucrative deals, and identifying multiple revenue streams. By becoming crossover success stories, they’re able to leverage their name recognition into profitable branding tools and use them to land lucrative endorsement deals. Many have established careers in television and film and, in some cases, launched their own companies. Part of their success is their ability to reach audiences, black and white, through a variety of platforms, including cable and network television, DVDs, feature films, comedy albums, and stand-up acts.
Black comedians have come a long way since the days of vaudeville and the old “chitlin circuit,” which gave birth to legendary comics such as Redd Foxx and Jackie “Moms” Mabley. For the most part, they were relegated to performing at black nightclubs and theaters. Over the past few decades, however, there have been some notable exceptions. Among them are Bill Cosby and Flip Wilson (1960s), Richard Pryor (1970s), and Eddie Murphy (1980s). Wilson, for example, starred in The Flip Wilson Show, a variety show that lasted four seasons on NBC and brought his outrageous brand of burlesque humor to the mainstream. He was the first African American to gain major popularity as host of his own variety hour. He even appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1972. In the 1980s, Murphy broke through to mainstream television, reviving a tired Saturday Night Live with memorable skits such as James Brown in the hot tub, Buckwheat, and the pimp Velvet Jones. He’d soon go on to become one of the highest-grossing stars in Hollywood history.
But for every Wilson and Murphy, there were dozens of others who would end up strapped for cash. Redd Foxx filed for bankruptcy in 1989, and the IRS wasted no time seizing all of his possessions. At one point in his career, he owned several homes, a TV production company, a theatrical management firm, a Los Angeles nightclub, and a Hollywood beauty parlor. His financial woes continued until his death in 1991. When Redd Foxx suffered a fatal heart attack, Murphy, who’d always been inspired by the comedic legend, paid for his funeral.
Cosby was perhaps the first stand-up comedian to successfully brand himself and capitalize on his image through endorsement deals with Coca-Cola and Jell-O pudding. He knew the value of ownership as well and secured the rights to his animated series, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. In fact, Cosby will continue to profit from the 30-year-old property later this month when the live-action remake of the hit cartoon is slated to reach the big screen. Cosby also produced The Cosby Show, which aired on NBC from 1984—1992. Among other things, it brought the stand-up comedian’s family-friendly humor to the mainstream. “If you want to talk about black comedians [who are] having the biggest impact on prime time [television, one of them] is obviously Bill Cosby,” says Marc Berman, senior editor at Mediaweek, noting that there was only