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.

one sitcom in the top 10 ratings when The Cosby Show premiered. “It completely rejuvenated the comedy genre. It was the No. 1 show for five years in a row. The only other time [that occurred] in the history of television [was with] All in the Family.”

Cosby wasn’t the last to make a mark on the small screen. Russell Simmons and HBO partnered in the early 1990s to produce Def Comedy Jam. The show took then-unknown black comedians, such as Martin Lawrence, Tucker, and Rock, and turned them into household names with both white and black audiences. FOX’s In Living Color, the brainchild of Keenan Ivory Wayans, catapulted the careers of his siblings and of funnyman Jim Carrey.

Another comedian who shot into the mainstream as a result of the show is Jamie Foxx. Now a leading man in Hollywood, Foxx starred opposite big names such as Al Pacino, Tom Cruise, and Will Smith and took the lead in Ray, the Ray Charles biopic released by Universal Pictures in late October. Foxx credits much of his mainstream success to the exposure he received on In Living Color. “Anybody who was on In Living Color — that was the best TV you could have had. It was black folks doing smart black things. Keenan Ivory Wayans was an African American man with African American people running the show. I learned from him that a black man can be successful, but I also learned from him that we have to be the best at what we do. If you’re mediocre, they won’t buy it.” Foxx subsequently created Laffapalooza!, a comedy showcase for the Showtime cable network.

One of the most significant comedic events occurred in the mid-90s, when entertainment entrepreneur Walter Latham created The Original Kings of Comedy tour. Featuring Steve Harvey, Bernie Mac, Cedric The E
ntertainer, and D.L. Hughley, the tour itself would generate more than $40 million in profits, making it the highest-grossing comedy tour in history. The subsequent Spike Lee-directed film and DVD grossed $41 million and $80 million, respectively. Just as important, it was accepted by the masses, regardless of race. “Def Comedy Jam had already done what it had done in the early ’90s, and those [comedians] were able to go on to theaters and sell out because of the exposure they had gotten from [the show.] But that was as big as it had gotten,” says Latham. “So my idea was to see how much further we could take it. The idea was to take three or four guys into basketball arenas and see if we could sell tickets.” And they sold — lots of them. New York City’s Madison Square Garden sold out in advance while Washington, D.C.’s MCI Center sold out all four nights there was a performance. It was also the hot ticket in Chicago and Los Angeles.

The level of the tour’s success surprised even the performers. “You knew that if you were doing $40 million in the box office, that wasn’t just your African American

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