How Byron Allen Went From Comedian to Media Mogul | How I Got Here With Chris Paul
- Where are we? - So this is our studio, where we shoot our sitcoms and our game shows and our court shows. It's something that's really durable and flexible, and we're able to swap, you know, sets in and out. So this is "Mr. Box Office." Over here we have our comedy game show, "Funny You Should Ask." - I'm gonna have to sit over here one of these days. - Yeah, we have great people coming through - Jon Lovitz and Sherri Shepherd and...
- Hello, Sherri? (Audience laughing) - It's great, I mean, you know, you just want to have a place where when you have ideas you can immediately put 'em up. I mean, this is our factory. This is our content factory. And, you know, Henry Ford, a 100 years ago, he's got a factory, and he's coming out with his Model T or he is coming out with his Mustang. Same thing, so... - Everything in house - you control what it looks like.
- That's right. - Everything. - Vertical integration. That's what you want, you know, from A to Z. - Yo, what's happening? - How you doing, man? - I'm well, I'm well, good to see you.
- Good to see you. - So first and foremost, I wanna start out by talking about your journey. So if you don't mind, if you would introduce yourself. - I am Byron Allen. I was born April 22nd, 1961, in Detroit, Michigan - the great Detroit, Michigan. My mother got pregnant with me when she was 16 years old.
- Wow. - A little Black teenage girl in Detroit, Michigan, in 1961, having this little Black baby, you probably wouldn't expect much. But thank God we're in America.
And I was really fortunate. My mother is not only beautiful, she's brilliant. And we came out here to Los Angeles, and we ended up staying. And we just, for a couple years, slept on a lot of sofas, a lot of floors, slept wherever we could at friends'. And my mother ended up getting into college at UCLA and going to film and TV school.
And she ended up getting her master's in cinema TV production, which is why education's everything. And she couldn't afford child care. So I used to go to class with my mother, and I would sit there in class waiting for her to get outta school.
And then I would go and watch her edit for her film and TV classes. And she one day went to NBC and said "Can I have a job?" And they said, "We don't have a job here." And then she said, "Do you have an intern program, where somebody can work here for free so they can learn?" And they said, "No we don't have that." And then she asked a question that changed our lives forever. She said, "Will you start one with me?" And they said yes. - That's powerful.
- And my mother got a job working at NBC for free. And she couldn't afford child care. She needed to take this little Black baby with her. I'm sitting there waiting for her to get off work. And I'm watching Johnny Carson do "The Tonight Show." And then I'm walking across the hall, and I'm watching Redd Foxx do "Sanford and Son."
Then I go across the hall, and I watch Flip Wilson do "The Flip Wilson Show." Then I go across the hall again, I watch Freddie Prinze do "Chico and the Man." - You're seeing all of this at a young age. - I'm just going from studio to studio to studio. I'm watching 'em do talk shows, game shows, soap operas, and sitcoms.
I said, "You know what? This is how I'm gonna spend my life, making television and making people laugh." - So is that when it hit you? - That's when it hit me. - That's when it hit you? - 12 years old, and I'm sitting there and I'm just going... And it was so cool, because I would stay - I would stand in the parking lot every day at like around two o'clock, because Johnny Carson would pull into his parking space like clockwork at two o'clock. You look up - Bam! Johnny Carson pullin' into his spot and I say, "Hello Mr. Carson. How you doing Mr. Car...
Your monologue yester - last night was great. I love that joke about so-and-so." And he said, "Thank you, thank you."
and over time he's like, "Thank you Byron." He got to know my name. - He knew your name. - Because I would stay - I would conveniently be there by that parking space, "Mr. Carson, that joke" - Right? I would always do that.
And Redd Foxx talked to me like I was his best buddy. Like I'm like a little... - I would've absolutely loved to meet Redd Foxx. - Oh, my God, man! He talked to me. He would come...
He was old-school. So he'd come up to me, Chris, he'd be like, "Hey Byron, come here, come here." He'd go, "You want some cabbage? You want some cabbage?" And I'd go, "Cabbage?" And he pulled out a wad of cash, a wad of cash. He'd go, "Look at that cabbage, look at that cabbage." (Byron laughing) - Right see, so my question to you is at 12 years old, right? Like when I was a young kid, I watched everything Michael Jordan did. - Yeah.
- I watched every game that came on WGN, and just like a lot of kids, it's a dream. - That's right. - It's a dream. So for you running into them, you know, that was a dream, and you hoped and you looked up to them.
But how did you start your career? Like when did you start your career? Like after 12 - when did you say this is... - This is it? - This is what I'ma do. - Yeah, you know, Gladys Knight & the Pips had a summer show, and they taped it at NBC. Summer of '75, I was 14 years old. And they had a comedian on - it was Gabe Kaplan. And I went and knocked on his dressing room door, and I said, "Wow, sir, you know, I wanna be a comedian like you.
What do I do?" He said, "Go to the Comedy Store." I called the Comedy Store, I go, "Is this the Comedy Store?" They go, "Yeah." And I said, "So let me ask you something. Do you like, do you sell jokes? Or do you sell gags?" They go, "What the hell are you talking about? This is not a supermarket - it's a comedy club.
It's called..." I go "OK." I go, "I wanna be a comedian." They go, "OK, we have Monday night tryout nights." "Monday night tryout nights?" They go, "Yeah."
They said, "You know, you can go onstage at like eight o'clock, but you gotta get here and sign up. But you should get here early." I go, "OK, no problem. I'll get there early."
He didn't know I was 14 years old. I get there at nine in the morning. So I get there at nine in the morning, and I sit on the curb. I literally sat on the curb from nine in the morning - on Sunset - until like 7:30 at night, and I'm just writin' jokes. Club opens, Mitzi Shore, God bless her. So she opens the door, and I'm thinking, Oh, my God, I hope she doesn't look up.
She's just doing her thing. But my voice gave it away. She goes, "OK, what's your name?" I go, "Byron." And she looks up, and she goes, "How old are you?" I go, "I'm 14, ma'am." She goes, "You can't be in here.
I'll lose my liquor license." She goes, and I started to walk. She goes, "Wait a minute." She goes, "You just stay in the parking lot. And when it's time for you to go onstage, I'll send somebody to get you.
But you go onstage, and you immediately get outta here." - Get outta here. - So I go onstage, I do my thing. And this guy comes up to me, and he goes, "Who wrote those jokes?" I go, "I wrote those jokes." He goes, "How old are you?" I say, "I'm 14."
He goes, "Can I get your phone number?" I go, "Sure." He goes, "I may have a friend who wants to write jokes with you. I got - we write jokes with some people." I said, "OK." I give him my number. I get a call one week later, and this guy calls me up.
He goes, "Can I speak to Byron?" I go, "Yeah this is Byron." He goes, "This is Jimmie J.J. Walker, from 'Good Times.'"
- Yes, exactly. - He's hotter than the sun. This is 1975, right? And he says, "My man, Wayne Klein, says you're funny. And if my man Wayne Klein says you're funny, then you're funny." He says, "So listen up. Why don't you come on over here and write some jokes with me and my guys.
You wanna write some jokes with me and my guys?" And I go, "Let me ask my mom." And so, he goes, "Oh, my God, he's gotta ask his mom." - Cause you're kid. - I'm kid, right. So then I heard this dude in the background goes, "Tell his mom not to worry.
We'll have some cookies and milk for him." And then Jimmie said, "Dave, be nice." So my mother says yes. I go to Jimmie's apartment. I walk into Jimmie's apartment, and sitting there is Wayne Klein, Jimmie Walker, Jay Leno, and David Letterman, and Marty Nadler, who went on to write and produce "Laverne and Shirley" and "Happy Days."
Wayne Klein went on to write... - All of these people in the same room? - Sitting in the room, sitting in Jimmie's apartment on Sunset, 1975. - Just so you know, everything that you just said is not normal.
I hope you know that. But name all these different people. Right? All these different people. I'm sure you learned a ton of things, but what was one of the biggest things that you take away from even, like, Johnny Carson, all these different people that you came across at a early age. - Love and passion. Love what you do and have enormous passion for it.
I remember when I said, "Oh my God, I wanna be in television. I wanna write and produce." I said I will literally do this for free. I literally will do it for free. - That's how I felt about basketball.
- When you feel that way. - Yeah. - Then everything else is... The moment you find what you wanna do and you love it, is the moment in my mind you become successful. - Obviously the different things that an early age impacted you. But I think one of my biggest questions for you, because you were a writer, performer, when did it change for you and you said, the business side.
- You know, I realized early on, it's not show business. It's business show. Juxtapose those two words, and now you can do all the shows you want. Learn the business side. A lot of people show up, they wanna be Elvis. Nah. You gotta show up,
you gotta be John D. Rockefeller. - Were you learning that the whole time? - You know what happened? I was in a negotiation - and it didn't go well - on a show that I was hosting. And I didn't like the feeling, cause it was like they were determining my value, my worth. And I felt I was worth more. And I decided, "You know what? I'ma learn the business." And so I went to my first television convention in January of '81.
And in January of '81 I was 19 years old. I developed some of my best relationships going, just showing up. And my mother would say to me, show up.
- Yep. - That's that's like 80% of winning is showing up. - You gotta give yourself a chance. - Gotta keep yourself a chance. I said, "All right." And I went and I showed up and I wouldn't leave.
I wouldn't leave the lobby of the hotel until I met everybody. And I've gone to that convention for 40 consecutive years, 40 consecutive years. One of my buddies who I met at the convention, Dick Robertson - he ran Warner Brothers, Warner Brothers Television Distribution. Brought in a couple of billion a year. So I'm out at his beach house in Malibu.
And we're out on his deck. We're looking out at the ocean drinking lemonade, and he's got a couple of Labs and I'm petting the Labs. And he just casually says to me, "Yeah, you know that television show, that once-a-week, one-hour TV show that we syndicate called "HBO Comedy Hour"? Where they would take comedians doing their specials. He goes, "I gave that show to a friend of ours." I go, "Why'd you give that show to a friend of yours?" He said, "Because that's a once-a-week show that only brings in 10 million a year."
And he says, "And I have my salespeople going out on the road to do the first cycle of "Friends." And I expect them to come back like with a billion dollars. And I don't want them" - he said, quote - "messing around with a once-a-week show that only brings in 10 million a year." - And you was like, hmm. - And I said, "Wow, OK." And I went home, and the next day I started my company from my dining room table selling a once-a-week one-hour show - chasing a once-a-week one-hour show that could bring in 10 million a year.
And I was like, "I'ma take studio crumbs, and I'ma make a gourmet meal." (Byron laughing) - How has it been with family and friends over the years, like as far as support, going from one stage of your career to the next? - You know, it's so funny, Johnny Carson said, "You know what happens is, you know, when you start to have success," he goes, "you don't change, the people around you change." And so I learned early on, OK I gotta go a little... I gotta go the extra mile make them comfortable. I gotta let my friends know I love you, I appreciate you, nothing's changed.
As a matter of fact, you coming with me, I'm not leaving you behind. You're part of this. You know, I have a family-owned company.
My mother's office is next door to my office. You knock on the wall, you knocking on her wall, right? So my uncle is my chief operating officer. People don't know he's my uncle, cause I don't normally broadcast that.
So - I love my family, and I've even said - right? I say to my kids, my three kids, I said, "You know, look, I need you to get that education, because I want you to come hang with daddy. I want you to be here at the office with me. I want us to build legacy wealth. Now, just in case you're not feeling it, then I get it. Then I'll just take the company public.
And you know, you guys sit on the board, if you don't wanna run it, whatever. But it's about building legacy wealth." - I just have to ask you, what is the most memorable thing in your business career? I'm sure there's a lot, but I'm just saying like, what's one thing that you was like, wow, like I'm happy this happened. - The big moment for me was buying the Weather Channel. And the reason why that was a big moment is because quite often as African American entrepreneurs, we're in the negro leagues.
And there's nothing wrong with the negro leagues, but the one thing I've always wanted to send to all these young Black kids: an image of the global leagues. We don't just do business in our neighborhood. We do business in every neighborhood. - That's real, that's real. When I saw that, I was like, so happy for you.
You know, like that's a big deal. - Thank you. It's the first time an African American has owned a mainstream cable network. It was the No. 1 cable network last weekend.
And so, when you think about what's owned by the big corporations, News Corp owns Fox news, Comcast own MSNBC, and I own the Weather Channel. So that was sending a message to all those kids out there: "I want you to see yourself where you're global. Just because you're Black, you're not gonna do business in just Black neighborhoods, and that's fine. But I also want you to know you are playing it globally."
- Right, and you spoke about it a second ago, when you talked about legacy, right? And historically in Hollywood, it's a huge lack of diversity, right? - Yeah. - So what type of solutions do you see that could change that? - Don't play the game, own the game. I've always been about owning the game.
When I met my wife 20 years ago, she's like, "What are you doing?" I was working from my dining room table. I said, "I'm building the world's biggest media company." And I've never deviated from that vision. And as I build it, I'm going to effectuate change for the greater good for the planet, because there are media companies out there that divide us. I'm gonna unite us. Look, the president of the United States is not the most powerful person in the world.
The most powerful person in the world is the person who controls media, because we control what you hear, what you see, what you think, what you read, and ultimately how you behave. - Absolutely. - So that's a very, very powerful position. And you have to manage it in a positive way and do things to make the world better. - But the reason why you're so important to all of us, and especially someone like me - obviously I grew up playing basketball.
I was in my backyard with my brother, just trying to be like Mike, right? Like, I wanted to be like Michael Jordan. And when you get to the NBA, you learn that, like you said, it is basketball, but it's also a business. - That's right.
- You wanna also learn the business. So everything that you were saying just now about a media company, obviously I started a production company called Ohh DIP!!! And then with a few other athletes and guys in the league, we started another media entity called Players TV, which is about including athletes. - That's right.
- Right, having athletes be a part of something bigger than you. And I think to hear you say everything that you said is, in anything you do, you want ownership. - You wanna own it and you wanna have a seat at the table. Because if you don't have a seat at the table and you're not a part of the - and your voices aren't being heard and amplified - then it's not a real democracy.
We have a bunch of white guys who own Spanish-language networks and they can't even speak Spanish. People in the gay community don't own their networks. People from the Asian community, it's like, they're invisible. You don't even acknowledge them. Women really don't even own their networks.
My position is, everybody needs to own these networks and own this content. And you need to amplify and produce yourself. I'm about the four E's. Make sure everybody has a great education. Make sure everybody has equal justice.
Make sure everybody has economic inclusion. And make sure everybody has environmental protection. And you get those four E's, that equals the fifth E, which is excellence. If you're successful I'm successful, your success is my success. My success is your success. - How do you know what business risk to take? - I'm comfortable with business risk.
I mean, I'm a big believer in swinging for the fences. I mean, my first movie that I put out, I went to a buddy of mine, and I said, "You know what? I got an opp - I found a shark movie that we could put out." And I said, "I need $30 million." I said, "I'll put up 15 million, you put up 15 million, but I need you to understand something. You're probably gonna lose your 15 million. You're gonna lose every last penny of this money, but I'm gonna lose my 15 million next to yours."
And my friend said to me, "Is that your pitch?" I go yeah. I said "I'm just telling you the truth. That's my pitch." He goes, "That is the worst pitch I have ever heard in my life."
He goes, "You got my 15 million." So he put down 15 million. I put down 15 million.
We put out this shark movie, ended up being the biggest independent movie of the summer. We did over 44 million at the box office. And we still laugh about it. - That's a hell of a story. (Byron laughs) - He said, "Everybody who's ever come to me and pitched - they always said I was gonna make a bunch of money.
You just told me the truth and said I was gonna lose it all. And here we made all this money." I go, "I honestly could not tell you we're gonna have one person buy one ticket, but I could tell you, I would lose money side by side with you." - That's a heck of a story. And I'll tell you this. I mean learning everything has been unbelievably amazing.
But one question I always like to ask. - Sure. - This may be just a personal aspect for me, but anytime I find out someone has kids, right? - Yeah. - For me, cause I don't have all the answers. I always say, if someone had a book on raising kids, then they're lying.
- That's right. - Cause everybody is different. - That's right. - But one of the things that I've sort of seen or always noticed is that I feel like your kids will be raised with a different level of privilege than maybe you did.
- That's right. - So being the way that you were brought up, you know, in a very moderate family - I know I was, too. How do you make sure that you keep your kids grounded and at the same time keep 'em motivated? - Oh, I'm good at reminding them, "This is my money not yours."
(Byron laughs) - Right, right, yeah. - So I want you to know, don't get too comfortable. - Exactly. - You know, so, my kids, they know they are privileged and they're blessed, but they're not spoiled. And that is, you gotta work that.
But the main thing is I wanted my kids to be happy, healthy and have empathy. And my wife, credit goes to her. She does an amazing job with our kids. I would take our kids to school - I remember taking our 3-year-old daughter to school. And I remember her telling us, saying to me, "Daddy, I see another homeless person.
Daddy, I see another homeless person." She said, "Daddy, why aren't we stopping to help them?" And I started crying because I realized - what was it about me that I turned off my empathy button? And acting like I didn't see that. And it took this little 3-year-old girl to turn it back on. I said, "You're right. And we are gonna help 'em."
But they want to help. They want to lean in. And I love that. They have that compassion and that is so important. Everything else we can help with. We'll make sure you go to the best schools.
We'll make sure you're educated but more importantly, intelligent. There are a lot of people who are educated, but they're not that intelligent. So we'll make sure you're gonna be a great contributor to this world. That's all I want. - Yeah that's the biggest job that we have. That's that bigger than any shot that I could ever make in a game where I could win.
And I bet for any business deal that you could ever do. - And that's how I'm playing. - So listen, I cannot say thank you enough for all the knowledge that you just shared with me. I appreciate you.
- You got it. - All right. - Thank you, baby. (Both laughing)