“We Need More Laughter, We Need More Love“
In these days of shock TV, Byron Allen proves family entertainment is alive and well…
IndiePitch.tv founder and producer Scott Manville spent the day with media titan Byron Allen to discover that in Allen’s high-octane world of creating and selling TV series, acquiring motion pictures for distribution, and purchasing cable networks (Byron Allen recently made a strategic purchase of The Weather Channel for $300 Million)…Family still comes first. We share with you Scott’s time spent at Entertainment Studios on their 100th episode taping of “Funny You Should Ask“.
By Scott Manville
Comedian Byron Allen warms up the TV studio audience with disarming comedy, finding the funny as the minutes count down to showtime. But this isn’t circa 70’s The Tonight Show- It’s the 100th episode of Allen’s syndicated hit comedy game show “Funny You Should Ask”. And while Allen is now a billion-dollar media titan as founder, chairman and CEO of Entertainment Studios, he lives true to his heart with the same wide-eyed passion for punchlines as he had writing jokes for Jimmie Walker as a teenager for twenty-five bucks a pop. Those roots of his success are still being watered, and the fruit has come to fruition with Allen having created the largest privately held TV program library in the world, along with acquiring for theatrical and digital distribution hand-picked hit movies that have come to bear with the critically acclaimed Christian Bale epic, “Hostiles”, the summer hit “47 Meters Down“, and the upcoming April release of historical thriller “Chappaquiddick”.
Inside Entertainment Studios’ Culver City soundstage, with lights, cameras, and a flurry of action, Byron Allen moves briskly on set to produce 5 new episodes of “Funny You Should Ask” for the day, with a focus that is the reason and rhyme for his success. One of his stage-hands mops the floor to a shine and catches the ear of a busy Allen moving across set. Allen stops and commits all of his attention and focus to the man holding the mop, as if he’s listening to one of his own executives, or one of his own children. He listens, he confirms, he listens some more, and he encourages him with a pat on the shoulder. It’s this type of respect and attention he gives to those around him that fosters a cohesive spirit of pride among his employees and executives- Something not often found on set or in companies today. This is a family.
As taping begins, Allen does double duty producing from his chair on the panel while serving up clever quips and one-liners alongside other icons of comedy, including Louie Anderson, Jon Lovitz, Sherri Shepherd, and Billy Gardell. Today’s fourth episode will be the 100th of the series, and the pace only slows for a brief lunch at craft services where Allen sits amongst his crew, with his mother, Executive Producer and Entertainment Studios Co-Founder, Carolyn Folks, at his side.
I’m introduced to the showrunner of the series, Executive Producer, Scott Satin, who’s a walking testament to Allen’s eye for talent after discovering Satin submitting Jokes for The Byron Allen Show in 1988 while washing cars for Dick Clark. Today, thirty years later, the two describe one another like brothers, still collaborating and creating comedy day in and day out for “Funny You Should Ask”. He reflects on the show’s hybrid format of comedy and game- “On that first episode we shot, none of the comedians knew what we were filming- if they were going to look good or bad. They were scared- as they should be. We had to convince them to just trust us, and we’ll create and produce the show to bring the best out of them. It was just like a first date. They had no idea what they were getting into, but then right after that first break, they knew there was something special.” On the synergy he has with Byron after decades of producing comedy together, he turns sentimental, “We’re very like-minded. We literally could have been brothers, both personally and professionally. He’s a stand-up comedian, so what comes out of his mouth on stage is very personal to him. Being able to write for him- I feel such pride.”
|“He understands what happens between New York and L.A.
He knows what is the heart of America”
TV “game show guru” Bob Boden, who joined the show as season one began a year ago, sheds light on Allen’s midas touch, and his belief that “Funny You Should Ask” will become a generational success. “Byron is the next great game show mogul. He’s already that many times over in different fields, but he really didn’t tackle game shows until about a year ago with this format. He’s connected to the viewers and public in a way that I’ve rarely experienced in my career. He understands what happens between New York and L.A. He knows what is the heart of America. He knows that humor, especially in the times we’re living in, is a very important element as a draw for any entertainment vehicle, but particularly a game show. I think this show can run forever.”
Allen’s President of Domestic Television Distribution, Andrew Temple, sets a clear perspective on the studios plight and agenda in this new era of television; “Our industry is in desperate need of an overhaul, and the opportunity is very clear. If we are to see a renaissance in broadcasting it is going to come from an independent studio like ours, because we have the fire in our gut to make it happen. It’s in our DNA. Every hit that our industry has ever had came from an independent. Unfortunately, our industry right now is too focused on the deal,and not the show, and the audience simply doesn’t care about deals, they want exceptional content. Netflix, Hulu and Amazon are taking our lunch money because they are focused on producing quality entertainment. Entertainment Studios is a content factory and we are making the investment into the successful future of broadcast television.”
Things are gearing up for episode 100 as I follow Allen and his Executive VP Eric Peterkofsky toward set. We duck into a space out of the limelight that awaits, as cheers and laughter erupt from the audience getting warmed up.
|“For me, it was an unbelievable front row seat…I remember sitting there as a kid watching them, and that’s when I had the epiphany- I knew what I wanted to do with my life…”|
Scott Manville: “I have to tell you first, meeting your team…the overwhelming feeling I have is- this is a family. Especially seeing you with your mother and family on set. When you look at your career-you started young. You’ve been through so many stages, as a performer, on camera, behind the camera…when we look at the scope of your business success now…what was the turning point? Any event or person that was a catalyst to you being able to see the potential of what has now come to fruition?”
Byron Allen: “Wow… A number of catalysts have been along the way. But, you know…My mother- getting into UCLA film school. Going to UCLA, working on her masters in cinema TV production. That was a big breakthrough. It was a major breakthrough. That opened the door to her being an intern at NBC, and then a tour guide, and then a publicist at NBC. And then me going with her and being exposed to what was going on at NBC in the 70’s which was just magical. I was a young kid, 12 years old, and I was able to see Johnny Carson do The Tonight Show, Flip Wilson do his show, Redd Foxx do Sanford & Son, Freddie Prinze do Chico & The Man. Being able to go to NBC and watch Bryant Gumbel do the local news as a sportscaster, or Pat Sajak do the weather on KNBC. To watch them do Days Of Our Lives, or to see Bob Hope or George Burns do their television specials. I watched all of these shows in person, A to Z. I watched Merv Griffin produce Wheel of Fortune. I watched sitcoms, news, gameshows, variety shows, talk shows. For me, it was an unbelievable front row seat, watching how the best television shows were produced. I remember sitting there as a kid, watching them, and that’s when I had the epiphany- I knew what I wanted to do with my life- which was be a comedian, make people laugh, write, produce, make television, make movies.
So I started right then and there. I started performing at the Comedy Store in the summer of ‘75. I was 14 years old. Shortly after starting at the Comedy Store I was spotted by a guy named Wayne Kline, who was a comedian and writer- he asked me if I wrote my material and he knew somebody who might like my material, and so I gave him my phone number, and then Jimmie Walker called and asked me to come and hang out with his writing staff. So I’m at Jimmie’s apartment, and there’s David Letterman who had just come out from Indianapolis in a red pickup truck, and Jay Leno who was sleeping in his car- they were gettin’ two hundred bucks a week, and I was getting twenty-five dollars a joke. And David Letterman drove out in his pickup truck ‘cause he didn’t think he was going to make it and wanted to be able to get in his truck and drive home. In Jimmie’s apartment, what nobody knew at the time… it was the future of comedy.
I went on, and I did the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, I was eighteen and it was two weeks before I graduated from high school. It went well and I got a number of offers. The one that attracted me the most was the one that was different from all of the other 66 hours of prime-time television- at that point there were only three networks; ABC, NBC, CBS. So I said “I want this one, Real People”. It was a reality show, and ended up being the grand-daddy of all the reality shows. From there, I saw America, and really got a better sense of America going all over the country doing stories for Real People in the smallest, smallest towns. I then went all over America opening for people as a comedian, as an opening act for Lionel Richie, Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton, Whitney Houston, Al Jarreau, Sammy Davis Jr., Lou Rawls, The Pointer Sisters, Gladys Knight, Patti Labelle, Paul Anka. There were very few people I didn’t open for. So I just went- anywhere from Disneyland to Carnegie Hall. But the turning point for me was going to my very first NATPE”
A producer on set interjects- “We’re ready for you, Sir!”, as the audience and notables are waiting for his 100th episode to begin.
Allen continues, “My very first NATPE was in January of 1981…and that’s where I met my mentor, Al Masini. I watched him there, selling a pilot with the biggest movie star in the world on it, Burt Reynolds on set of Smokey & The Bandit, and that pilot is what became Entertainment Tonight. I introduced myself to Al Masini, and he became like a second father to me. I was 19, and I’ve attended every NATPE every year since 1981. I just completed my 37th. So with 37 years of going to NATPE, I’ve gotten to know all of these people who own and operate all of the TV stations, and all the people who run the ad agencies and operate the budgets. NATPE changed the trajectory of my career, and opened up a parallel that’s very unique because I was able to open up, for all of those thirty-seven years, relationships, trust, and bonds to create and produce forty-one shows directly with all of those TV stations. And it’s putting those forty-one shows on the air, and building my syndication company at my dining room table, starting with one show, that has put me in a position to get into the movie business.”
SM: “That’s what I find so fascinating. My former boss, Merv Griffin- he was a maverick too in syndication- in his time. You’ve taken it to a new level. That’s what impresses me most. You create and produce your own programs, fueling broader success, with films like “Hostiles”, tackling the independent film arena. Can you briefly explain what your creative strategy was, to create your original programs and bring them to market?-Those shows that have fueled Entertainment Studios.”
BA: “You know… my mentor Al Masini said as a kid he loved radio…so he took the radio shows that he had heard and made them into TV shows. So, Hedda Hopper became Entertainment Tonight, Hit Parade became Solid Gold. I took the magazine stand and converted them into TV shows. And he always said to watch TV, figure out what’s not there, and then put it there. So I watched closely, saw what was missing, and started to think about what I wanted to see there. Then I started creating and placing shows there. Once you have a direct relationship with TV stations… all of the TV stations, and all the advertisers, then you can put one on, and another, another, another. Then the next thing you know…”
SM: “You do business.”
BA: “Exactly. We’re one of the largest privately held television libraries in the world, and now our growing movie division is an important asset of our global media company.”
The show must go on, and as Louie Anderson passes us cheering “100!” and another producer yells “Let’s do it!”, Allen motions to the set and heads toward the lights to do what he does best…entertain, and make the people laugh.
|“We need more laughter. We need more love…”|
At episode end, Allen is joined by his wife and children, while a cake fit for a king (and a crew!) is rolled out center stage. He speaks from his heart; “There is not enough laughter in the world. There is not enough love. We need more laughter. We need more love…. My wife, my best friend- she always said to me, ‘Byron, you have strong instincts, never stop believing in your instincts.’”
And with that, Byron Allen wastes no time sharing more laughter, and spreading the love…announcing on the spot- “Funny You Should Ask will be on until the end of time. We’ve just given it an additional order of four hundred and twenty episodes!”
Byron continues by roasting his old friend, saying he created the show’s format so Scott Satin could have something to do. Satin ponders the news of four hundred and twenty more episodes ordered; “I’m trying to wrap my mind around this. That’s….how many punchlines? Every episode has 21 jokes. For the hundred we’ve done, that’s 2100 jokes! But to get there, you have to do 10 to 1, so that was 21,000 jokes! With 400 episodes…(laughing)…I better say I love a challenge. Yes! It’s the challenge we love!”
Scott Manville founded IndiePitch.tv creating the first industry marketplace online to deliver shows from new creators to global broadcast on major cable networks, including; Lifetime TV(U.S./U.K.) Discovery Channel, A&E(U.S., Australia), SyFy (U.S., U.K.), UKTV, Foxtel and others. Manville has served as Producer at Relativity Television and is a former head of development for Merv Griffin Entertainment.