If you didn’t know, Landmark Theatres is up for sale, which only caught my attention because they happen to own the two theaters in my neighborhood. But the second half of the news is what really drew me into an otherwise unremarkable story, when it was announced that one person looking at purchasing the chain is Byron Allen, who you may not have heard of, unless you’re of a certain age, a comedy nerd, or a night owl who’s seen what’s on after Last Call with Carson Daly.
For me, the name was vaguely familiar, and I had definitely seen him mentioned on occasion. But every time my brain asked, “Who is Byron Allen, and where did he come from?” I moved on without consulting the great google.
But not today.
Byron Allen began his career in stand up, by fourteen was starting to perform around Los Angeles, and wrote jokes for Jimmie Walker while he was still in high school. He hit another career milestone, performing on The Tonight Show, by eighteen:
After spending most of the 80s as a television host and working as a comedian, Allen produced and hosted his own late-night talk show, which led to some Norm MacDonald jokes that I remember but definitely did not fully understand at the time:
In the early 90s, Allen started his own media company, Entertainment Studios, which he has helmed since, and used as a platform to launch a variety of syndicated shows — talk shows, game shows, courtroom shows (SIX. COURTROOM. SHOWS.), celebrity interview shows — and his own digital networks like Comedy.tv, Cars.tv, and Justice Central (because those six courtroom shows need to go somewhere).
He also produced a couple of very real sitcoms like The First Family (which co-starred a pre-Blackish Yara Shahidi)…
…or Mr. Box Office, which has quite possibly the most absurdly famous cast for a show I had never heard of…
Bill Bellamy, Jon Lovitz, Vivica A. Fox, and Gary Busey? This is THE BIGGEST SHOW OF 1997… except it was made in 2013.
(As an aside, a few years ago when I was laid up with the flu, I woke up from a nap to see Mr. Box Office on TV. I don’t remember what I was watching before, or what channel it was on, but I do remember watching a few seconds and being SURE I was still asleep, or perhaps stuck in some sort of fever dream, because there was no way this was an actual show. Turns out I didn’t dream it.)
Over the last three decades, Byron Allen has made a lot of television most people have never seen or heard of. But he’s also made a fuck-ton of money, which he’s now spending as he expands his reach: he’s been getting into film distribution, acquiring and releasing movies like 47 Meters Down, Hostiles, and Chappaquiddick, and earlier this year he bought The Weather Channel for 300 million dollars, which led to a lot of mediocre “this sounds like a joke, right?” jokes.
But it’s no joke, and neither is Allen. And no matter what you think of his comedy or his shows, the man found a gap in the market, filled it, and built a media empire without anyone noticing. If he had come up a generation later, he definitely would be a youtube millionaire that we’d all simultaneously be jealous of and begrudgingly respect for the level of hustle.
Now that he’s moving into this next stage for his company, people are starting to take notice. And I, for one, wouldn’t bet against him.