Byron Allen has two birthdays: the real one. And the day he went on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson.
The first time he got invited on he said “no.”
He wanted to be ready. He wanted to be his very best.
So he said “no.” And took time to build up his craft.
He spent all his free time working for the best comedians in the world. Every day, he’d go to Jimmie JJ Walker’s apartment.
Jay Leno was there. David Letterman, Wayne Kline, Marty Nadler, they were all there. They’d write jokes.
Some of them were staff writers for Johnny Carson. They’d get $200 a week.
Not Byron. He was a kid. And he wasn’t on staff. If they picked one of his jokes he’d get $25.
Two jokes = $50.
But they didn’t always buy his jokes. So he had a second job delivering papers.
“I’d get paid half a penny for each paper,” he said. “Two papers was a penny.”
One day, Johnny bought a joke. “I never saw a check written out to me before,” he said. “I didn’t want to cash it. I wanted to keep it. I couldn’t believe someone paid me for a thought I had in the head.”
His mom told him what to do: Cash the check. Get the money. Then they’ll mail the original check back to Johnny Carson. You can ask him for it.
The next day, Byron quit the paper route.
“I called my supervisor and said, ‘Look, I don’t know how to break this to you, but I’m very, very rich now. And I need to give up my route. You need to find somebody else.”
That’s how he became a full-time comedy writer. He quit one thing to make room for another thing.
He started doing more and more standup. He kept going to Jimmy JJ Walker’s place everyday.
“How, how old were you then?”
“I was probably 12 years old.”
He made up his mind so young. Age 12?
I wanted to know how he figured it out so young.
He told me his mom worked at NBC. They didn’t have a job for her at first. But she found a way. She said, “Do you have an intern program?” They said, “No.”
Then she asked, “Will you start one with me?”
They said, “Yes.”
She started as a tour guide. And Byron visited her every day. He grew up in the environment.
“There was no such thing as childcare or nannies back then,” he said. “So I used to go to NBC with my mother after school and in the summer. And I discovered a whole ‘nother world. Very different from the world that I was exposed to with my dad working at Ford and my granddad working at Great Lakes Steele.”
Before NBC, Byron wanted to wear a Ford uniform. He wanted to make cars for the world. He loved the factory.
And he saw NBC as a different kind of factory.
“It was a content factory.”
That’s where he saw Johnny Carson perform live every night. And he’d go across the hall and watch Bob Hope, he’d see Redd Foxx do “Sanford and Son” and then he’d watch Flip Wilson.
“I’d just go from studio to studio. I was watching them do ‘Days of Our Lives.’ I watched the weather man. I watched the camera crew work with the director, the lighters, the writers, the producers.”
He watched the negotiations. He saw the business unfold.
“And I’m just a kid. I’m wallpaper. I’m watching the process. And I think, ‘Wow, this is amazing. What a wonderful way to go through life… entertaining people, informing people and making people laugh.’”
He made up his mind right then.
He felt the hair go up on his arms.
He said, “This is what I’m going to spend the rest of my life doing and I don’t care if I don’t get paid one penny. I will do it for free. I will sleep outside and I will eat grass, but I will do this with my life.”
He didn’t eat grass.
He grew up to be a billionaire, a comedian, an entertainer, a TV producer, the third owner of The Weather Channel and the founder of Entertainment Studios.
I wanted to know. Could he have done all of this if started later in life?
What if he wasn’t 12 when he discovered NBC?
What if he was 40?
“Could you have caught up later in life?”
I had to give a bigger argument.
“At 12, though, your neurons are just wiring. So your brain was wired for it.”
“Yeah, I mean I loved seeing how it worked. I loved the business. And for me, it wasn’t show business.”
He reversed it. He put business first. Show second.
He created his own opportunities. (Like his mom). He watched closely (like his mom). He made honest relationships. These are the steps. And it doesn’t matter what age you are.
Does it help to be 12?
But the steps are the same at any age.
Step 1: Create an Opportunity
Byron did this with stand up.
The first time he went on stage he was told “no.” He was too young. They wouldn’t let someone under the drinking age in the club. He talked them into it.
They said, “OK. Wait out back. Then we’ll call you on when it’s your turn. And then you need to leave immediately after the set.”
He did exactly that. And Jimmie JJ Walker saw him perform. It was the combination of the willingness to show with “right time, right place”. That’s it.
He created the opportunity for himself. And got lucky on night one. Some people have to do a hundred nights or a thousand nights to get lucky. That’s fine. As long as you keep creating the opportunity. And do step 2.
Step 2: Watch and Learn From the Best
Find out who’s the top of your field. Find a way to get close to them.
Maybe it’s all virtual at first. But then you can find out who their assistant is.
Thank them for their work. Tell them, “I know Madonna wouldn’t have the success she has without you by her side.”
And offer ideas. Tell them your skills. “Here are 10 things I can do to help make Madonna’s life easier (or whoever).” Write 100 letters. Maybe one will write back.
Those are the steps to get started. Byron also told me the steps to grow. And he told me his rules of business:
- “Don’t let anyone come between you and the customer.”
- “Don’t run out of money.”
- “And don’t break rules #2 and #3.”
They sound simple and obvious. But he didn’t know these at first. He had to learn just like everybody else.
And there’s some relief in that.
Age isn’t the only obstacle. Byron might’ve been 12 when he started, but that was his only advantage. We all have something to hold us back.
“I was a kid from Detroit, Michigan, born there in ‘61. And in ‘68, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. And we had really bad riots in Detroit. I was seven years old. The military came in and took over our neighborhood. We were on lock down. I mean, within minutes of them assassinating Martin Luther King, I was looking down the barrel of a tank. And troops were walking all over our lawns with bayonets. They were very clear, ‘Don’t move. Get in your house or we’re going to kill you.’”
His mom took him to LA after that. It was supposed to be a two-week vacation. They were running away from danger. And ended up finding the start of some new life.
Maybe that’s the big lesson here.
Run away from what you want to run from.
Do that before you run toward something.
And if you can’t. Then just make a list.
“What do I want to run from?”
Then look for your second birthday.