Byron Allen’s Entertainment Education Came From the Giants at NBC

Entertainment mogul Byron Allen’s résumé lists Fairfax High and USC as the Los Angeles educational institutions of his formative years. Not to diminish their importance, when you hear Allen describing his youthful days when his single mother “couldn’t afford daycare” and plopped young Byron down at NBC where she worked, it’s quickly obvious that Allen had the world’s greatest showbiz teachers in the halls of a network television production center. The list of mentors Allen encountered and learned from at an early age includes Bob Hope, Johnny Carson, Freddie Prinze, Flip Wilson, Redd Foxx, George Burns and Dean Martin.

“As a kid,” recalls Allen, “I was able to watch how television was made and I thought, ‘What a wonderful way to go through life, making people laugh and making television for the world.’ I had that epiphany when I was a very, very young kid. ‘This is what I want to do with the rest of my life.’”

On a typical day, Allen the tyke, “went to NBC with my mother and quite often I waited for her to get off work. And there in the wings, I watched Johnny Carson do ‘The Tonight Show.’ Then I would walk across the hall and watch Redd Foxx do ‘Sanford and Son.’ And I would watch Flip Wilson do his variety show and Freddie Prinze do ‘Chico and the Man’ and Bob Hope and George Burns and Dean Martin do their specials. There was a then-unknown sportscaster doing the local sports on KNBC, Bryant Gumbel, and a then-unknown weatherman, Pat Sajak.”

Allen credits Carson with playing a particularly important role in his career, one whose roots go all the way back to Allen’s “daycare” days at the Burbank studios. His recollections also make clear that Allen’s charisma and affability aren’t newly acquired traits, but most assuredly have been on full display from the beginning.

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Teenage Allen (far right) sat in on writing sessions with David Letterman and Jimmie Walker.
Courtesy of Jimmie Walker

“I used to hang out by Johnny Carson’s parking space,” Allen says. “He would pull into his parking space every day at 2 o’clock like clockwork, and he would get out of his car with a brown paper bag sack. And he had a sandwich in it. Very Midwest. I would say, ‘Hello, Mr. Carson. Good to see you, Mr. Carson.’

“I would say, ‘And Mr. Carson I really appreciated your monologue. I liked this particular joke.’ And over the years, he got to know my name. And he knew me. And so, when I did my first stand-up comedy appearance on ‘The Tonight Show,’ it was effortless, because I felt so comfortable. When I walked down to the set, it was like I was walking into my own living room,” he continues.

Fifty years later, Allen still marvels at his unique good fortune, noting, “I don’t know of any other city that could present those opportunities and that vision and that introduction. So, L.A. has been amazing.”