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Comedians standing up to make millions

Jerry Seinfeld's television show hasn't been on the air for nearly a decade. But he's still the top-earning comedian in America because of it.
/ Source: Forbes

Jerry Seinfeld's television show hasn't been on the air for nearly a decade. But he's still the top-earning comedian in America because of it.

Thanks to residuals from the show's juicy syndication deal, Seinfeld earned $60 million last year, putting him far ahead No. 2 David Letterman, who made $40 million, and third-ranked Ben Stiller, who banked $38 million. But Seinfeld's income doesn't come from past work alone — he's parlayed his fame into packed houses across the U.S., revisiting his stand-up roots for big money.

While movies and television shows remain the way to make the top money in comedy, doing stand-up on the road has become a lucrative alternative. Three big earners on our list — Larry the Cable Guy, Jeff Foxworthy and Dane Cook — are making six or seven figures playing a circuit of stadium venues with high ticket prices. Together, these three plus Seinfeld grossed $36.4 million in ticket sales during the six-month period. Six of the 100 top-grossing tours at midyear belonged to comedians, according to Pollstar, a trade magazine that tracks the concert industry.

Unlike a touring rock band, a comedy tour requires little by way of overhead, adding to profits, says Pollstar Editor Gary Bongiovanni. No backup talent. No massive equipment. These folks walk in, take a microphone and get to work. When it's all over, he says the bigger acts can recoup 60 percent or more of the concert's ticket sales.

Consider Larry the Cable Guy, who got his break on the Blue Collar Comedy tour and a subsequent series on Viacom’s Comedy Central. Last year, the Nebraska-born comedian grossed $21.5 million in ticket sales. He also raked in $3 million from his ‘Git ‘R Done’ merchandise as well as some $2 million from CDs. Altogether, Larry the Cable Guy pulled down $20 million over the course of the year.

Another shift since the last comedy boom, which took place in the 1980s: The tools available for stand-up acts to cultivate their fan base have grown, explains Brian McKim, editor and publisher of online comedy source Shecky magazine.

Among the multi-media success stories is Dane Cook. In addition to his 2 million-plus MySpace friends, a loyal fan base in their own right, Cook has been minting money from CD and DVD sales. He's also established himself as a silver screen regular: He will appear opposite Steve Carell in Walt Disney's "Dan in Real Life" and alongside Kate Hudson in the upcoming "Bachelor No. 2." All told, he garnered $9 million.

Jeff Foxworthy, Another Blue Collar Comedy alum, scored big on the small screen hosting the FOX game show, "Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader?" In addition to the series, now in its second season, his 11 CDs sold some 14 million copies and his merchandise netted $2.5 million for the year. Foxworthy's stand-up fees amounted to a hefty $150,000 per gig. Add it all up and the man best known for his "You Might Be a Redneck If ... " jokes banked $10 million.

To be sure, stand-up acts aren't the only ones getting paid big bucks to get laughs. Whether it was on the screen or in theaters, the 10 comedians on our list collectively pulled down $290 million over the course of a single year. Jay Leno, with $32 million and Adam Sandler, with $30 million, came in fourth and fifth on our list.

To determine which comedians raked in the most money over the 12-month span, we turned to the 2007 edition of Forbes' Most Powerful Celebrity list, which ranks actors, athletes, models and comedians based on their media exposure (magazine covers as well as TV and radio mentions), Web presence (number of Google hits) and earnings.