Boxoffice Insider: Laughs By The Bundle – Historic Package Tours With Comedy Greats

Comedian Steve Harvey performs at Radio City Music Hall on March 12, 2011, in New York City. Photo by Dario Cantatore / Getty Images

Just as historic tours such as Lollapalooza, Ozzfest, Lilith Fair and the George Strait Country Music Festival were pioneers in presenting a package of concert headliners booked on the road in multiple venues, similar touring efforts are also part of comedy’s live performance history. Although comedy tours have appeared in Pollstar’s box office archives for decades, some were groundbreaking in their eras by bundling artists with a similar fanbase and demographic on a multiple-city tour.

Two that were prominent in the 1990s era were the “Russell Simmons’ Def Comedy Jam” and the “Kings of Comedy” tours, while 2000 saw the arrival of the “Blue Collar Comedy” tour. The artists involved reached new heights in their careers due to the popularity of the tours along with television and video productions that accompanied success on the road.

Simmons, who co-founded the Def Jam Recordings hip-hop record label in the early 1980s, created the “Def Comedy Jam” television series on HBO that ran 1992 through 1997 and again in 2006. The list of entertainers who appeared on the show is a long one, but Martin Lawrence, D.L. Hughley, Mike Epps, Sommore, Dave Chappelle and Sheryl
Underwood are among the many artists with ties to the show early in their careers.

The archives have 63 performances of “Def Comedy Jam” on record in 1992 alone beginning with a two-night engagement at the Chicago Theatre and 7,800 in attendance, May 8-9. The venue also hosted another two shows with 6,840 fans on New Year’s Eve the same year.

From 1992 through 2002, 204 live shows were reported at 82 U.S. venues with over a half-million tickets sold for grosses topping $12 million. Most of the venues that hosted the tour were booked more than once during those years, but Detroit’s Fox Theatre has the most performances on record with 19 from Sept. 11, 1992 through Dec. 30, 2001.

The “Kings of Comedy” tour kicked off in December 1997 with Steve Harvey, Cedric the Entertainer, Guy Torry and the late Bernie Mac on the road through the end of 1998. Torry left the tour, though, and Hughley joined in the second year, completing the classic lineup that appeared in the Spike Lee-directed film “The Original Kings of Comedy” in 2000.

The tour grossed over $36 million during its run with 926,887 tickets sold at 96 reported shows. The only four-show arena date on the tour: an October 1999 event at Washington’s MCI Center (now Capital One Arena) had the highest ticket tally of 49,903 for a gross of $2 million. Atlanta’s Fox Theatre staged the most shows for one engagement with five in August 1998 and 20,614 tickets sold for $1.16 million in sales.

Jeff Foxworthy has stated in the past that “The Original Kings of Comedy” film was an inspiration for the “Blue Collar Comedy Tour” which targeted the Grammy-nominated comedian’s rural American demographic. Bill Engvall, Ron White and Larry the Cable Guy rounded out the classic lineup of the tour that played for 447,294 fans from 2000 through 2006, according to the archives. At the 75 U.S. venues that hosted the tour, combined grosses from 124 reported shows topped $16.6 million.

The first performance on Jan. 14, 2000 at Omaha, Nebraska’s Civic Auditorium was a sellout with 7,497 tickets sold, while the final venue, Washington, D.C.’s Warner Theatre, sold 11,830 seats at seven performances in March 2006. The tour’s top attendance was recorded near the end of the run with 17,444 fans at Nashville’s Gaylord Entertainment Center (now Bridgestone Arena) on Feb. 16, 2006. Promoted by Outback Presents, the sold-out event grossed $822,661.