Though the stand-up business has taken a hit in a weak economy, top-shelf comedians are still laughing all the way to the bank.
The 10 acts in our annual list of the top-earning comedians collectively raked in $165 million between June 1, 2009, and June 1, 2010. To make the cut, the comics had to count stand-up as their primary income, a qualification that left funnymen like Jerry Seinfeld, Conan O'Brien and Jay Leno off this year's list. The former, who banked an estimated $75 million over the last year, still earns the bulk of his money from Seinfeld reruns; while the latter two, who respectively pulled down $38 million and $35 million during the 12-month period, relied on their nightly shows--in O'Brien's case, his nightly show's severance--for the majority of their annual income.
"To stay on top in this economy, you've got to work a lot harder," says Live Nation ( LYV - news - people ) Comedy President Geof Wills of a business he calls Darwinian. "The ones who get hurt are the comedians who don't realize that they have to adapt the environment they're currently in."
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He expects more acts to adjust their ticket prices and venue sizes, while audience members will continue to wait longer to purchase their tickets and remain unwilling to shell out for just anyone. But in his experience, top acts are still able to sell out arenas around the country without much trouble, including rising stars like Daniel Tosh and Joel McHale, who are poised to make this list in the future.
Parallel Entertainment Chief Executive J.P. Williams has had to get creative promoting his clients, who include Jeff Foxworthy, Bill Engvall and Larry the Cable Guy. Earlier this year he began packaging together on certain nights three of the four members of what was once the popular Blue Collar Comedy troupe, offering fans three comedians for the price of one.
The stand-up business "mirrors what's happening in our country," says Williams. "It's become more haves and have-nots, and less of the middle."
Increasingly the "haves" are strengthening their acts and their income with work on other platforms, most commonly TV. These shows, be they Tosh's Tosh.0 on Comedy Central or McHale's The Soup on E!, are as much marketing vehicles as they are moneymakers--and in many cases, far more the former than the latter.
Take Chelsea Handler, who earned $19 million in the 12-month period ending in June, putting her No. 4 on our list. Like McHale and Tosh, she has a nightly show, E!'s Chelsea Lately, to showcase her humor and build a following. But Handler earned more than twice as much on the road as she did on her show. The remainder of her income came from her collection of bestselling books.
Among the other "haves" is puppeteer Jeff Dunham, who tops our list care of the $22.5 million he banked over the last year. Though his short-lived Comedy Central series took a ratings tumble at this time last year, concert tracker Pollstar named him North America's top touring comic for the second year in a row. He's bolstered his income with DVD and puppet sales and will soon roll out a memoir, All By My Selves: Peanut, Achmed, and Me.
Following Dunham at No. 2 is Dane Cook, who raked in an estimated $21 million during the 12-month period. Cook made the bulk of his income on the road with his lucrative Isolated Incident Global Thermo Comedy Tour. At No. 3 is Terry Fator, the "human jukebox" and season-two winner of America's Got Talent, who is cashing in on a five-year residency at Las Vegas' Mirage Hotel. He earned $20 million over the year.
Working to the advantage of these and other comics, says Pollstar Editor-in-Chief Gary Bongiovanni, is that compared to music acts, their comparatively modest overhead allows them to tour relatively economically and offer lower ticket prices. "It's not like Kiss," he says, "where they're bringing umpteen semi-trucks full of equipment."
What's more, adds Wills, comedians offer something audiences are after: "With all the doom or gloom that you hear on TV and read about in the newspapers," he says, "people still want to be entertained, and in a down economy, people like to laugh."