Nick Cannon knew exactly where he wanted to be.
On Feb. 19, the multi-hyphenate comedian, TV and radio host, rapper, producer, entrepreneur and activist gathered with a small group of Debmar-Mercury executives in New York to discuss plans for the daytime syndicated talk show that Cannon will launch in September with the Lionsgate-owned distributor.
The setting was a conference room at Lionsgate’s offices on Fifth Avenue near Times Square. But the focus of the nearly two-hour meeting centered largely on a location about 60 blocks north at an iconic intersection in Harlem: 106th Street and Park Avenue.
“Harlem feels so right,” Cannon told the roomful of executives that included Debmar-Mercury co-presidents Mort Marcus and Ira Bernstein, who sat at opposite ends of a long rectangular table. Cannon pressed the executives to commit to having “Nick Cannon” originate from the studio that was once home to BET’s long-running hip-hop variety show “106 & Park.”
Marcus and others explained that it would be hard to find enough office space at that location to house the dozens of staffers needed to produce a daily one-hour talk show with the ambitious mix of music, comedy, sketches and games that Cannon envisions. Another executive noted that it could be a challenge to get some celebrity guests to head to Harlem while they’re trying to run the circuit of media stops in midtown. Even filling a studio audience every day might be tough in an area that doesn’t have the same level of tourist traffic as 30 Rock and environs.
“Put a big picture of me out there — they’ll come,” Cannon said with a broad smile that took the edge off the undoubtedly true statement. He spun around his swivel chair and stretched his legs, showing off gold lamé sneakers that offset his black sweatpants and black hoodie emblazoned with “Save Black Boys,” with a peace sign in place of the “o.”
The conversation turned from the high cost of setting up shop in Harlem to marketing and brand-integration opportunities. Cannon reeled off idea after idea for monetizing virtually every minute of the talk show. The Debmar-Mercury team was impressed with and energized by Cannon’s command of product-placement deals, sponsorship plays and social media promotion. After getting a big laugh with a joke about the prospects for monetizing his daily shower, the star had a message for the marketing executive sitting next to him.
“Sounds like you gotta get to work,” he said, flashing another thousand-watt smile. “I want to be in Harlem.”
Cannon, 39, has been in show business since he was a scrappy teenager, hustling rides from his home in San Diego to Los Angeles for open mic nights at The Comedy Store and the Improv.
Today, he’s all over the media dial, hosting Fox’s top-rated “The Masked Singer” and a daily five-hour syndicated radio program, which he plans to continue even after “Nick Cannon” premieres — from its refurbished studio at 106th and Park.
What’s more, there’s talk of “Masked Singer” spinoffs as Fox looks to leverage its most successful entertainment property. Cannon’s NCredible Entertainment banner set up an overall deal with the TV side of Fox in 2018, when the network was once again flirting with the idea of trying a late-night show, possibly with Cannon as host.
Fox pitched Cannon several TV concepts for hosting and producing. Nothing resonated until the bizarre Korean TV format, involving celebrities performing in secret under elaborate costumes, caught his fancy.
“I thought that this idea is so crazy, it’s either going to be a huge failure or a huge hit,” Cannon says of “Masked Singer.” “Luckily for me, it was the latter. But that’s confirmation of the type of creator and entertainer that I am. I’ve always been the sleeper-hit guy.”
Cannon’s NCredible Entertainment banner has a host of TV, film and digital projects in the pipeline, for Fox and other partners. He’s also active in music as an artist, producer and talent manager, with an NCredible label imprint at Republic Records. In his spare time, he’s squeezed in four years as the most famous undergraduate at Howard University: Last month, he earned a degree in criminology, with a minor in African studies.
At a moment of reckoning for the nation over racial injustice and equality, Cannon is quick to note how far he has come on the strength of hard work and talent. He grew up in a family of modest means. As a kid, he split his time living with his mother and paternal grandmother in San Diego and with his father, a minister and businessman, in Charlotte, N.C.
“If you’d told that kid in the projects that one day I’d get to choose whether I do my talk show in Harlem or Los Angeles, he’d be like, ‘Get the f— out of here,’” Cannon says.
Friends and associates say Cannon was born with an entrepreneur’s instincts.
“The level of focus and drive that he had then was pretty much the same that you see now,” says “Saturday Night Live” trouper Kenan Thompson. He helped Cannon get his foot in Hollywood’s door as a warmup comic on the Nickelodeon sketch comedy “Kenan & Kel.” “I’m not surprised that he’s everywhere now. I go to him now for advice. He’s a lot further down the road than I am in terms of being a producer.”
The warmup gig made Cannon, at 16, his family’s breadwinner. And he soon worked his way up to a writing job on the show. From there, he was quickly recruited as a cast member of another Nickelodeon sketch comedy series, “All That.” At 21, he gambled and wrote checks for more than $100,000 to finance the pilot for his MTV sketch comedy-variety franchise “Wild ’N Out.” The show is now in its 15th season and has spawned a hugely lucrative live tour. Cannon’s decision to pay for his own pilot paid massive dividends in 2012 when MTV bought the property — leaving its creator with a stake in revenue from touring and merchandising.
“Nick is a creative genius. He has built so many businesses and he is a good human,” says Chris McCarthy, president of Entertainment and Youth Brands for ViacomCBS Domestic Media Networks.
At 26, Cannon was named chairman of Nickelodeon’s TeenNick cable channel. To outsiders, it seemed like a figurehead appointment for PR value. By that time, Cannon was closely associated with the Nickelodeon universe after having had his own comedy series, “The Nick Cannon Show,” for two seasons and being a frequent presence as a host and guest star.
To Viacom insiders, Cannon was quickly seen as a fellow executive who came well-prepared to staff meetings, with spreadsheets, analyses, budget proposals and a surfeit of ideas for content and marketing.
“He did an incredible amount with the resources we gave them,” says Cyma Zarghami, who headed Nickelodeon from 2006-18. “He brought people together; he moved into a corner office and shot content for the channel in and around his office. He did incredible work to set up a brand identity for TeenNick.”
Cannon considers the 10 years he spent as a Viacom executive akin to earning his MBA in media. The more he learned about the way things worked behind the scenes, the better and bolder the ideas he pursued in his own career. He still sends Zarghami flowers every year on her birthday.
“Everybody thought that was an on-camera thing. I went in with my PowerPoint and my statistics and everything, and I’d say, ‘This is how we grow this business.’ Luckily, some people there were kind enough to take a chance on me,” he says.
In 2009, he consolidated a number of disparate efforts under the broad umbrella of NCredible Entertainment. Today the company has about 25 employees and operations that span TV, film, digital, live events and merchandising. The experience at Viacom also made it clear to him that he never again wanted to be “just a piece of talent” on a project.
His determination at times has met with roadblocks. As an African American and as a person known primarily as talent, he often faced a double bias in his efforts to be taken seriously as a businessman.
“It’s a hindrance being a man of color as much as it is being talent,” Cannon says. “There’s a perception of how talent should be treated [by employers] — the secrets you have to keep from them and how you have to handle them with kid gloves. That’s not how I operate. You don’t have to put gloves on with me. Give it to me straight.”
Despite San Diego’s proximity to Hollywood, Cannon’s first education in television came when he was a preteen working with his father on religious broadcasts via public access cable in North Carolina. To have a show on the local cable system, participants had to go through a workshop on TV production. The nuts and bolts of production lessons he learned at the age of 11 still serve him well.
“My reward from my dad was like, ‘Yo, if there’s any hours left over, do whatever you want to do,’” Cannon recalls. “So I would create and do rap shows and comedy shows.”
Cannon’s background as a by-the-bootstraps success story is a big part of his carefully tended image as a regular guy — a person who hangs out with celebrities but looks at his adventures through the prism of the audience. Not even his 2008-16 marriage to pop superstar Mariah Carey could change his attitude about where he lands on the celebrity scale.
“I’m not famous. I’ve been around real famous people. My wife was famous,” Cannon says. “People don’t think of me as famous. I want to be the guy that everybody wants to have a drink with and welcome to their house. I want to be that guy as opposed to the one that everybody’s in awe of. It’s an energy thing that I see as a superpower.”
Inspiration for building his NCredible business has come from role models such as Will Smith and Oprah Winfrey, as well as Dick Clark, Merv Griffin and Ryan Seacrest. As fast as he is on his feet on camera, his true love is the writing process and birthing ideas. “I never really wanted to be a superstar entertainer. I get my joy out of being the executive producer or the creator,” Cannon says.
In matters of spirituality, the son of a North Carolina preacher has a singular sense of faith that is deep but different from the traditional approach practiced by his father’s nondenominational congregation.
“I live my faith,” he says. “I like speaking things into existence. I mean, I wanted to marry Mariah Carey since I was 12 years old.”
Long before the death of George Floyd ignited the latest wave of outrage at police brutality toward people of color, Cannon had been a vocal advocate for criminal justice reform. His interest in racial injustice led him to enroll in Howard University in 2016. He managed to spend about one day a week on the school’s Washington, D.C., campus and — always ahead of the times — otherwise worked remotely. He plans to stay at Howard to pursue his master’s degree in psychology and a doctorate in divinity and theology. Part of his curriculum at Howard has included spending time teaching and working with inmates in D.C.-area jails.
In late May, Cannon traveled to Minneapolis to add his voice to the protests calling for justice for Floyd, an unarmed Black man who died after he was restrained by a police officer with a knee on his windpipe for nearly 9 minutes. The global outrage sparked by Floyd’s brutal death put the spotlight on issues that Cannon has tackled as an artist and as a scholar.
“I want us to focus on our humanity and dismantling racist systems that we don’t need, that perpetuate crimes of inequality and oppress communities of color all over our country,” he says. “We have to dismantle all of those systems that this country was built on.
“That’s why so many people get it wrong when it comes to racism. People think, ‘Oh no, I’m not a racist.’ But if you support this system, you support racism. If you don’t step up and say this system has been wrong for years — from the war on drugs to the criminalization of Black men in general to the school-to-prison pipeline to the prison-industrial complex. It’s a form of modern-day slavery.”
Cannon’s decision to pursue higher education was also driven by his three children. He has 9-year-old twins, Monroe and Moroccan, with Carey and a 3-year-old son, Golden, with actor Brittany Bell.
“I wanted to be that example to my kids,” he says. “I would find myself doing youth advocacy and telling kids to get an education, but I never completed mine.” He finished his undergraduate degree in four years despite a bad flare-up of lupus, the autoimmune disorder Cannon was diagnosed with in 2012, during his freshman year.
Cannon takes pride in the accomplishment. “In 2016, a lot of people thought, ‘Oh, that’s a gimmick; he’s getting an honorary doctorate thing,’” he says. “The same way people thought about my job at Viacom.”
In 1996, talent manager Michael Goldman was representing Kenan Thompson. Goldman couldn’t help noticing a lanky teenager performing in Hollywood comedy clubs before he was old enough to legally be in the venues.
“They would keep me in the kitchen until they called my name,” Cannon says.
In Goldman’s eyes, Cannon was “still wet clay.” But he was also “crazy ambitious and crazy charming.” The two have been business partners ever since.
Thompson and Goldman eventually brought Cannon to the Nickelodeon on Sunset studio in Hollywood to serve as a warmup comic for “Kenan & Kel” and others. Cannon took to the job immediately and soon was doing warmup work for ABC, WB Network and other outlets as well as Nickelodeon.
“I was starting to be able to pay my mom’s rent based off of coming up (to L.A.) once a week. It kind of kicked off from there,” Cannon says.
He came to the attention of Will Smith not long after Smith launched his Overbrook Entertainment venture in 1998. Cannon had won third prize in a stand-up comedy festival in the Bay Area when suddenly he was contacted by industry veteran David Tochterman, who was running TV for Overbrook.
“He was really young and really raw, and you couldn’t look at him and not say he’s going to be a star,” Tochterman says of Cannon. “You can’t acquire that skill.”
Cannon showed his spunk in his first formal meeting with Smith, who was red-hot at the turnstiles at the time. Unbeknownst to his manager, Cannon took the first opportunity to hand the A-lister his spec pilot script for “Loose Cannon,” a “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”-esque comedy starring Cannon as a military school student.
“I wasn’t focused on anything but the biggest star in the world opening and closing his mouth,” Goldman says. “Nick reaches into his backpack and hands him a script. I’m watching this like my life is flashing before my eyes. To show that kind of self-confidence at that age was mind-blowing.”
Overbrook landed a six-episode commitment for “Loose Cannon” from WB Network. The pilot had bona fide buzz. What’s more, Smith took his pilot star under his wing. But the show never got a pickup because by that time the network was moving away from the largely Black-cast comedies that had helped launch the network and toward “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Dawson’s Creek.”
Cannon was devastated. For one thing, he’d ignored Smith’s advice not to buy a Range Rover after he got the series-deal advance. “He told me, ‘I was a teenager, and I spent all my money — don’t do it.’ But I did it anyway,” Cannon cackles.
In the early 2000s, Cannon had a flurry of movie roles — 2002’s “Drumline,” 2003’s “Love Don’t Cost a Thing” and 2005’s “Underclassmen.” None of the titles was a big hit, but he definitely had traction in features. So Goldman was taken aback when his client came to him with the idea for investing his own money in “Wild ’N Out” (which Cannon describes as “‘Whose Line Is It Anyway?’ for the hip-hop community”).
“I was not in favor of doing an MTV comedy show when he was getting attention from directors in Hollywood,” Goldman says. “I was like, ‘We’re happening in movies now.’ But that’s what he was passionate about.”
Cannon isn’t shy about reminding Goldman that “Wild ’N Out” has since generated “hundreds of millions of dollars” and served as a launching pad for such comedy stars as Kevin Hart, Pete Davidson, Taran Killam and Katt Williams.
“He is probably the hardest working and most talent and yet most underrated creative and business person in the industry,” says ViacomCBS’ McCarthy, who worked on the launch of “Wild ‘N Out” for MTV2 in 2005, and he shepherded the show back to MTV’s air in 2013. When the idea to launch a “Wild ‘N Out” branded tour blending music and comedy, McCarthy thought it would be impressive if they sold hundreds of tickets. It wound up becoming hundreds of thousands of tickets
“He knew there was an audience hungry for multi-cultural comedy,” McCarthy says. “When you see him go from things like hosting ‘Masked Singer’ to being the visionary behind ‘Wild ‘N Out’ to doing his radio show to protesting in the street — he has a hyphenated life, and it’s all real. He really is behind everything he does.”
The star’s desire to work in multiple disciplines once surprised those who knew him early in his career. But not anymore.
“I used to think that if Nick decided to stick to one thing — whether it be acting, stand-up or music — that he would become one of the biggest stars in that one area,” says Zarghami, who is now head of the production and consulting business MiMO. “But he wanted to do everything and do it his way.”
As his 40th birthday approaches in October, Cannon is focused on big goals both in front of and behind the camera. The “Nick Cannon” talk show — which for now is on track for a September debut, despite lockdown conditions in New York due to the coronavirus — is designed to serve as a “central hub” for all of his other entertainment activities in the comedy, music and digital realms.
On the business side, Cannon and Goldman are determined to build up NCredible’s activity as a production entity and scout new business ventures, such as the Cannon-branded line of speakers and headphones launched in partnership with RadioShack in 2016. Per Goldman, the gear has generated $80 million in retail sales to date.
And Cannon vows to put his criminology degree to good use by working in prisons and in other marginalized communities as he pursues advanced degrees. “This is a transition period for me,” he says. “This feels like my first opportunity to step into manhood.”
The kid who found his calling telling jokes on public access TV sees no boundaries for the next phase of his multifaceted career.
“Everyone from Dick Clark to Oprah Winfrey to Merv Griffin to Bob Hope — those people were not only great hosts and entertainers, they really had an effect on culture,” Cannon says. “I have always wanted to be the best entertainer I could possibly be. I love Eddie Murphy, I love ‘The Fresh Prince,’ I love Ice Cube. I love Michael Jackson. I want to do what they do. No one told me I could only ever do one thing, so I’m like, ‘I’ma do it all.’”