Who’s On Top? TV’s Highest-Paid Performers Revealed

Jonny Paycheck: Jon Stewart now earns more money than Jay Leno and David Letterman (Photos: NBC, Comedy Central, Getty Images)

Late-night TV has a new king where it counts the most: In the pocketbook.

It’s Jon Stewart, whose annual salary from Comedy Central’s “Daily Show” is estimated at $25-30 million, according to a new list of TV’s top earners.

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That’s enough funny money for Stewart, 50, to rise above older late-night stalwarts Jay Leno, 63, and David Letterman, 66, who earn an estimated $20 million each annually, says the study released this week by TV Guide and available here on TVGuide.com.

TVG says Stewart’s earnings have risen because of his show’s success in targeting the viewers advertisers want to reach most — the prized 18-49 age group.

As for Leno and Letterman, they once earned upwards of $30 million apiece annually, but their compensation — while still substantial to any of us mortals — waned as their audiences aged and shrank.

But Stewart’s not the highest-paid personality on TV, according to the TVG list. That honor goes to Judy “Judge Judy” Sheindlin, whose long-running afternoon court show earned her a cool $47 million in the past year — proving there’s still money to be made, and lots of it, in daytime syndication.

Elsewhere in the TV Guide list, here are the top earners in various categories: In TV drama, Mark Harmon of “NCIS,” $525,000 per episode; in comedy, Ashton Kutcher of “Two and a Half Men,” $750,000 per episode; in reality TV, Howard Stern of “America’s Got Talent,” $15 million a season; in news, Matt Lauer, “The Today Show,” $20-25 million a year.

The TV Guide story notes that the principal stars of “The Big Bang Theory” may soon surpass Kutcher in the comedy category since they are reportedly negotiating new contracts that will pay them each $1 million per episode. In addition, if Jennifer Lopez rejoins “American Idol” this season, as has been widely reported recently, she is expected to earn more than Stern is earning on “AGT.”

Watch a clip from a recent “Daily Show” with guest-host John Oliver:
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Meanwhile, another study is providing further evidence of the money that can be made in the comedy business — albeit only by a very select few.

The study, by an outfit called Wealth-X, has “Seinfeld” co-creators Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld high atop the list of the wealthiest comedians in the United States.

The two amassed their wealth principally from the sale and subsequent resales of “Seinfeld” in rerun syndication. According to the study, Seinfeld has amassed a fortune worth $800 million, while David tops his friend — and tops the list — with a fortune estimated at $900 million. The difference is due to David following “Seinfeld” with another successful show of his own, HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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