Pay Attention to That Man Behind the Curtain: An Interview with Creative Wizard Brian Volk-Weiss
I have to be honest…when one of my PR contacts asked me if I wanted to interview Brian Volk-Weiss, I was a little hesitant. I don’t like to interview people I don’t know or those I’m not interested in. However, I didn’t want to turn down the interview without looking into who Brian Volk-Weiss was. A quick Google search, which led to a quick Wikipedia and IMDb read quickly changed my mind about interview Brian.
Simply put, Brian is the nerd Wizard of Oz, he’s the “man behind the curtain,” who’s created and produced some amazing specials, documentaries, and shows on a variety of topics starring a crazy diverse variety of talent. He’s the mind behind The Toys That Made Us and The Movies That Made Us. He’s produced comedy specials for an amazing array of comics, including Ali Wong, Kevin Hart, Arsenio Hall, Aziz Ansari, Marc Maron, Tom Green, Bill Burr, and Jim Gaffigan. He and his two companies: Comedy Dynamics and The Nacelle Company, have created and produced content on topics that would make a nerd’s head spin: toys, video game box art, toy stores, Star Trek, and Disney attractions, just to name a few.
So, with all this said, I changed my mind about interviewing Brian Volk-Weiss, and I’m glad I did. I learned a lot about what goes into producing comedy specials, what exactly a “producer” is, the hardest part about working with comedians and other talented people, and advice for people who aspire to work in entertainment. This interview, which might be a little long, was a really interesting chat with an insanely interesting guy.
Scott (GNN): Full disclosure, when the PR rep gave me your name, I was like, “Okay, I haven’t heard of this guy and I don’t like to interview people that I have no interest in. I won’t. Then I looked at your IMDb page and I’m like…this guy is incredible!
Brian Volk-Weiss (BVW): You are way too kind.
GNN: Well, if your birthday on your Wikipedia page is right, you’re three months older than me, and I have to give you mad credit for what you’ve achieved. I mean, the projects you’ve worked on are incredible. As I was checking out your IMDB page, my admiration was increasing at a nice steady rate, and then I saw that you worked with Weird Al on his Alpocalypse tour video. You were the producer. So, yeah, I was looking forward to this interview.
Anyway, enough about me, let’s talk about you. I like to start interviews by starting out at the beginning, especially with someone with a career like yours. I’ve learned that the entertainers I’ve talked to, there’s a spectrum. On one end it’s, “My father was a drill sergeant, my mother was a riveter. They were hard-working, strict people, and entertainment was my escape.” On the other end, “My father was an entertainer. My mother was an entertainer. There was no way I was getting out of it.” Where on that spectrum do you fall?
BVW: My mom…drill sergeants would have been scared of my mom, definitely on that side.
GNN: That’s pretty funny. So, you’re in school, you’re in elementary school, when did entertaining of any sort start to grow on you, like the seeds were planted?
BVW: Yeah. I mean, I’m really lucky, man. I mean, this is probably the greatest piece of luck in my life. It happened before elementary school.
GNN: Oh, okay.
BVW: I was born, it sounds like you were too, in ’76, so everything I’m about to tell you, I don’t remember, but my mom has told me many times. Yeah, I saw Star Wars and of course, I didn’t know the word, “documentary,” but based on what my mom said I was saying, I thought the movie was a documentary because for months after I saw it when people would say, “Hey, Brian, what do you want to do when you’re all grown up?” Dead serious, I’m like, “Well I intend on joining the rebellion and hopefully making it up to X-wing pilot and da, da, da, da, da.”
And this kind of scared the crap out of my mom, who is a microbiologist, and was not very, “Oh. He’s going to be an X-wing pilot.” So, she bought me a book that I have right over there. That was the children’s book about the making of the movie, which showed that the Death Star was the size of a beach ball and not a moon. C-3PO was a person, not a robot. And since I was three years old, all I ever wanted to do was be in this business. I’m very, very blessed that I knew so young.
GNN: Man, that’s amazing. That’s incredible. Normally, again, also on the spectrum of stories, some people are like, “Yeah. I knew it from the get-go. I was a funny kid, and I wanted to do some sort of funny thing,” or, “I always knew I wanted to be a writer and I wanted to write.” But then there are some people like Justin Willman, who’s a magician with a show on Netflix.
BVW: I know Justin. I’ve worked with Justin.
GNN: Yeah. He was like, “Yeah. Magic was okay. I liked it but didn’t think of making a career of it.” But then he was riding his bike with roller skates on, and he fell off and broke both his arms. And the doctor was like, “A good way to get your dexterity back is to do card tricks.” And that’s how he got started. So, how about you? You’re moving along and you’re getting in high school. Were you doing anything to work towards your goal as early as high school, or did it not happen until college? What were you working on?
BVW: I was making tons of amateur, horrible, awful films in high school. One was called Justice is a Foot, which was about a giant foot that would smash miniatures we had built. One of my favorite movies in my life growing up was Menace to Society. And I made a parody called Menace for Society. So, these were all terrible, terrible, terrible movies. And then I made some more terrible films in college. But yeah, I’ve been making my own little crappy films, probably, since I was 13.
GNN: I don’t know, man. Justice is a Foot sounds amazing!
BVW: I remember vividly shooting Justice is a Foot because that was the first time while making something, I knew it was bad. The other ones, I figured it out later.
GNN: Now, based on that, I’m curious. In your professional career, have you ever been part of something, as you’re making it, you’re like, “Not loving this, but we got to do it”?
BVW: Yes. Many times.
GNN: So, is it mostly a bell curve, like, 10% is really good, 80% is just fine, and 10% is really bad?
BVW: I mean 90% of the time, I think it’s good to great until it comes out, and then I find out what the world thinks. 10% of the time, I’m like, “This is, I think, garbage.” And then the press comes out, and it’s garbage.
GNN: I don’t know, man. (Laugh) These days, when it comes to entertainment, it seems like the press doesn’t get it right very often.
BVW: Well, you know what? You’re absolutely right. I shouldn’t have said, “press.” You’re 100% right because I do not care about the press, or should I say the reviews. It’s the DMs, the feedback, the comments. I do take those very seriously.
GNN: Yeah. One thing I’ve learned through social media and all these outlets, I don’t know if some people deserve an opinion on anything! (Laughs) The only time I’ve ever found consistently good feedback is on TripAdvisor. What I like to do is look for consistency in reviews of a hotel or a restaurant…if I see a consistent theme. But on sites like Yelp it’s absurd. So back to the history part, I was just super curious as to producing things and what your opinion was.
BVW: If I can dig into that for one second. The problem with making stuff usually is, it’s a cliche but, there’s a lot of cooks in the kitchen and a lot of those cooks have conflicting needs with one another.
GNN: I totally get that.
BVW: So, I’ve had projects that got greenlit and everybody had the best intentions, and then between a green light and shooting sometimes can be six months.
So, in those six months, the common reason stuff gets messed up is market research comes in or another one of the network’s shows bomb and they overcompensate from those things that have nothing to do with my show.
BVW: But then they start giving me the rules that they learned from their other failures, which screw up my show. So, it’s just the kind of thing where it really could be a death, it’s not a thousand cuts, but it really could be a death by eight or nine cuts. And everything creatively is built on top of one another, so you may take out a small thing from here, but it screws up everything up here. You don’t know about it until the show comes out.
GNN: Yeah. On a very smaller scale, I design training for a living, and you’re right. You design something and then subject matter experts get involved and they want to add more things in, but then other people take a look and they want you to cut stuff…you’re getting conflicting feedback. And you’re exactly right, it is too many people getting involved in something. I mean, some input is always good…
BVW: Oh, yeah. It’s great. I mean, we’re doing this show right now for History Channel, all about the 55 years of Star Trek. It’s called The Center Seat. They gave us a note that was fantastic and, to be honest with you, it was the kind of note where it’s what I wanted to be doing.
BVW: But it was our first episode we had sent them, and they sent us the note and we were just working so hard to craft our first episode that I lost sight of it. It was my fault and I was so grateful that our exec at History Channel, a guy named Mark, he reminded me of my own show. So, you really do sometimes get great notes.
GNN: Yeah, absolutely.
BVW: But on the other hand, you get notes frequently that are based on everybody’s experiences, which is normal, but the thing that’s interesting is our contracts give the other party tiebreaker and veto rights. And it never gets that far. I’ve never in my career had a network say, “yeah, but we got the tiebreaker.” I’ve never pushed it that hard. But the problem is very often you sell a show, and I’m perceived for that show to be an expert, but then I have an executive overseeing the show, similar to what you were saying about how they say make it shorter but give you more material. They’ll be like, I know you’re an expert and I’m not, but you should do X. I’m like, you know, it’s not a small variable that you’re not an expert.
GNN: Right, it’s just a little tiny thing, just a little tiny thing.
BVW: That’s how it is. That’s how it goes.
GNN: That’s nuts, man. I mean I see all the things you’ve done, and it’s like, wow. And then I think, man, if I took 347 of my training projects, the frustrations over all of them…I mean there are some people that have a hard time managing creativity. They think it’s easy and you can apply a “one, two, three” formula. I know that this has worked in the past. I can give it to you as a note. Make it so.
So, percentage-wise, how many times do you go back to an executive and you say something, and then they’re like, “okay, just giving the feedback.”? Or how many times is it like, yeah, we’re going to need it our way even though we’re not the experts?
BVW: It depends on the company. It depends on the executive. I would never push anything more than three times. I’ll never do it a fourth time.
BVW: 90% of the time, I’ll be listened to if I bring it up twice. 10% percent of the time, I’m vetoed outright. And by the way, in full fairness, of the 10% where I’m vetoed, it was right to veto me like 20% of the time.
GNN: Oh, okay.
BVW: So, 80% of the time, they’re destroying their own product. 20% of the time, they’re improving their own product.
GNN: So now I’m super curious, have you ever had an executive veto you and come back and say, “you know what, you were right?”
GNN: Oh, that has happened? I thought you were going to say, “no way!”
BVW: I did a show. I’m not going to say what it was. I’m not embarrassed about it…okay, I’m embarrassed about it. It’s a terrible series, but I claim it; I claim it. It’s my show. I f***ed up. I get it. It’s okay. But I don’t want to say what it was because I feel like that could piss off the network that invested millions and millions of dollars. And I have a rule I try to follow: “If the check clears, shut your mouth.” I’ve worked with horrible people that the check cleared, and if I cash the check, I find it very hypocritical years later to insult them. So, I hate when I see other people doing that.
So, I’m not going to tell you the network or the show, but I made a show. I sold it. They made me cast somebody who knew nothing about the topic. I risked the green light by telling them it was a bad call. And I was basically told very nicely, “Shut up and let the show get made.” The guy did press for the show, could not have been more open about how he didn’t know anything about the subject, and it was…I mean, arguably, you could say was it disparaging the subject of the entire show. And the executive called me and was horrified. His boss was mad. The guy was on Kimmel saying terrible things about the show. And his boss called him going crazy. But he said to me, the whole time he was going on, I was waiting for him to stop so I could say, “You know I told you not to hire him, right?” But before he stopped, he said, “By the way, I know you told me not to hire him.” So, I’m like, “All right, that’s fair.”
GNN: I mean, sometimes, that could be currency for later, right? I mean, I guess if you’re looking for a silver lining, it builds up. It’s like, I’m sure you don’t want it to fail. You’re like, “At least that’s a little positive,” to put that in the back pocket. That’s some currency for later I can use the remember when kind of thing. Right?
BVW: Yeah, theoretically, yes. But I mean, I will tell you this, I work with this company a lot. Their logo is a big red N and one of the things that is very interesting about Netflix…and I had worked with Netflix for 11 years or more, but I only sold them a series in 2017. So, I had produced lots of shows for everybody but Netflix. Netflix is the first company I’ve ever worked with that, literally, the way I always describe Netflix to people now is I say, “It’s very, very hard to sell shows to them. But if you’re lucky enough that they buy a show from you, they really trust you to do your job.”
GNN: Oh, that’s good. Yeah, that’s great.
BVW: A lot of networks say, “these are just suggestions,” but that’s bullshit. And when Netflix says, these are suggestions,” it’s pretty accurate. And I will say this, the notes from Netflix, I mean, they’re dead on, and when I push back…if I get 20 notes from Netflix, I’ll usually agree to some degree with 18, two of which I’ll push back on, and they’ll be like, “Cool, it’s your show.”
GNN: That’s awesome. That is cool that let you do your thing. Especially, again, when you’re a creative person to be trusted, to be creative and do your thing.
BVW: And by the way, I don’t know if it’s connected or not. I think it is. The first show we ever did that was viewed as being good was The Toys That Made Us, which was my first Netflix show.
GNN: Which was really good, by the way! I have questions about that and The Movies That Made Us because they were so good. I hope there are more seasons of that on the way!
BVW: There are. There are.
GNN: At the risk of geeking out on you a bit, I actually watched the Die Hard episode twice. I liked that Reginald VelJohnson just seemed like a cool guy who is happy to be associated with the movie…the opposite of the guy you were talking about before. It was pretty emotional when you see him outside the building, and he talks about how his mom got to see the movie before she passed, I think?
BVW: Yep, she did.
GNN: Yeah. So, very cool, that was very cool. I don’t want to blow smoke up your a**…
BVW: Not necessary, to put it mildly.
GNN Well, let me tell you, you are the Nerd Wizard of Oz, bro. You are the guy behind the curtain of some cool s**t. Pardon my French, but that is true. Now, enough of me kissing a**, let’s go back to your history. You went to the University of Iowa. I read in a story that you went there because that’s where James Kirk was born. And that’s why you picked the University of Iowa. How true is that?
BVW: Not why I picked it, not why I picked it! (Laughs) The reason I picked it was…I was a horrible high school student. And I didn’t think I would get into any colleges.
BVW: It wasn’t even my safety school. Like, almost everything I applied to was the safety school. I was literally a D- student. And I got into…I did very…I don’t know if you remember this or not, but you sent your college stuff before you get your SAT results. So, I had applied to all these schools not knowing what my SATs would be. And I had done very badly on the PSATs. But I took a PSAT training class and I figured out the pattern of the test. So, that allowed me to do very well, to put it mildly. That’s an understatement if I’m being honest.
So, I got into University of Wisconsin, and I got into the University of Chicago. I also got into NYU, which, as a D- student, that should tell you how my SATs were. And how my essay was. But Iowa was in between Madison and Chicago. And we weren’t going to go visit. On the Sunday, we were leaving on a Monday, and on the Sunday before we left, randomly on TV, was Star Trek IV, and there’s the line where she’s like, “Let me guess, you’re from outer space.” And he’s like, “No, I’m from Iowa; I only work in outer space.” And then I said to my dad, I’m like, “Hey. I want to check out Iowa.” And that’s why I went. And I don’t know if you read the other part of the story, which to me, is even funnier, about why I went there went there, which I wouldn’t understand for years.
My dad and I got in at night. Late, so about midnight. So, we went right to the hotel, went to bed. Woke up in the morning, starting walking around Iowa City, and dude, I felt like I’d been there before. It was like deja vu. It was like I started believing in reincarnation, and, literally, at the end of the day, we’re at the bookstore, and I’m buying like, $250…which, for us was a ton of money, like $250 worth of jackets, stickers, a bookbag. And I’ll never forget, we hadn’t even gotten to Chicago yet. And my dad was like, “Are you going here?” And I was like, “I think I am.” Cause it felt good.
BVW: It felt like I’d been there. Three years later, I’m in a class. And it just randomly comes out that the creator of the TV show Coach had gone to the University of Iowa. And in the show, even though in the show, it’s a fictitious college, that doesn’t really exist…all the exteriors were shot at the University of Iowa.
GNN: There you go.
BVW: And that’s why I felt like I’d been there. It was my mom’s favorite show growing up. So, like, that’s why I felt I’d been there. I’d seen probably every episode.
GNN: That’s incredible. I have those feelings all the time, I’m like, “I know this is visually, something I’ve seen before.”
BVW: But I’ll tell you one other fact about all that. Because I told you, I’d known since I was tiny that I was going to go into the business. I knew college was irrelevant. So, I knew it didn’t matter where I went. So, that was another freedom I had…I was like, it didn’t matter. I just had to go where I felt comfortable.
GNN: Absolutely. That comfort factor is huge. That played a big part in where I went to college. So, what did you study? What was your degree in?
BVW: Communications. I mean, it was…I had a good time. I drank a lot and made some crappy short films. It was a great time; it was a great time.
GNN: It’s funny to hear super-talented people in entertainment, like Weird Al got his degree in Architecture? And he was never going to do that! He was a super-talented musician, and lyricist, and funny guy. So, yeah. But communication seems like something that would sort of have a little application in what you were going to do in the future. Did it?
BVW: Zero. Zero.
GNN: Zero? (Laughs)
BVW: I should have gone to business school. My best friend in college who I met the first day of college…his name is Jamie. He went to business school. For four years, I made fun of him for that. For four years, I’d be like…I’d see him at the end of the day. I’d be like, “How’s business, Jamie? How’s business doing?” And literally, probably by the end of my second year in show business, I’m like, “I think I owe Jamie a big apology.” Yeah, I should have studied. Because you can’t teach storytelling to a certain degree. You can teach it to a writer. You can teach it to a poet. But for someone who’s making TV or film, it’s such a complicated process that involves so many people and so much money. You’ve kind of just got to do it.
GNN: So, now that you’re saying that you didn’t get anything out of that Communications degree, I have another question. My last interview was with a comedian, Wayne Federman.
BVW: I love Wayne.
GNN: And he is a prototypical stand-up comic. If you look up, “stand-up comedian,” in the dictionary, you’ll see his picture. So, I asked him like I ask a lot of entertainers, “Was there ever a fallback?” He called them “job jobs” that he had to do to make money and eat. One author that I had interviewed said, “You know, I love to write, but I also like to have regular meals. That’s nice to be able to eat three times a day.” So, did you have a fallback? Wayne said if hadn’t made it by 30, he was done. And thank goodness for him it happened, and he was on his career trajectory. How about you? Did you have a fallback or no?
BVW: I’m a big believer in that line from The Hunt for Red October, where he’s like…because I forgot if it was Pizarro or Cortes. I think it was Cortes who burnt his ships down so his men would be incentivized to win. I believe in that logic. So, yeah. No, no. I would have never stopped. I’m still not stopping. So, having a fallback…if you’re not 100% committed to a big challenge, you’ll fail. You need to have no backup, in my opinion.
GNN: That’s awesome advice. I mean, I’ve always been a planner and I’ve always had a backup. Maybe that’s one of the things I think that might have hamstrung me over the years. I have to set up camp every mile or so just in case I keep going and something happened, it’s just my nature.
But, back to you…so, after graduation, according to the font of always truthful and accurate information, Wikipedia…and we know never anything wrong in Wikipedia…
BVW: Never, never.
GNN: You moved to LA. Was there something waiting for you there? Or, like you just said, you went out there saying, “I’m going and it’s the place, so I’m going to be there.”?
BVW: I got out here on July 1, 1998, I went to a bookstore near my apartment a couple hours later, I bought Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and this other magazine that doesn’t exist anymore. I built on my back wall in my room a giant grid in the shape of a T. Every job I was…and I still have The Hollywood Reporter here somewhere. Every job I was interested in, and to be honest with you, it was pretty much every job. The only jobs I didn’t go up for was anything connected to loading the camera with film because I knew I would screw that up. So, anything else: assistant director, grip, electric, anything. I cut each one out with a pair of scissors and taped it to the wall. I would call the people, and if I spoke to them, I would move the cutout ad from the left of the vertical bar to the right. And I just kept doing that, and with no exaggeration whatsoever, 22 years later, everything I’ve done, everything I have, is connected to that. I met the people that would lead me to everything I’ve done from those first cutting out those job wanteds.
GNN: That is amazing. I mean, that’s a great strategy. That’s cool.
BVW: Very simple.
GNN: Sometimes the best solutions are. It’s unreal how over thinking we tend to be, but. So, super curious, when you were trying to get these jobs, did you have a demo reel with Justice Is a Foot on it or no? Did that make it to the demo reel?
BVW: No. No, it didn’t. That’s funny. That’s very funny.
GNN: I love puns and I love dad jokes, so I had to bring that up again.
BVW: And callbacks. That was the callback. Good callback.
GNN: I try my best. So again, 2000, the first super interesting thing I saw that popped out was in 2000 you were a production assistant and you were…
BVW: Can I interrupt you? I’m going to tell you something I’ve never told anybody.
GNN: No way. I’m getting a scoop?
BVW: But you said this will be read by kids.
GNN: Yeah. Kids are definitely in our demographic.
BVW: So, right before I graduate college, I read an article with Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino said that when he was getting started, he created a resumé because he wanted to be an actor. He created a resume that said all these movies that he worked on. But he never worked on any of them. He lied; he made the whole thing up. And he said it when won the whole thing for Pulp Fiction. One day he’s in a bookstore and there’s a book in the bookstore, a French book, all about the great directors. He opens the book and he finds his name and he’s like, “Oh, cool, I’m in it.” He flips to the page about himself and Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and all the movies he had lied about were on his page.
So, I get to out LA and I didn’t want to lie. I don’t believe in lying for a lot of reasons. But I thought that was a good plan.
BVW: So, what I did…and like I said, I don’t like lying. One of the reasons I don’t like lying is because it’s immoral. But the other reason I don’t like lying is because you could get caught.
GNN: Yeah, and you got to remember what you’ve said and that can get complicated.
BVW: Yeah. And I’m sending out hundreds of resumes. So, I just made up everything because how could you get caught working on a movie that doesn’t exist? No one will ever say, “You didn’t work on that,” because nobody did. So, my first resumes, the resumes that got my whole career started, all of my jobs, my first paycheck after college, to call them fiction would be an understatement.
GNN: At this point, I’m going to say that Geek News Network in no way promotes that you should lie on resumes in any way, shape or form or omit or make things up.
BVW: Because no one ever said to me, “Hey, are these movies real?”
GNN: Right. Well, now, this entire interview is built on what you’ve told me. If the truth at the bottom pulls out, you could kill this whole interview!
BVW: But luckily for you, there’s IMDB and Wikipedia and Google, which luckily for me did not exist in 1998.
GNN: That’s a good point. It definitely makes it a little harder to fudge things…because somebody somewhere knows even obscure things.
BVW: Yeah, no, I’m hoping one day I find one of those resumes. (Laughs)
GNN: So, were you a production assistant and did you work in the wardrobe department on Castaway in the year 2000?
BVW: Yes, that’s 100%. Yeah. Nothing you’ve seen is not accurate. None of those fake movies made it anywhere past the resume. But yes, I absolutely worked on Castaway and for a long time, it was a lot of fun.
GNN: So, you always hear, “production assistant,” and in movies, it’s always kind of a vague position that they make fun of sometimes…like in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, the production assistant is simply there for Chris Rock to abuse. What does that role actually entail?
BVW: It’s basically a catch-all job. It’s the job where if nobody else has it in their job description, they do it. So, when I was a production assistant, something I enjoyed very much, and I joke, but to be honest, I’m not really joking. I’ve always said I’d like to spend my last year in show business going back to PA’ing because I really enjoyed it. And now, to be honest with you, at this point in my career, I love the idea of having no responsibility whatsoever, so.
But I got coffee every morning. When you see Castaway and you see Tom Hanks in that red and black jacket that he wore in Russia, I drove to 10 Macy’s and bought 10 of those jackets and then brought them to this woman in downtown L.A. who aged them in these special washing machines for aging clothes and everything in between. I would get dinner, pick up dry cleaning. I picked up Tom Hanks twice at his house because his driver had surgery or something. So, you did everything.
GNN: I mean, it seems like a great way to learn a little bit of everything, I mean, as long as you’re observant. And I mean, are you allowed to ask questions or is it just do the task?
BVW: It depends on the production. And I will say this, I think it’s a lot more enjoyable to be a production assistant in 2021 than it was in 1998, but it depended on the people. You had to get a feel for the room. Some people loved answering questions. Some people hated it.
GNN: All right, so from there, and this might be a big time jump, but I want to confirm this. So, you’re a production assistant, and then one of your next jobs is managing comedians. How big a time jump is that?
BVW: I started working at the management company in ’99. I started managing clients in 2003.
GNN: Okay, so four years. So, what filled that four years, what were you doing at that point?
BVW: I started off as the owner of that company’s assistant. I convinced him, unfortunately for him, to start a movie division, which blew through a lot of money and produce zero movies. And then I convinced him to let me try and sell…I know this sounds insane, but it’s true. I convinced him to let me try to sell his company, which he allowed me to do, and we sold it to a bigger company. And I acquired that company about four years ago.
GNN: New Wave Entertainment was the company that acquired the company you worked for?
BVW: Yes, that’s right.
GNN: Right. So, you start managing comedians at the company. And is that all that company did was manage comedians, or other performers too?
BVW: It was 99.9% comedians.
GNN: All right, so at that point, was comedy a thing you were into, and that was cool, or was it just a job?
BVW: It was really the opposite of Star Wars, the story I told earlier. I had been to a stand-up club once in my life. I didn’t enjoy it. I didn’t even get through the whole show. But I was 15, it was a friend of mine’s birthday party. When I started working for the owner, on a Friday night, he got me a pass to the Laugh Factory just to…I’m always interested in stuff I don’t know anything about, so I just went. There were three shows that night and I was going to go to the 7:00 show, and that was my plan. I went by myself, and two things happened: one, I stayed for all three shows, so I literally watched basically eight hours of comedy in one night, and then, on Monday, when my boss asked me who I liked, I had taken notes and I read to him all the people I liked that I had seen. And there were probably 36 comedians that night. I had written down five names. My boss represented all five of those people (laughs) and that was it. I was bitten by the bug. Yeah, the stand-up bug.
GNN: And it definitely helps…I’m looking at the list of some of the people you represent…Whitney Cummings, Jeff Ross, Dane Cook. I mean, it’s easy to get into comedy when you represent…these are super talented people.
BVW: Who, by the way, at the time, Jeff Ross could probably sell a couple of thousand…800 to 1,200 tickets; Dane Cook could probably sell 200 tickets; and Whitney Cummings could have probably sold 50 tickets at the most. So, just to let you know, those were not who they would become, especially Dane.
GNN: Oh. Yeah. I mean, Dane Cook does arenas now.
BVW: Yeah. Well, not anymore, but…five years later, he would be. Yes.
GNN: So yeah, big names. You’re managing these comics, and first thing I have to know…I hear all these titles. I hear “production assistant” and other titles and I’m going to ask you about as you attain them. I hear “manager” of a comic. And you think of, “All right. You get them to appearances, and you book things for them.” Is there anything that people might not know that a manager does that’s not common knowledge? What does that job entail?
BVW: There’s a lot. There’s a lot. But I’ll give you my favorite answer, which is still luckily not confidential. There are a lot of confidential things that I can answer your question with. But the number one biggest surprise that I had as a manager…and this happened all the time with 80% of my clients…I would have to aggressively convince them to take jobs that they desperately needed.
BVW: The amount of my clients that took jobs that changed their lives forever, people that were $80,000 in debt and a year later were multimillionaires, I would have to go to their houses and beg them to take that job that changed their lives all the time, all the time, all the time.
GNN: Is it the cliché, “It’s just not right for me,” or what’s the reasoning? Again, as a non-entertainer, that logic doesn’t even click with me…
BVW: I’m not an artist. I’ve never been on stage. I’ve never been on camera, except for interviews. I’ll tell you this: without a doubt, from a psychological standpoint, there is no harder job that a human being can have than being an actor. There’s nothing close. And here’s all you have to know: for every George Clooney or Julia Roberts that handles the fame well, we have 40 people of equal success that become drug addicted, alcoholic, self-destructive souls. So, if you’ve chosen a career where the top people you aim to be have a 75 to 85 percent chance of destroying their lives psychologically because of the toll the career takes on them, what does that tell you?
GNN: That’s very telling…
BVW: We’re going back to the question…I don’t understand why I had to do it all the time. I don’t know the answer because it was different. Everybody was different. Everybody had their own reasons, but the common variable was fear. And they just had fear in their heart for some reason, and it was my job as a manager to get them to manage that fear in a way that allowed them to take the job that would help them get their own dreams satisfied. Yeah.
GNN: Right. Now that you say it, I mean, if you think about performing, there is such a small success zone. There are the people who fall short, and then there are the people who make it, but then go into this crazy spiral where they end up on drugs. I mean, Heath Ledger, super-talented…
BVW: Yeah. Think about it. You said you make videos for training purposes. Have you ever made a video and then you got bad feedback from the people using it?
BVW: Makes you feel like shit, right?
BVW: But at the end of the day, it’s about law enforcement or it’s about building a radiator or build whatever.
GNN: Right. Absolutely.
BVW: It’s not about Scott Muller.
GNN: That’s a good point. Yeah. You’re right.
BVW: So, imagine if all that negative feedback you’re getting, instead of it being cops or aeronautical engineers, imagine everything they’re saying is Scott Muller sucks. Scott Muller sucks. Scott Muller sucks. The Toys That Made Us sucks.
GNN: That’s a valid point.
BVW: The Toys That Made Us, I swear to God, one bad review, one. Every other review, good to great. I can’t stop thinking about that one f***ing review. I know the guy’s name. I know where he wrote it. That’s human nature.
GNN: No, you’re right.
BVW: And he didn’t even mention my name. All he did was talk about The Toys That Made Us. And here I am, still f***ed up about it four years later. That’s human nature. Now, imagine you’re the star of Ishtar or you’re the star of whatever. Kenneth Branagh is one of my favorite actors and directors of all time. He directed one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen last year. That Disney+ thing…Artemis Fowl.
GNN: Yeah, yeah. Oh, man. Yeah.
BVW: Good Luck Chuck. I wasn’t on camera.
GNN: Oh, poor Dane.
BVW: I couldn’t get out of bed for two days because of those reviews. Not one review mentioned my name. Not one. But I had spent a year working on the film. Couldn’t get out of bed for two days. So, on this whole positive interview, on that very dark, depressing statement.
GNN: Okay, so let’s shift to a more positive question…when you started managing comedians, did you have a choice or were you just assigned comedians to represent or manage?
BVW: 100% choice.
GNN: Okay. I was just curious as to…did you ever pick someone who you thought was going to make it and didn’t or vice versa, like skip on someone that’s like, “Oh, it was Kevin Hart. Son of a gun. I could have managed him.”?
BVW: I never skipped on anybody who blew up. Not one.
GNN: Oh, really. Good job.
BVW: And what was the other question? Oh, yeah. All the time I would pick people who I thought were great and I couldn’t get them arrested (laughs).
GNN: God. That’s got to be such a pain. Again, everything I do that real creators do on a small scale, when we’re getting people for a video, just a training video, you’re like, “Man, they nailed the audition. They had the look, they had the voice,” and then, man, they have all the talent of an elm tree, and that’s just a boring training video. So, I can only imagine when it comes to real large-scale entertainment…
BVW: It’s such a random business as it relates to people blowing up. I mean, look at Bill Burr. I have always considered him to be one of the greatest comedians who ever lived. I’ve been very blessed to have known him for about 15 years, produced two of his specials. But I mean, the guy really blew up because of a YouTube video of him kind of getting into a fight with a crowd. When most people started hearing about his name, it was because of that. He had pilots. He had had a million things that hadn’t gone anywhere, but that, some random argument he got into the crowd in Philadelphia, that’s what blew him up.
GNN: Yeah. Isn’t that crazy?
BVW: Yeah. Well, he’s brilliant.
GNN: Yeah. And then he does a great job of it, so. All right. So, in 2003 is when the company you’re working for, New Wave Entertainment, bought them. Is that correct?
BVW: That’s correct.
GNN: So, did your job change immediately? Or what was the change there?
BVW: It changed immediately because I wasn’t managing before New Wave bought the company.
GNN: Oh, okay.
BVW: So, the day after we got to New Wave was the day I started managing.
GNN: Oh, all right. So, after you were managing talent, what was the…because from there to producer, let’s kind of take a bit of a jump because we could be talking for days if we keep going, so. How many steps were in there?
BVW: Yeah, what happened was is to use a cliched word, I mean, it was as “organic” as it could have been. When you’re a manager of comedians, usually at least once, sometimes two, sometimes three times a year, you’re making standup specials for your clients. And we had been producing one to three a year for our clients. Whenever we sold a special, we would produce it for our client. And then one day, I got a call from a guy named Mike Berkowitz, and Mike asked me if I would produce a special for a non-client, Michael Ian Black.
GNN: Okay. Yeah, absolutely.
BVW: And I was very offended, and I was like, I don’t understand you. You think I’m good enough to produce, but you don’t think I’m good enough to manage? Like, f**k you. And I hung up. I was really annoyed.
BVW: And then the next day, I swear to God this is true, it’s going to sound like a cliche, but it’s true. I was literally in the shower, and it just hit me. My job is to make money, and as long as it’s legal, it really doesn’t matter how I make it. So I called Mike back, I apologized profusely, and we did Michael Ian Black special. It was fantastic. I remember to the day I die because every special I had ever done before Michael Ian Black was a client. So, whenever they asked for anything, I couldn’t really say no because then it would put at risk all of their commissions. So, here I am producing Michael Ian Black. His manager was there. By the way, this shows you how respected I was as a manager. Other managers were okay. I was still a manager. Normally you’d be worried about poaching.
GNN: Right. Yeah.
BVW: So, when you’re producing for somebody, you get cell phone numbers, email, Social Security numbers. So, it really shows you how I was perceived as a manager that another manager was like, “Oh, yeah, give them everything.” But I remember distinctly saying no to Michael without the fear of getting fired by a client. And I liked it.
So, very soon after that, in what was probably the most important decision I made in my career, we decided to start producing specials for nonclients at volume, because I had read a book called The Long Tail. And The Long Tail, which I had read in 2006…I always mention when I read it because it’s important to mention it’s 2006, because that was before YouTube; it was before the iPhone; it was before streaming. Everything that my business now works with did not exist, but this book predicted would happen. And the book was right about everything. A lot of people say they’re going to buy the book. Don’t buy the book, it’ll be the most boring f***ing thing you’ve ever read (laughs). But imagine reading it in 2006. So, I bet everything that the book was right. We bought cameras. We didn’t even own cameras yet. Every time we shot anything, we’d have to rent the cameras. We bought cameras. We hired a full-time editor. The first special we shot with our new system, which, by the way, is the same system we’re using today, was Nick DiPaolo. We followed that up with Tom Green. Within six months, we were working with Jim Gaffigan, Kevin Hart, Aziz Ansari, Bill Burr, you name it. And as that business started getting bigger, I started spending less and less time managing. By this point, by the way, I was down to three clients. I had Dane Cook, two other people. All my other clients I had resigned from. And then, as the specials took off, I eventually retired from management.
GNN: Okay, all right. So, we’ve thrown the word out there: producer. Most of us see producers like Joaquin Phoenix in Gladiator, where somebody walks up, pitches an idea, and you sit there and you do the “thumbs up, thumbs down,” to screw with them. And then it’s like, “thumbs up…we approve!” So, you’re an expert; I’ve seen your resume. What is a producer?
BVW: Here’s why nobody understands it. It’s very hard to describe. And the example I would give you is, what’s an airplane? Yes, it’s something that flies through the sky, but there are airplanes that carry 800 people that have no weapons, but it’s directly connected and related to an F15 that carries two people and has lots of weapons, and it’s the same thing with producing. And by the way, my role as a producer is different on almost every project, so sometimes I find the idea. Sometimes I package it, which means I attach a celebrity. Sometimes I sell it. Sometimes I’m extremely hands-on to the point where I’m directing, I’m in post. Other times I just sell it, and then get out of the way of the showrunner. And I don’t do anything.
So, that’s why it’s so hard to answer, but the same way a plane can be…all planes are the same in that they all fly. It’s the one thing they all have in common, even if they land on water or land, on a runway, on land, it’s still a plane. The one thing that I have in common with all producers…is that everything I produce I add some kind of value that helps the project either get made in the first place or stays getting made and doesn’t fall apart.
GNN: Makes sense, yeah, makes sense. That was an excellent way to put it for the producing plebes like myself, and people will read it.
BVW: Now, we bring in my wife, you ask my wife that question, I don’t even know if she could answer it. It’s such an amorphous job.
GNN: Right. Yeah, once you say it, you see all the things that go with it, I can imagine it doesn’t have to be the same on every project. Like you do five things on this project and maybe just two on the next.
BVW: Well, to use that example, there are projects where…our Disney show Behind the Attraction that’s coming out in July, I probably put…I’d say at least 10,000 hours of work into that. We have other shows I might put 10 hours’ worth of work into it.
GNN: Oh, wow, that’s quite a discrepancy! But yeah, I can see how that goes…
BVW: Well, it’s what I’m needed for and it’s also what I want to do. Sometimes I want to direct, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes our partners want me to direct, sometimes they don’t. So, that alone affects the amount of hours, that one variable.
GNN: All right. So, how much quibbling…I think that’s a word. Quibbling? How frequently does it happen? Where the project people want you to do more or less, or you want to do more or less? Is it very frequently an issue or is just a quick discussion from time to time, “How involved you want me to be?”
BVW: It’s never an issue because I have no ego about it. My job is to have my company be as productive as possible. And if our partner…I just had this conversation yesterday with someone where we’re doing a series and I said, “Listen, I’d like to direct the first episode.” It was picked up for six. I go, “I’d like to direct the first episode.” And that way the other director or directors will know how I do it and they’ll have some sort of path to follow. And I didn’t know if the star would be okay with me directing at all, so a part of me was like, “I’m going to ask, but if she says no, she says no.” And it is what it is, I don’t care. And her reaction was, “Should I be offended that you don’t want to direct all of them?” (Laughs) I mean, I would not have predicted that would have been her response, but it was. So, for whatever reason, I can never guess.
GNN: That was pleasant twist in the story! So, let’s see, by 2009, you’re the head of production for New Wave Entertainment.
GNN: Okay. In the next three years, I looked at your IMDB page and again, Jim Gaffigan, Aziz Ansari, Whitney Cummings, D.L. Hughley, how much work goes into one of these big names? Because I watch these specials and I’m ignorant of it, it just looks like they pick a venue, plop a camera at the back, shoot them and boom, you got a comedy special. That’s how simple it looks when you’re watching it. You just pick a nice-looking venue. We just watched a Fortune Feimster and they picked a very nice churchy venue, and it looks like they stuck a camera and recorded it. How much work really goes into something like that?
BVW: It is a billion percent connected to the artist…
BVW: And by the way, it’s even funnier than that because there are certain artists we’ve worked with three, four or five times, they’re completely different every special. Well, a lot of it depends on what they’re dealing with in their own lives. So, there could be an artist in between three movies banging out a special.
GNN: Oh, man, good point.
BVW: And they can’t really pay attention. That same artist two years later might be in the middle of a four-month gap between projects, and they could focus a lot more. So, I mean, there are artists we work with, I exaggerate not, they show up 30 seconds before rehearsal. They do the shows. They shake my hand and we never talk again until the next taping years later. They don’t go in the editing bay. They don’t look at cuts. One of the most famous people we work with hates the way he looks and can’t watch himself on screen. So, I love working with that guy because literally I say goodbye and then we do what we think is best. We get notes from the network and that’s it. There are other artists, I shit you not, who have put 100 to 200 hours in the editing bay and that’s fine too. I don’t care. That’s cool. And it’s everything in the middle.
GNN: Nice, nice. That’s super interesting, but it’s so crazy. That would drive me insane. I mean, I get where it’s coming from, but I’m very much…I learn from each project and try to apply it. And sometimes I make this very crude analogy, sometimes it’s like trying to bottle a fart, applying logic from one project to the next. So, to have one project and then on the next one, the person’s completely different, it’s like, “Crap. I thought I learned everything on project one. And I think I learned everything on project too.” And that would drive me insane.
BVW: It’s pretty interesting. I mean, yeah, there’s no two that are the same, even with the same person.
GNN: All right. So now I usually ask this towards the end, I’m going to put you on the spot right now.
BVW: I’m ready.
GNN: I have my geek Mount Rushmore. It’s Bill Gates, Stephen King, Weird Al, and Walt Disney…the four people who have shaped my nerdiness. You’re putting together a Kings of Comedy/White Collar Comedy Tour, the BVW Comedy Tour. Who are the four men or women that are going into your special?
BVW: Bill Burr.
BVW: Gary Gulman, Beth Stelling. I’m trying to think. I only got one left. And you know what? She’ll probably be very surprised to hear me say this, but God damn, does she make me laugh, Kathleen Madigan.
GNN: Okay. I’ve only heard of Bill Burr. I’m going to have to check these other folks out. When people mention comedians, I’ll go, and I’ll find them somewhere and watch. But you’ve given me three people to go hunt down and watch.
BVW: Yeah. Gary Gulman is probably my favorite comedian who’s not selling arenas.
GNN: Got you. All right. Well, that’s very good. You hit that. I like when people can answer that question because that gives readers something to track down and check out…
BVW: Actually, you know what? Can I change one?
GNN: You know what? Nothing’s to say we have to have four. If you’d like to put a fifth face on your Comedy Mount Rushmore, feel free!
BVW: I like playing within the rules. I would replace Madigan with Wanda Sykes.
GNN: Oh, my gosh, yes.
BVW: Yeah, I love Wanda. Wanda’s the number one comedian I haven’t worked with that I want to work with.
GNN: Okay. Yeah, she is truly hysterical. I’d like to hear her. I think the last time I saw her was on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and she was hysterical on that…
BVW: Holy shit, that’s a good show.
GNN: Oh, it is. I cannot put into words how much people need to realize…Amazon Prime is so underrated. There are like 20 shows on there people need to watch.
BVW: Here’s what I’ll tell you, I have my way of telling you how much I love it. It’s like somebody rented a week on the most powerful supercomputer that exists to make a show designed for me to hate.
BVW: I hate shows about show business. The number one kind of show I hate about show business is one that focuses on agents or managers. Second place for my least favorite kind of show about show business is shows that focus on comedians. And I can say this because I’m Jewish. I hate stuff that’s Jewish-focused. I got enough of that growing up.
GNN: Right. Okay.
BVW: There could not be a show better designed for me to hate, and it’s in my top five favorite shows in the history of television. I’ve watched season one probably I think four times, season two twice, season three, three times.
BVW: I consider the ending of season three to be in the top five greatest moments in the history of television.
GNN: Oh, that was such a stinger, man. That hurt my heart.
BVW: I don’t know if you remember this or not, but what Sterling K. Brown says to her where he’s like…again, dude, I was a manager for ten years. He’s right. What he said to her is 100% true. He says to her, he goes, “I know today sucks. I guarantee you within five years, you will be saying to someone else what I am saying to you now.” Dude, I was crying like a f***ing baby.
GNN: Yeah, that was heart-wrenching. The whole thing, the way it was shot, and yeah, the tone, and yeah, that was a fantastic bit right there way to end the third season. Now the fourth season, I don’t know when the hell it’s coming out…
BVW: I think around Christmas. Thanksgiving or Christmas.
GNN: Oh, good. Oh, good. That’ll be a nice thing to have back. So, based on what you said, are you not a big Sandy Wexler fan? That seems to check off a lot of boxes you don’t like.
BVW: Well, it’s so funny you bring that up, dude. That character was loosely based on somebody…actually, two people I know. So, for that reason, I found it very funny. But if that were not the case, you’re absolutely right.
GNN: Right. And you’re right, too. There are certain things that, like you said, they build things that I would hate, but every so often, despite that, I find them amusing. So, I have to ask very quickly, in 2012, you crossed paths with my entertainment icon. I had him sign my bald head at a concert: Weird Al. You worked with him for the Weird Al Yankovic Live, the Apocalypse Tour. Did you ever get to meet him?
BVW: That was one of the specials I put closer to 10,000 hours in versus 10 hours. I could not have been more hands-on, and I interacted with him quite a bit. We exchange Christmas cards every year. We email and text every now and then. One of the high points of my entire life.
GNN: That is awesome. Man, I could ask 100 more questions, but we’ll press on. So, in 2013 you’re the President of Production at New Wave, and I was looking at your IMDB page and what it said on Wikipedia. You are doing 20 to 30 specials a year. That’s like two a week. And hearing what you said earlier about how it changes from project to project…does it get easier? I mean, you talked about it earlier, but as an overall process, does it get easier at all?
BVW: No, it’s a very grueling thing because you’re constantly getting on airplanes. You’re constantly staying in hotels. You got to wake up, you know, sometimes at 3:00 in the morning to start loading the gear. And I mean, one of the things a lot of people don’t see or understand, if you walked into the venue for a shot, you’d see seven to nine cameras and a small crew and whatever. If you’re walking in at 7:00 PM, we’re lucky if that shit is working at 6:00 PM. I mean, it’s thousands of miles of cable. Maybe not thousands. It’s hundreds of miles of cable. It’s very, very delicate technology. You have to be plugging in and it’s a lot of work to get everything to not f**k up while you’re shooting.
GNN: So, with all this traveling you’re talking about, I volunteered at a convention once and I was talking to a celebrity and she was just talking about how her sleep schedule because she did work in a bunch of different states in different time zones and she was saying she has no internal clock. She said she just keeps going until she falls asleep. Is that what you’re talking about with flying? And is that basically how it goes?
BVW: Yeah. Yes. But also, keep in mind, I’m building and running the company while all that’s going on. So, I’m literally sitting in a Days Inn, doing the deal for what would become The Toys That Made Us. I mean, it’s that and we’re doing a series at the same time usually. So, it’s Monday through Thursday, doing a series, running the company, and then get on a plane. You go to Minneapolis for 36 hours and yeah, it’s really wacky. I mean, real wacky.
GNN: Yeah. Are you the kind that can kind of, once you kind of get tired, can sleep anywhere?
BVW: No, I am not. I have to be laying down with very specific sounds.
GNN: Amen to that…I’m the same way. I have to have a bed and white noise…it’s tough for me to fall asleep in a car or on a plane…
BVW: You see me sleeping on a plane, I got a lot of drugs in my system.
GNN: So, in 2014, two albums you produced for Bob Saget and Craig Ferguson are nominated for Grammy Awards.
BVW: That’s right.
GNN: Are those the first two Grammy Awards you were nominated for?
GNN: I always wonder because we see Grammy Awards as like a big honor. When you’re in the trenches, do you see it as, it’s about freaking time, or is it the honor people say it is?
BVW: The word I always come back to with this kind of thing, it’s just surreal. Because the thing that is very interesting about show business is for whatever reason, and I think I know why, but there’s scientists and engineers and plumbers and mechanics that are just doing their jobs and there’s no award shows for what they do. The way I look at my life and career, I’m just doing a job. And a hundred years before I was born, they start giving out awards for that job. So, for me, I produced two standup specials. Because it’s standup, we made albums. And, some people at the Grammy Association decided to give us a nomination. It’s that surreal and strange, but yeah, it’s a very surreal process.
GNN: So, again, over the years you’ve been part of at least again, four projects that have won Grammy Awards. Louis C.K. and Dave Chappelle, three times have actually won Grammys. Does it get make things any easier? Like in the third Austin Powers movie where they’re making the movie within a movie with Steven Spielberg and Austin says, “I have some feedback,” and Spielberg holds up one of his Oscars and he’s like, “Well, actually, this right here says that you don’t.”?
BVW: I try to be honest…I’m trying to give you an honest answer without coming off as an asshole or jaded. But I just– I don’t do anything for the awards.
BVW: Like, it’s not that they don’t matter. They do matter. They’re very important, but it’s just all I care about is the work. And, like. I’ll tell you a funny, weird, stupid story.
BVW: I’m in an Urban Outfitters. It was about 15 years ago, and there are these two girls in front of me on line at the cashier. And I’m waiting to pay, I’m bored, I’m not really paying attention to anything. And all of a sudden, I notice these two girls in front of me who are talking about the Dane Cook album that I had produced that came out a week earlier. I got more joy from that than I did from any nomination or win.
GNN: Nice. Well, I’ll give you some more joy. The Toys That Made Us and The Movies That Made Us, freaking fantastic.
BVW: Very kind. Thank you.
GNN: My pleasure. Now, let’s go back to you and your path to where you are now…your two companies. So, Comedy Dynamics, and let me make sure I’m getting this, The Nacelle Company. Explain to people, you are part of those two things, and they linked together on the web. What are they? How are they related?
BVW: Basically, what happened was I was an employee at New Wave, and every three or four years, my contract would be up. And the way I always renegotiated with the guy who owned New Wave was I would be like, “double my salary we’ll talk again in three years.” And basically, I guess, close to four years ago now, my salary was getting so crazy, it was just too risky for him to double it. There were three paths: path one was I just left and started my own company. Path two was we tried to find a way between where I was and doubling. And path three was we started a path that if milestones were hit, it would allow me to buy the company from the owner. And that’s the path we chose. I hit the milestones. And I wanted to change the name, so I changed the name of the company. I’ll be honest with you. I was going to call the company Comedy Dynamics. And thank God, one of my colleagues pointed out that we do stuff that wasn’t comedy. So, that’s when I was like, okay, so I came up with The Nacelle Company because you wouldn’t believe how many other things were already taken. And I wanted a term that if you were not a geek, it was just like, oh, that’s cool. I don’t know what that means, but that’s cool. But if you were a geek, you got it, you would understand what it meant. So that’s why I chose that name. And Nacelle owns Comedy Dynamics. So, the way I always describe it, Nacelle is to Viacom what Comedy Dynamics is to Comedy Central.
GNN: Gotcha, gotcha. So now, you have two companies, or you’re part of two companies. And you’re, I would say knee-deep…that doesn’t seem deep enough…you’re neck-deep now in producing specials and projects. Ali Wong, Tiffany Haddish, Kevin Hart, Jim Gaffigan, the list is insane. So, are these all still your picks? I mean, how many do you turn down? Are you going out and picking them? Are they coming to you at this point?
BVW: It’s about 80% they come to us; 15% I try to get them.
GNN: Then what is the other five?
BVW: The other five is I’m bad at math. So, it’s about 80-20.
GNN: Okay. I thought that there was going to be a zinger at the end. The 5% was going to be the punchline…
BVW: Yeah. No, no. That’s me and math.
GNN: So now, again, your career progression has seemed like a pretty steady climb. Did it feel that way at the time? Were there setbacks? What did it feel like as you progressed?
BVW: I mean, there’s been a billion setbacks. My point of view on my own career is everything was gut-wrenchingly awful and difficult until The Toys That Made Us came out. And after The Toys That Made Us came out, it’s been getting easier and easier, and more and more fun every year. And then Down to Earth with Zac Efron, that and The Toys That Made Us those were the two, like bam, bam, that just seemed to change everything for us. Yeah.
GNN: Gotcha. Gotcha. That’s nice. And I’m sure you’ve been asked this question a million times. I try to ask it anytime I’m sitting with anyone who’s succeeded in their field. I know it’s not easy to boil success down to one piece of advice, but is there anything that you can tell people…advice for people who want to do what you do?
BVW: I mean, the only advice I can give is the advice that I followed myself, which is I picked a goal. And no matter what went wrong, how often it went wrong, and how long it went wrong, I just never gave up.
GNN: Yeah. You talked about burning the boats. You burned the boats too, so you couldn’t get back.
BVW: I burned the boats. Yeah. So, I had no choice. And looking back, I mean, basically, what I did was I had the confidence or stupidity or whatever you want to call it, to jump off the cliff without a parachute. And if the first time I jumped, I did 99 things wrong and one thing right, the second time I jumped, I did 98 things wrong and 2 things right. And I just kept repeating that process over what’s now almost 23 years.
GNN: Is there anything you could…any pitfalls you could tell anyone to avoid?
BVW: I mean, it’s so cliché. But I’ll be honest with you, dude, I had to learn it. Don’t be a dick…
GNN: Are you kidding me? It’s good that you’re saying that that because I don’t think some people know that!
BVW: It never ceases. This happened to me last week. There’s a guy who, three or four years ago, was driving me insane about something. And the only reason I didn’t light him up like a Christmas tree was because I do everything humanly possible to not be a jerk. Thank God I wasn’t a jerk because this guy is now running a network. I don’t even know how he got the job. It’s completely baffling to me. I mean, this guy literally went from being like the eighth employee at an eight-person company that was having cash flow problems every day. And now, he’s running a network. I don’t get it, but that’s why you shouldn’t…and then, first of all, you should be a jerk anyway. But if you need a reason not to be a jerk, you never know where people are going to end up.
By the way, people have been jerks to me. I ain’t going to forget (laughs). To this day, I get people emailing me, “Brian, what’s up?” And I’ll write them back. I’ll be like, “I don’t know if you confused me with another Brian. Here’s what you did the last time we interacted.” And then, they all apologize and they’re like, “Oh, I was going through something.” That’s not my problem. It’s your problem. Just because I have something you want now, that don’t mean you’re forgiven. You shouldn’t be apologizing simultaneously with asking for something.
GNN: Right. Right. I know. I was just talking to someone about that the other day. It’s like, yeah, these people who want you to forget about how they wronged you when they need something…when I feel bad even reaching out to someone for something where I haven’t done them wrong…
BVW: Me too.
GNN: But I haven’t even reached out to them in a while and I’m reaching out because I need a favor. Makes me feel like a bit of a dick. Well, it gives me some small measure relief that at least it happens everywhere.
BVW: Oh, it’s everywhere.
GNN: So, now a few more quick questions…one question I like to ask anybody who’s in entertainment or creation. There are all these methods now. There’s TikTok and Instagram and YouTube and all these. There are more ways to be seen. But now there’s a more crowded marketplace. Now it’s harder to be seen in among all of these. Is there any way to cut through it and be seen? Is there any way? Do you think that social media and all these outlets for entertainment have done more harm than good as far as people getting seen?
BVW: I mean, if we’re only talking about being seen, it means that…I don’t think social media has done any harm. I think it’s been a major asset. I think it might be the end of human civilization at some point (laughs), but if we’re only talking about entertainment, I see no downside. The advice I would give is to focus on the material. Don’t worry about anything else. Because I’m saying that I learned at the very beginning of my career…I have seen, to be true, again and again and again. Talent rules. So, just make your shit is as funny as it should be or as serious as it should be or whatever, and the public will tell you if they like it or not. And if they like it, people are very aggressive about communicating how good something is. People love discovering things and sharing it.
GNN: That’s a good point.
BVW: But, if you worry about what people are going to think or where it’s going to end up, you’re focused on the wrong thing.
GNN: That’s really good advice. I’m starting to hear that as a consistent theme, too, as far as just create good stuff. Don’t worry about the marketing. It’ll kind of come. You know, like you said, people like to uncover, “Oh, look at this video I found.” And if you’re talented enough, it’ll happen for you. Wayne Federman, the last guy I interviewed was saying something like, “Get out there and practice in front of strangers,” Because he was saying that it’s a big chasm between making your friends laugh and making strangers laugh.
BVW: Yeah. Sure is.
GNN: I have friends that tell me I’m funny, but that’s a far cry from getting in front of people I don’t know. I just know that I’m quite happy with making my friends laugh at a restaurant or hanging out. And I’m good with that, doing my interviews for this site. But have you seen one consistent thing in stand-up comedians that are successful? Is there any one consistent thing or are they all just so far apart and different?
BVW: There are two consistent things all of them have in common. They’re brilliant. You can’t do it and not be brilliant. They’re all brilliant. And two, fearless. I cannot tell you. Even the greatest comedian ever, almost the amount of times they’re bombing, they probably have to go up 100 to 500 times of bombing before it clicks. It takes time for a new comedian to figure out who they are as perceived by the audience and what kind of jokes will work on that lane. That could take 100 to 200 bombs.
GNN: See, I don’t think most people could handle that.
BVW: So it’s the people that…I firmly believe any person, if they don’t give up for seven years, can become a B-plus comedian. Very few people become A-plus. And it’s very hard to go from B-plus to even A-minus. But if you don’t give up, you can absolutely make a living and become a B-plus comedian in seven years or less.
GNN: It’s funny you say that because that’s another question I started asking. A friend of mine went to improv classes, and that struck me as ironic that you’re learning to be spontaneous…but then, as I’ve talked to more performers and creators, I’ve learned that there are actual teachable skills. I’ve always been curious when I ask an author or an artist or a comedian or an actor, “Can you take someone who has zero…” I won’t say zero talent. But let’s just say ignorant of anything. “And could you teach them to draw, to compose music? Is it completely teachable with enough teaching? Can someone get good at something without that spark in them?”
BVW: The teaching with stand-up will create a base, but I would take a month of classes at the most and then just jump. Again, it’s all about time. You need time to figure out who the audience perceives you to be and then write your jokes to that perception. That takes time. So, go to class, learn some basics. Sure, why not? There’s no downside, but don’t use it as a crutch. I see that happen a lot.
GNN: Yeah. Like I said, I saw one guy. And there were six people performing at this improv show. And there was one guy. He might want to stop now and cut his losses. He was pretty bad…
BVW: There’s somebody on SNL right now. 15 years ago, I would have bet you everything I own they would be out of the business in six months.
BVW: Don’t give up. They will succeed.
GNN: All right. Well, that is interesting. It is interesting. Now it’s time for the lightning round. You created the documentary we’ve talked about, The Toys That Made Us. I read that you collect toys. What’s your favorite toy? What’s the gem in your collection?
BVW: There’s not one gem. There’s probably three to five. But this white Enterprise right here (points to Enterprise toy on shelf behind him) is one of them for sure.
GNN: Okay. That’s pretty cool.
BVW: They’ve probably been out of business for 30 years, very, very hard ship to find.
GNN: Okay. You also did The Movies That Made Us. If you could, right now, snap your fingers and have one done for a movie that hasn’t been done yet, what would you snap your fingers and do?
BVW: ’89 Batman.
GNN: I’m 100% behind that, absolutely fantastic. So, you have close to 350 producing credits, even more as a director. You’re only 44. It’s unreal. You’re like the nerd Wizard of Oz. Pay no attention to man behind the curtain. Is there anything else in your career you’re striving for? What’s next for your two companies? What’s the Magnum Opus?
BVW: I just want to keep doing stuff at a bigger and bigger level. We already kind of have the basics down, I think, knock on wood. Ultimately, I hope to produce our own…not Star Wars. I don’t want to produce Star Wars. But I want to create and or make our own Star Wars. That’s the minute that begins. That’ll be the last step of my career and the first step towards my retirement.
GNN: That is awesome. Where can people find you? Yeah, you’ve got some projects coming up. You’ve got the Disney project Behind the Attraction, which we talked about earlier. When and where will people be able to see that?
BVW: Disney+. We got The Movies That Made Us on Netflix, Down to Earth with Zac Efron. We just finished shooting season two. We got The Center Seat: 55 years of Star Trek. That’s on History Channel in September.
GNN: I thought I read something about Magic: the Gathering. You have something on that coming up?
BVW: That’s coming up. That’s in production.
GNN: And that will be seen on…?
BVW: We don’t know yet. It’s still in production. We haven’t even taken it out. It’s not done.
BVW: Yeah, and Facebook. I have my own Facebook page…I try and post whenever I have anything to say.
GNN: Fantastic. Well, Brian, thank you for your time! I really appreciate it.
BVW: Thank you so much. It was a lot of fun.