Brian Volk-Weiss is the president of Comedy Dynamics and has produced many comedy specials for some of the biggest names in the business. Now he is the executive producer of The Toys That Made Us, a new docu-series on Netflix. The show chronicles the creation and sales of some of the biggest toys like Star Wars, Barbie, GI Joe and He-Man. Brian talks about some of the amazing things he learned from making the show and reveals the next toy lines that will be featured.
Dustin: Love the show, by the way.
Brian: Thank you.
Dustin: I got to watch the first episode last night.
Jeff: I've seen all four.
Dustin: Definitely a good job, Jeff.
Jeff: I win.
Dustin: Jeff has more time. I mean it was really incredible. I found out a shit ton of stuff I had no idea about. I'm really curious how did this project come about? Did Netflix approach you or is this something that you had in mind?
Brian: No, no. Netflix did not approach me. That would have been nice.
Brian: The oriG.I.n oriG.I.n of the show is extremely simple as the show ... The premise of the show is extremely simple. I'm a huge toy collector. The oldest pieces of my collection, I mean, were toys I actually played with, so basically, playing with toys led to collecting toys. That's being going on 37, 38 years, and I'm 41. Then I'm also a huge history buff. I read all these books about World War II and the Civil War and world ... whatever. There are all these toys that I collected, and you'd have to sit there digG.I.ng and digG.I.ng with Google to find anything out about anything other than Star Wars or Barbie. Even Star Wars and Barbie, there was just so much stuff that was in conflict. You would have two or three people being interviewed over and over again. Even in those interviews, they would name other people who are a part of it, but those people who were named had never been interviewed. It was always interesting to me that there was 500 books about World War ... It's probably 2,000 books about World War II. He-Man was a huge thing for millions and millions of people all over the planet, and there was nothing about He-Man really. I just want to be clear. There was a documentary made before us. There has been stuff about He-Man. There have been books wrote about He-Man, which we read. But I really wanted to do a deep dive into the history of the toy. That was the oriG.I.n. I basically was pitching it for, probably, at least five or six years, maybe more. What we're very known for is stand-up comedy. We produce a lot of stand-up comedy, especially for Netflix. Because of that, I know a lot of the people that work there, so I just kept bugG.I.ng them. I would conservatively say it was for a year and a half. It might have been over two years, included in that five or six years, by the way. Eventually, one of the executives there was very kind and actually listened to what I had to say in detail and thought about it and said, "You know what? Here's the type of show we would do about this," and gave me direction as to what he thought would work on Netflix. We made a five-minute sales tape that basically showed how we would do a series about this. They loved the sales tape. They asked us for a treatment. We did a 20-page treatment that broke down the series episode by episode and then also showed how the whole thing would work in the long run. That's what finally did the trick, and they bought the show.
Dustin: That's awesome. I have two follow-up questions to that. How big is your toy collection?
Brian: I'm sitting in it right now. I mean it's got to be at least 450 unique objects.
Dustin: What's the bulk of it? Is it Simpsons characters?
Brian: No. I don't think I have a single Simpsons in here, funny you should say that. I would say, I mean without a doubt, the number-one biggest portion is Star Wars then probably a close tie between G.I. Joe and Star Trek.
Brian: Then right behind that would be a tie between Batman and Transformers.
Dustin: No Barbies?
Brian: No. Well, I do have two Barbie dolls now. The Barbie episode ... The two things we covered that I knew the least about was Barbie and He-Man. I bought my first He-Man figure ever about five months ago and my first Barbie dolls probably about three months ago, so I definitely have Barbie now. I don't know. I'm sorry, I don't know who's who, but I know one of you said you'd seen all four.
Jeff: That would be me.
Brian: The Barbie episode ... Sorry, who's that?
Jeff: That's Jeff.
Brian: Who's that? Jim?
Jeff: This is Jeff. Jeff.
Brian: Jeff, sorry.
Jeff: Yes. No, [inaudible 00:05:06].
Brian: Yeah, the Barbie doll that I bought was the one that had the eyes looking forward for the first time ever.
Jeff: That's cool.
Brian: Of everything I learned in these eight episodes, that was probably in the top three most interesting and powerful things I learned, so that's the one I got. Then, of course, I just, on general principle, had to get Malibu Barbie.
Jeff: Right, of course. It's great that you brought that up because after watching all four episodes ... For our listeners, the first four are on Netflix now. They cover Star Wars, Barbie, G.I. Joe, and He-Man. I was impressed with some of ... You were saying being able to talk to the myriad of people that you talked to, some of the stuff that you guys uncovered, I never knew, and I'm an avid collector of toys and love the history of it and stuff like that. I did not know that ... obviously, not collecting Barbie, but I did not know that Barbie didn't look forward until the '80s, and I thought that was really surprising. Another thing I thought was really surprising, in the Star Wars episode when they were talking about how, specifically, the Ewok line was repurposed for the Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves line in the '90s. All those toys were just kind of ... got new stickers slapped on them and a new coat of paint and were just ... and repackaged for that. The same thing happened to actual Star Wars toys. They took just random toys and slapped a Star Wars sticker on it and repurposed it and resold it. I didn't know that that was such a big thing in the toy industry was this recycling of toys.
Brian: Yeah. It's so funny you bring that up. As I said a couple minutes ago, we made that sales tape that got the show green-lit. In the meeting where we pitched the show, there were audible gasps from everybody when we showed the Gamorrean Guard became Friar Tuck. We redid it, of course, in a bigger, fancier way, but the only thing that literally happened in the sales tape that occurred in the series was that Gamorrean Guard/Friar Tuck thing, so I'm so glad you brought that up. Like I said, we updated it and made it pretty, but we did that almost shot for shot, so I'm so glad you brought that up. That's really funny.
Jeff: It was just so interesting to me because I think about, especially a property like Star Wars or even go towards G.I. Joe where there are just hundreds and hundreds of characters and, therefore, thousands of different versions of toys and that kind of stuff, but then the industry kind of eats itself and kind of repurposes itself like ... That's why I think a show like this works so well, and you're going to have four more episodes coming out in 2018.
Jeff: Can you talk about what toy lines those will deal with?
Brian: Yeah. It's Transformers, Lego, Hello Kitty, and Star Trek.
Jeff: Excellent, excellent. Those eight, I think, are probably some of the biggest, most iconic ... And I know, obviously, that's what the show was going for, but they're so ... You guys, I think, are touching upon a niche that ... It touches everybody. Whether you grew up in the '50s or the '80s, action figures, toys, dolls, they were a part of your everyday play. I feel like this show, the show that you're creating, The Toys That Made Us, could go for multiple seasons. Are you looking towards that?
Brian: I mean yeah. Yeah. I mean that would be ... That's the goal and the dream. I feel like there's still a lot of iconic lines that we haven't touched like Hot Wheels, Matchbox, Power Rangers, My Little Pony. So I think there are-
Jeff: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Brian: I mean, without a doubt, the number-one, top-of-the-list is the Ninja Turtles. Then, through Facebook and social media, one of the ... Other than Turtles, the number-one toy we keep getting asked to cover, if we get any more seasons, is WWE/WWF toys.
Dustin: I forgot about those.
Jeff: I didn't even think of that, either, but as soon as you said that-
Brian: Me neither.
Jeff: ... it dawns on me the amount of toys that ... because I remember being a kid in the '80s, and I remember having a Hulk Hogan action figure.
Dustin: Yeah, I did too. Yeah.
Jeff: For sure. I definitely had one of those. I mean you could collect all of them. But now with the rebranding and WWE and all the WCW and all these other factions, the toy line ... It never even dawned on me. That's amazing. That's so many toys.
Brian: Yeah. Very similar to the H-Man episode, the ... A, as I think I told you, I never played with He-Man. I didn't know anything about He-Man until about a year ago. But similar to that, I don't know anything about wrestling. I was never into wrestling, but because I've seen it come up so often, I've been Googling it. Very similar to He-Man, if not even more so, the people involved with making the toys are wonderful characters. Because we're not just going to make an episode because it's a big brand. It has to have interesting characters which, again, I feel like He-Man is the best example of the first four of just large ... The people that made He-Man were as interesting as He-Man, you could argue, if not more so.
Jeff: Oh, my God, yeah. Not to throw this word around, but I think that's probably the most controversial episode of the first four just because the handful of people that you interview about creating He-Man, and they kind of are all fighting for who actually created He-Man. That was interesting that there's that kind of behind the scenes of this underbelly of this industry. Did you find that with other toys as well throughout all your interviews?
Brian: Yeah, yeah. Yes. I mean the thing that I learned, having made the show, is that there ... With movies and books, there's usually one person, maybe two, responsible for something. In toys, it doesn't work that way. The business isn't structured that way. As you saw with the G.I. Joe show, even the guy who originally came up with the G.I. Joe figure to be the male version of Barbie, he didn't just go out and make it. He had to bring it to Hasbro, and then Hasbro had to involve dozens of people. It really is common. The He-Man thing ... and some people might absolutely disagree with me, but ... In fact, I'm sure a lot of people will disagree with me. The thing about the He-Man controversy is the people involved, they were just ... For whatever reason, that toy line had a lot of real characters gravitate towards it. If all you know about He-Man comes from our episode, if you were to watch ... There's another documentary, which I haven't seen, that was made about He-Man, and there's been a couple books written. The controversy is actually a lot crazier and overblown than what we showed in our episode. We really kind of toned it down, and we did that for two reasons. One reason was that's just not the kind of show we're making. We were trying to make a show that was about the fun, good, joyful history. We didn't want to sugar coat, or hide things, or cover up things, so we did acknowledge it, but we didn't ... We definitely could have played it up into this much bigger thing. But at the end of the day, when we interviewed these guys who supposedly hated each other, but they really don't, these people that all work together, some of them for decades, what we really found out was the big overall story was, "Oh, you stole this. You stole that." But once you really got into it and you talked to these guys and you asked detailed questions ... This is the other thing. We would interview people then interview someone else. Sometimes we would go back to the first person because we had learned more. Marty Abrams, we interviewed him, I think, three times.
Jeff: Oh, wow.
Brian: Marc Pevers, who was in the Star Wars episode, we interviewed him. Where is he? He's in Palm Springs. We went there twice. With the He-Man of it all, we really started asking nuanced questions. What we learned, which is in the show, is one guy sort of invented He-Man, but he admits ... We even put this in the show. He admits he didn't invent Skeletor. He takes credit for the beginnings, but he freely admits he didn't ... Once we told the other people that he had said that, people were like, "Oh, well, that's kind of true." Other shows I've done, we try and stoke fires and like, "Oh, she said this. He said that." This one, we just really wanted to get to the essence of the story and have it be enjoyable. We didn't want people turned off by anger or rage that, by the way, we truthfully really didn't find.
Jeff: Right. Like you said before, what was interesting about the show is you guys are not only coming from a place of The Toys That Made Us but really involving the characters that created these toys and uncovering some of those stories, which I think is really interesting.
Jeff: One of the questions I wanted to ask you was each episode, which I thought was an incredible choice, but I'm kind of curious as to where the choice came from, each episode starts with a very-well-put-together reenactment of a iconic moment of the toys.
Brian: Thank you.
Jeff: In Star Wars, they bring the guy in to see the Millennium Falcon for the first time, and his jaw hits the floor. It looks real. You guys did a great job on it. Where did that idea come from?
Brian: It's a great question, man. It just was always there. I've produced a lot of TV shows. It's funny. No one's asked me this before. It's a great question. Here's my answer to that question as best ... Like I said, I haven't really thought about this before because, like I said, I've been working on this for over half a decade. I think a lot of the inspiration came from, A, I've produced a lot of television, and that's just kind of what we do. It's a great way to start an episode, and it just brings people in. It also says to the audience from the first second, "Hey, we put a lot of time and love into this show, so give it a chance." The other thing is, and I'm just being honest, I just ... I don't know why. I'm sorry I'm rambling. Like I said, I haven't thought about this in a long time. Like I said, I'm a big history buff. I've seen a lot of documentaries about history, and they're always doing reenactments of history. I really think the origin of this idea ... I just wanted to recreate ILM.
Jeff: That's awesome.
Brian: I've been obsessed with ILM since I was a little kid. We filmed in the building where it took place-
Jeff: Oh, so cool.
Brian: ... where the real ILM was. We didn't shoot exactly ... It's in the same building. Basically, the same building is divided into three to five little sections that are all the same. Where ILM happened, we couldn't film in there because it just ... There's too much heavy equipment in there that could be moved for what is in there now. It's a company that makes big, fancy signs. We filmed within the same ... under the same roof two sections down.
Jeff: Oh, wow.
Brian: Yeah. I just wanted to recreate ILM. I'm looking at a picture I have right now of the real ILM and the ILM we built. Even from five feet away, looking at this picture, I mean you really can't tell the difference. We matched the same .... what people were wearing. We didn't pull a James Cameron with Titanic by any stretch of the imagination, but it's like somebody ... There were five people in the famous picture that we recreated. If there was a guy in a red flannel, we had red flannel. That whole thing there with the Millennium Falcon, the whole Death Star docking bay, I mean that was all there. I mean none of that was CGI.
Jeff: I'll tell you right now-
Brian: Millennium Falcon was CGI, but we had a real model there that it was built out on.
Jeff: I'll tell you right now I'm an incredibly huge Star Wars fan, and I did a double take when ... That's the first episode, and I was all excited for this show to come out. I put on that first episode, and it starts with that recreation. You guys did such a good job. I've seen all the behind the scenes of Star Wars and all of the old-school photos of them at ILM and stuff, and it really made me do a double take like, "Is this actual footage?" I was like, "No, it looks too good to be actual footage. It's too HD." You guys did a really good job. You did that for every episode, which I thought was, like you said, really fun, really draws you into it, and I kind of-
Dustin: That's almost like a guy's discovering his religion for the first time.
Jeff: Right, exactly.
Dustin: It's some moment.
Jeff: I got to ask, though ... and Dustin, you haven't seen this episode yet, but-
Jeff: The beginning of the Barbie episode, the recreation with Jack Ryan there-
Brian: [crosstalk 00:19:13]-
Jeff: ... filing off the nipples, is that actual?
Jeff: That's real? That actually happened?
Brian: A thousand percent real.
Jeff: That's incredible.
Dustin: That's so twisted.
Brian: Yeah, yeah.
Jeff: What's great about that little scene is it's another reenactment. If you've watched Star Wars, you already kind of know where the show is going, so you're like, "Okay, I get what this is," but you do that with no regard. There's no explanation afterwards. There's no nothing. I started watching the episode, and then I was like, "Wait. Go back to that. Go back to the nipple filing part." I thought that was really well done.
Brian: What we tried to do with all the openings was give a story that very quickly explained the essence of that toy but also, especially with Barbie, explained the essence of those two people. It was just a great story because it said a lot about Ruth, it said a lot about Jack, and it said a lot about Barbie. Again, you really want to start the show off, every episode, in a way that pulls people in. Pretty jazzed about that throughout that story.
Jeff: Oh, yeah. No, that's pretty, pretty, pretty great.
Dustin: I thought you might have some insight on this idea. Music, fashion and pop culture, it kind of seems to repeat. For example, 15 years ago, every girl was wearing bell bottoms. Now we see synth music coming back. We see comic books, especially in the theater, just blowing up. We're seeing action figures come back, even down to a company that we're familiar with, Sideshow Collectibles. They make the biggest, most bad-ass action figures I've ever seen in my entire life. It's all becoming popular again. Do you believe that we're revisiting the '80s or is it just a result of people who were from those eras are now running the industries?
Brian: I think it's two things, one of them kind of cool, the other one not so cool. I think you hit the nail on the head. I think part of it is people like me are turning 40 and now have more ... Like I said, I was trying to sell the show for a long time. It took me a while to sell it. Maybe that was lucky because the show sold when it was more relevant than had it sold five, six, or seven years ago. I think that's a big part of it. I also think that, connected to this point, nostalgia, just in general, is a very common thing that happens to everybody. But thanks to YouTube and social media, there's never been an easier, better time to "get your nostalgia fix" just because you ... In the '80s, it was literally, unless you went to the Library of Congress or the TV museum in Staten Island or whatever, you couldn't watch a commercial from the '50s. Now you Google 1980s commercial and you can watch every commercial, pretty much, that's ever been made. That's the first thing. That's the cool one. The uncool one, the second one is, accurate or not accurate ... I'm not going to get into this debate, but I think there is a perception that we, as a country, and we, as a people, were better in the '80s and '90s than we are now. I think that these toys, in many ways, nationally, are just reminding people. I mean I will say I think that's a bit ridiculous. I think a lot of it is when you're a kid, you don't understand ... You say the word terrorist when you're eight years old for a bad guy, you don't know what that means. You don't know what the means. Who you are at eight years old is this very innocent soul. When you're 15, let alone 25, it's not that your innocence is gone because you've done bad things, necessarily, but your innocence is gone because you know what a terrorist is. You know what venereal diseases are. You probably know someone who's been very sick with cancer. When you see these toys and these things come back, it just reminds you of who you were at a time in your life when you might not think about it, but you weren't dominated by all these negative things that just are normal course of living on planet Earth during any time.
Jeff: Right, right.
Dustin: Yeah. It's kind of like the ugly side of the coin to nostalgia, our security blanket. We're just kind of trying to grasp on because it feels safe, but it's just almost unhealthy nostalgia.
Brian: Yeah, yeah.
Jeff: I think that's a cyclical argument, though. I mean you go back to the '80s, and the parents in the '80s would think fondly back of the '60s and the '50s and be like, "That was the greatest generation. That was when the country was good."
Brian: That's entirely accurate. One of my favorite things that always cracks me up, and we didn't put it in the show because we had to be very careful, especially with Star Wars and Star Trek, to make sure that we were always talking about the toy, and we didn't get into the movie, but one of the things about the toy that was in the first cut of Star Wars ... The first cut of Star Wars was almost two-and-a-half hours long, so we had to cut a lot out of it. One of the things that everybody forgets about Star Wars, to the point you're making, is when George Lucas wrote it and when the audience saw it, the Rebels were the Vietnamese and the Empire was the United States. But when I was three years old, I didn't understand that, to put it mildly. In fact, I was probably in my 30s by the time I understood what that was about. That's a great example of the adults made something that was completely lost on the kids.
Dustin: Yeah. Yeah, I'd say I didn't even know that.
Jeff: Oh, yeah.
Jeff: It goes back to what you said earlier. When you're an eight-year-old-
Dustin: Wait. Was George Lucas sympathetic to the Vietnamese? Is that-
Dustin: That's crazy.
Brian: Absolutely. Just so you know, this is not a theory of mine. This is a very well-documented thing that George Lucas has repeatedly spoken of.
Jeff: That translates to all these different toy lines because, like you were saying, you're an eight-year-old playing with these toys, and the larger picture is lost on you. You brought up an eight-year-old says the word terrorist but doesn't really know what it is. I always tell this story. Actually, when I was eight years old, I got in trouble with my mother, and she told me I had to stop watching G.I. Joe because I called her one of the names that G.I. Joe called Cobra. It was like a slimy terrorist or something, some buzz word that they were yelling at Cobra at something. I got mad and my mom for something-
Jeff: ... because she took a toy away or something, so I called her that name. She's like, "Where did you learn that from?" I was like, "G.I. Joe." She's like, "You can't ... " I couldn't watch G.I. Joe for like a month.
Brian: That's funny.
Dustin: Well, if you think about it, that would be a great way for George Lucas to show his view on the Vietnamese war without being so controversial that people just totally look past it and-
Dustin: ... just think, "Oh, you're siding with the enemy." Instead, he's G.I.ving you a totally brand-new story to give you some idea of what it's like to sympathize with your enemy, which is actually really, really cool.
Jeff: We touched upon it a little bit earlier. You are a producer of not just this show, but also, you are the president of Comedy Dynamics, which produces some of my favorite comedy specials on Netflix-
Dustin: Yeah, all the big guys.
Jeff: ... and all sorts of other places. I wanted to ask you, as someone who is not only producing all of this amazing comedy but then has a project like The Toys That Made Us ... Like you said, it took you years to really pitch this and get this done. It's a pet project of yours. We ask this question of every guest we have on the show. What fuels you to actually keep going out there and finding these new projects and creating incredible entertainment for the rest of us to enjoy?
Brian: It's a very simple thing. There's no greater feeling that I'm aware of outside of my family. There's no greater feeling than somebody telling you an emotional reaction that they have to something you helped create. From people telling me they love the Star Wars episode or the Barbie episode to they love one of the comedy specials that we made, it's just ... It is the great ... Again, I've been doing this for almost 20 years. The feeling that some guy in Kentucky or some girl in Madrid watched something that you were a part of, there's no greater feeling. Just talking to people about it is ... It's the greatest feeling in the world just being a part of that. It's funny. I'm friends with a heart surgeon, and I'm absolutely fascinated by what he does, and he's fascinated with what I do. It's just really interesting because, from my point of view, this guy is literally saving lives, obviously. He's doing some crazy shit with scalpels, and microscopes, and cameras, and lasers. I mean it's unreal what he does. We talk about it all the time. The thing which I am very fortunate in the career path that I chose is, if you're a surgeon, you're really working with people one at a time, and if you're lucky, maybe they'll send you a Christmas card a year later. But when you're a TV producer or a movie producer, I get emails, and socia media, and texts, and whatever all the time from people seeing stuff that I did 15 years ago. It's the greatest feeling in the world. That is, without a doubt, the single most important driver that I have.
Dustin: That's awesome.
Jeff: Yeah, I like that.
Dustin: Is there any comedian that you haven't worked with that you'd like to work with?
Brian: The main two are dead. Unfortunately, I didn't get to work with Carlin. I never even met Carlin. I never even saw him. Also, Richard Pryor, I never met him or even saw him. That's very depressing to me. But if I'm not to take a cheesy kind of BS answer to your question, the two people that I am dying to work with more than anybody, without a doubt, that I haven't worked with, would be Dave Chappelle and, if he ever does stand-up again, which I think he will, would be Eddie Murphy.
Jeff: Oh, wow.
Dustin: Oh, nice.
Brian: Those would be very, very, very ... not very high on the list. That would be tied for first place.
Brian: I'd like to work with Chris Rock as well. He's someone who I've met a bunch of times, but I've never worked with him. He's another one who literally can read the phone book and make me laugh.
Jeff: That's true.
Brian: Yeah, it would probably be those three.
Jeff: That's awesome. Finally, I wanted to end of this question because the word producer is thrown around all the time. I mean you see it in the credits of anything that you consume in entertainment. I'm curious, as a producer of a comedy special, does your job differentiate ... Is there a big difference as producing a comedy special as producing something like The Toys That Made Us? Is your job more involved?
Brian: Other than the fact that we're dealing with something that ultimately will be on a television set in people's homes, there's ... and the fact that we're using cameras, there's really nothing in common. I'm glad you asked the questions because I just ... I really want to give a shout out to Netflix because they ... We're famous for making stand-up specials. All we've done for Netflix before this was make stand-up specials. The fact that they trusted us with eight episodes, a series, which is, financially and politically, exponentially a more dangerous green light for an executive, yeah, they took a huge risk allowing a ... Yeah, and don't get me wrong. We've done lots of stuff that hasn't been stand-up, but for Netflix, we had never done anything that wasn't stand-up. Everything we've done other than stand-up was pure comedy. We've done sketch shows and whatever. Yes, I know we injected a lot of humor into every episode, and that's definitely because of my comedy leanings, but this was not a comedy. Netflix really ... They just let us do what we wanted to do. Like I said, the first cut of Star Wars was almost two and a half hours long, and they very gently helped mold a show that would not only appeal to the 0.01% of fans, because nobody ... Even me, I don't want to see it if I didn't make it. Even if I made it, I don't want to see a two-and-a-half-hour episode about Star Wars toys.
Dustin: Right. Jeff would.
Brian: Yeah, right? Exactly. Yeah, they were just so supportive. They gave us notes sometimes that we pushed back on, and they always said, "Hey, it's your show." 98% of their notes we listened to, but 2% we pushed back on, and they always respected it. We absolutely made a better show because of the guidance that we got from them.
Jeff: That's so cool. Well, I think you guys made something that is pretty special because it not only is very entertaining and filled with nostalgia, obviously, for people that grew up with these toys, but I think it really tells the stories that are worth telling. We've talked about it in this episode. I personally, like yourself, didn't really know much about Barbie. That entire world is brand-new to me now, knowing all the different stories that came from that. Each episode is chock full of that kind of stuff. I'm very excited for the next four episodes that are coming out in 2018. I really hope that the response is as big as it possibly can be so you guys can make multiple seasons of this and we can just get every toy ever.
Brian: Amen to that. That's all I could say. Amen.
Brian: God willing, that's the case.
Jeff: Yeah. Thanks again so much, Brian, for taking the time to talk with us.
Dustin: Yeah, it was really great to talk to you, man.