October 22, 2019

How one man’s funny business is fueling the growth of streaming comedy specials

“I just beg people. All day, all day,” Brian Volk-Weiss said only half-jokingly, as he hung up a phone that rang just as he began to describe what it’s like being one of America’s most influential (not his words) executives in the big — and growing bigger — arena of streaming stand-up comedy specials.

Volk-Weiss didn’t say who was on the other end of the call, just that it had been a show-runner for an NBC Sports show on car auctions. And he didn’t say exactly what the call was about, but judging by what he was saying — “What percentage of your decision is due to the money?.If we reduced the weeks even further, would that make a difference?.As you can tell, I really want to make this work.”— the talent was getting cold feet, and Volk-Weiss was offering his all to make sure the deal didn’t fall apart.

Volk-Weiss is the president of production of New Wave Entertainment and the head of its offshoot, Comedy Dynamics, the nation’s largest independent producer and distributor of one-hour comedy specials, and one of Netflix’s top sources of stand-up comedy shows. 

His job is to find the talent, then keep them happy, while dealing with managers and agents, closing deals and, along the way, making money for New Wave.

New Wave launched Comedy Dynamics in 2014, and Volk-Weiss’ credits include Jim Gaffigan’s “Obsessed,” Aziz Ansari’s “Buried Alive,” Marc Maron’s “Thinky Pain” and Bill Burr’s “I’m Sorry You Feel That Way.”

Volk-Weiss grew up in New York and moved out to Los Angeles in 1998 after graduating from the University of Iowa; he still has a healthy dose of his New York accent, along with that city’s high energy level. Tall, slim and slung across a black-leather chair in his office, Volk-Weiss described New Wave as the General Electric of entertainment.

“GE makes alarm clocks and submarines,” Volk-Weiss said. “There are millions of companies that do what we do separately. I am not aware of another company that houses everything [we do] under one roof.” 

The “everything” includes editing bays, computer-generated imagery robots, color and sound correction, and virtually anything that’s part of the post-production process. “If Jim Gaffigan says he wants to come in and work at 5 o’clock, and he has to be out at 8 o’clock, everything’s ready to go,” Volk-Weiss said. 

The one thing that New Wave and Comedy Dynamics don’t have in the Burbank headquarters is a sound stage for the performances. But that doesn’t preclude the company from going anywhere with a sound stage to produce a special (Washington, D.C.’s Warner Theatre, for example), meaning that from pre-production through filming through post-production, Volk-Weiss is involved. And he and Comedy Dynamics even produce content for their top competitor, Comedy Central — New Wave and actor/comedian Kevin Hart have a deal to air three of his specials on Comedy Central, then stream them on Comedy Dynamics’ channels on Hulu, Roku, Amazon Prime and other platforms.

“We’re trying to be the most respected, prestigious comedy brand out there,” Volk-Weiss said. Right now, Comedy Dynamics is the third-most  popular channel on Roku.

“No .1 is Comedy Central. No 2 is Looney Tunes,” he complained, “which, in my opinion, should be in children’s programming — and then it’s us.”

Volk-Weiss stopped managing in 2012 in order to focus on producing, but two years earlier, in 2010, while he was still doing both, his first major step into the production waters gave him a small taste of what was to come — a five-figure advance to comedian Tom Green that had Volk-Weiss’ name on it.

“That advance we made to Tom Green … I probably didn’t have a good night’s sleep for six months,” he said. “It was terrifying.”

Now, he said, five years and hundreds of comedy specials later, “At least once a week, I make a seven-figure guarantee,” Volk-Weiss said. “I sleep like a baby. It’s a nonissue.”

Married, with two kids, Volk-Weiss’ relationship with Judaism goes about as far as his bar mitzvah, more than two decades ago. “To say I do not practice,” he said, would be a “tremendous understatement.” He explained by sharing the story of his beloved grandfather (a picture of whom he carries around in his wallet), who escaped Vienna before the Nazis’ annexation of Austria in 1939, made it to New York aboard a boat from Barcelona and, shortly thereafter, Chicago, where he met his future wife (and Volk-Weiss’ grandmother), while Kristallnacht was occurring across Germany.

“When he got back from the war, he was not all about being Jewish, so he raised my mother, who raised me to …,” Volk-Weiss said, searching for a way to explain his secular upbringing. “Use this as the metaphor or the microcosm: When you fill out the form, and the thing comes, ‘What’s your religion?’… click ‘Other.’ ”

He said that before he and his wife married, they both understood that he’d have plenty of late nights at the office or out at shows, or in New York, or on the phone.

The call he received where he had to “beg” the showrunner is, he said, “the epitome of phone calls I never received in my life until about 18 months ago and now receive a couple times a week.“If I am successful in your eyes or other people’s eyes and I was asked to explain that success,” Volk-Weiss said, “it is saying ‘yes’ to that phone call again and again and again for 17 years.”