November 15, 2019

Online Exclusive: Writer, Director, Producer Brian Volk-Weiss Discusses ‘Discontinued’

From left, Brian Volk-Weiss and John Dykstra. Photo from Instagram.

‘Discontinued,’ a show from the creator of the popular Netflix docuseries “The Toys That Made Us,” premiered on Dec. 16 on The CW. The special –  hosted by YouTube star Andre Meadows – is a humorous and informative look at the rise and fall of the world’s most famous (and sometimes infamous) discontinued foods, toys, customs and businesses. The show takes viewers down memory lane recounting the rise and fall of these fallen pop culture titans, with the help of surprise special guests, “insider” experts, and a bevy of hilarious comics.

Creator and director Brian Volk-Weiss has worked on plenty more projects than “Discontinued” and “The Toys That Made Us,” to say the least. He is the founder and current CEO of Comedy Dynamics, through which he has produced stand-up specials and/or comedy albums for the likes of Marc Maron, Ali Wong, Kevin Hart, Jim Gaffigan and Bob Saget, to name a few comics. In fact, when you look at the Grammy nominations for “Best Comedy Album” for the past few years, Volk-Weiss seems to have worked on more of the nominated albums than not.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Volk-Weiss – a New York native based in Los Angeles – by phone the day after “Discontinued” aired on The CW.  

Jewish Journal: “Discontinued” seems like a great continuation to “The Toys That Made Us.” Was that intentional?

Brian Volk-Weiss: No. In fact I came up with “Discontinued” at least four, maybe as many as five years, before “Toys That Made Us.” So we had made a tape, I had taken it out to market, it did not sell, and as any good or bad producer will do I just kept over and over again trying to sell it. It is connected to “Toys That Made Us” in that the success of “Toys That Made Us” reflected well on our company for producing nostalgia and pop culture programming instead of just comedy, straight-up comedy.

So I was having a meeting, or a lunch I should say, with an executive at the CW who I have lunch with twice a year for like three or four years, and he was telling me how much he loved “Toys That Made Us,” and I was like, “Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.” And then basically he was like, “Well what else you got?”… I pitched him “Discontinued,” and they loved it even though the tape was so old there was a section in the tape where we predicted things would be discontinued, and almost all of them had already been discontinued; like Radio Shack, or Blackberry, and stuff like that. So yeah, that’s how that all came about.

JJ: And I see in the end of that first episode, that you had to update that Toys-R-Us came back to life. When did you finish the episode compared to having to do all the retakes?

BV-W: Well, we actually locked the episode, at the most, four days before it aired. So we delivered it right until the very end. The Toys-R-Us thing, I’ll be completely honest with you, in my opinion it’s just, it’s bulls**t… It’s like, the way every four or five years you hear that Pan Am is back, and then you find out some regional air carrier auctioned the rights to the name and slapped it on the side of their plane, and two planes flying between Bozeman, Montana, and Chicago is Pan Am.

It’ll be very similar with Toys-R-Us in that it can’t come back, because the real secret to Toys-R-Us, which is all but impossible to replicate, is the distribution model they had. So that has been completely shut down and disbanded. The trucks are gone, the fulfillment centers have been sold. All of that is gone. So you’re left with a brand that every Christmas Target, or Walmart or Amazon will license and be like, “Toys-R-Us is back.”

So that all being said, I didn’t want people criticizing the show saying, “Oh, they got it wrong, Toys-R-Us isn’t discontinued.” So we added that little tag at the very end.

JJ: Well what do you think the fate is going to be of Blockbuster? When I was in Denmark a couple years ago, I saw that they did have Blockbusters there.

BV-W: Yeah, I think Blockbuster is not coming back. I think that in certain markets with certain specific variables to that market, it’ll exist until they stop making VHS tapes or DVDs, which is very soon. I am sure, five years at the most, probably two or three remain for DVD and Blu Ray production, in a meaningful way…

We put this in the show, but they were killed largely because of late fees and other things like that. Everybody thinks Netflix put them out of business. Netflix may have been the final straw, but I mean… They started to lose their leverage probably five years before they went out of business, and if they had pivoted at that point they would have survived. So it wasn’t just Netflix. Netflix was part of, but far from the only thing.

JJ: So I only had the pleasure of seeing your first episode. How many episodes are there going to be of the show? Any idea?

BV-W: Well it’s a “backdoor pilot.” So similar to the reboot of ‘Battlestar Galactica,’ if the show does well there will be more. And if it doesn’t do well, there won’t be more.

JJ: Well, best of luck with all that. If it didn’t go, you’re the kind of person that has so many projects going on at any given time that it’s really inspiring and amazing. So I’m curious what you would identify as primarily. Are you a producer? Are you a director? Are you a studio head? How to you like to be thought of?

BV-W: I’m basically going to use your terminology. I’m a studio head who every now and then directs and every now and then produces. You know, the thing about producing, if I’m being completely candid — which I always am — but when you’re a producer… Sometimes you produce something and all you get is a “special thanks” credit. Sometimes you don’t do anything and you get a producer credit…

So it’s one of the reasons why there’s a lot of confusion as to what producers do, but by the nature of my job and the fact that I own the company, I get to be a “producer” on everything. That being said, there are certainly some shows where I’m involved on a minute-to-minute basis, and then there are some shows where I’m not. ‘Toys That Made Us’ and “Discontinued” is definitely one of the shows where I’m involved minute to minute.

JJ: When you came out to Hollywood in the first place, I know that you had some interesting credits in terms of costuming and being a production assistant. What was the plan at the beginning? Did you want to be a comedy writer or a director?

BV-W: When I got out here, I just wanted to direct. All I ever wanted to do was direct. That was directly connected to seeing “Star Wars” at such a young age. I was barely three when I saw it… I didn’t know this word when I was three years old, but I basically thought the movie is what you and I would call a “documentary.” I thought it was real…

My mom was getting freaked out about me… People would be like, “Hey, what do you want to be when you grow up?” And I was like, “Oh, I want to join the rebellion and fly an X-Wing.” So my mom got me this book that showed me C3PO with his mask off… So ever since I read that book I wanted to be a director. That’s what I studied in college.

Then I got out to L.A. and I basically realized that my brain and outlook in life is better suited to producing, because when you’re directing, you’re really focused on one thing for a year or two. But when you’re a producer, you’re focused on lots, and lots, and lots of things… My brain is wired not to work on only one thing at a time.

And the other thing also I would say, is it was just so much riskier to try and become a director than to do the path that I did do. Because basically back in 1998 when I got to L.A., for me to have made a film it would have to have actually been on film. I would have had to have maxed out $100,000-$200,000 worth of credit cards…

Then this is the third thing, I don’t know if I was that talented. Or even if I was talented, I don’t know if what I would make as a movie would be popular with whoever was running Sundance, let alone the general public. So it was all of these things combined where I was like, “Nah, I’m going to produce.”

JJ: Well what exactly was it that took you to the comedy path, specifically?

BV-W: I always liked comedy… It was far from my favorite genre. I always liked it, I always respected it, I always thought it was great. I was really into Bill Cosby, and George Carlin and, of course, Eddie Murphy. But it wasn’t like a crazy thing for me, it was just something I was into a little bit. Science fiction was like my big thing.

So basically, I was in Hollywood working for free for almost a year doing all these different jobs and I was almost completely out of money, and I had heard about this job that there was an assistant looking to replace himself that was getting paid… $200 a week cash, and I was completely out of money, and that’s why I took the job. And the job was assisting a manager who only represented comedians. So that was kind of random and lucky, and as I was working for him I started going to stand-up clubs and I loved it. I absolutely fell in love with it, and it changed the course of my career.

JJ: Was that manager Barry Katz?

BV-W: It was, indeed.

JJ: Got it. So that would explain how you wound up on the Dane Cook path.

BV-W: It does, indeed. That is exactly how it happened.

JJ: Well I have to say, I really admire the business model that you created with Comedy Dynamics, in terms of producing stand-up specials for people who HBO helped put on the map and then sort of forgot about in a way. It’s almost like that you’ve become the Rhino Records of stand-up. Is that a comparison that you mind?

BV-W: First of all, I take pride in you saying that. I don’t know if we deserve that credit just yet, but I know what you mean by that. I know the history of that company very well, and I take that as a compliment. Believe me.

JJ: Well I was curious about the Comedy Dynamics Classics arm of it, that you worked with Bill Hicks’ estate and Sam Kinison’s estate. For comics like that, is there a lot of unreleased material?

BV-W: Tons. I mean, Bill Hicks… We just literally put out a new Bill Hicks record two weeks ago. [Editor’s Note: Bill Hicks passed away in 1994.] And I would say we’ve put out at least one or two a year for the last five years. So yeah, that’s like, tons. Not everybody has that. Kinison does not have as much as Hicks.

But we’re doing a deal now, I can’t say yet who it is, but I mean we just got 19 boxes of material that literally barely fit in a gigantic trunk. So yeah, a lot of these comics… either they themselves or the people around them save everything. And we have been very lucky to get to do that kind of thing.

JJ: And is all of that going to persevere with the streaming business model? Or do you see Comedy Dynamics then having to change its path?

BV-W: I wish there was a word stronger than “persevere,” because it’s more than that. Streaming is allowing us… I mean, basically I would say before streaming it was like, propellers. And the advent of streaming maybe about six years ago was the beginning of the jet age. And what streaming is becoming this year, and is obviously going to be continuing for at least another four or five years, is like us having rocket engines…

The whole model, everything we’ve done is based on a book that I read in 2006 called “The Long Tail.” And I don’t know how familiar you are with that book or not, but it’s a business book, and the reason why I always mention what year I read it is because it came out a year before the iPhone. It came out the same year as YouTube. Netflix was not even thinking of streaming yet, probably. So it really predicted everything that came, and the main thing it predicted was this thing called “unlimited shelf space.”

So when I read the book, everybody had to go to Walmart or Target or Tower Records to get stuff, and those companies would only stock the product that would sell the best because they had finite shelf space. So what the book did was it predicted a time when there would be unlimited shelf space… That time really started about three years ago, four years ago, but it just kicked into high gear like this year… And it’s just going to keep blowing up.

So you know, we have a library. The library does what it does, but now instead of sending it to four places a month, we send it to 160 places a month. So that’s what streaming has created.

JJ: And over to you, is there anything that you miss about living in New York?

BV-W: I don’t know, everything. It’s the greatest city on Earth. I was just there last week. It’s the greatest city in the whole world. I wish I could do what I do there. And everyone says you can, but I can’t. Not what I do. I have to be here. And I’m not the biggest fan of Los Angeles. I’m going to be a little diplomatic right now, but I definitely miss the East Coast. I miss New York so much, and I’m pretty sure I’m going to be retiring out there. Hopefully.

JJ: So ultimately is there anything in your career you haven’t yet accomplished that you’re still hoping to do?

BV-W: I’d like to get at least nominated for an Emmy. I really feel sometimes that everybody I know has like five Emmys, but me, and I haven’t even been nominated so I would love that. It’d be great to get nominated for an Oscar, but you know, who knows?

I feel like I’ve had a very blessed career in terms of output. I’ve made a lot and it’s been well received by the public. I do not feel that we get celebrated for the quality of our work by the various award shows, and listen, it is what it is. I’m not angry or bitter or depressed about it. Nothing’s perfect. There’s people who have won a million awards and no one’s heard of them, so I would much rather be where we are than that… We’ve been nominated for a million Grammys, so we do have that and I’m very honored with that. But yeah, I’d like to at least be nominated for an Emmy.

And then the other thing I really want to do before I hang up the spurs, or the cleats, or whatever analogy you choose. I really want to make a big science fiction movie. I want to make a big, big, big movie that at least tries to do for the public what “Star Wars” did for me, and I am pretty sure that if I get the opportunity to do that’ll be the last thing I do before going to teach communications at a small school that nobody’s ever heard of.

JJ: (laughs) That’s great. So in closing, any last words for the kids?

BV-W: If anybody’s out there and they view what I’ve done in any way as good or inspiring or impressive or as accomplishing, if they feel that way about what I’ve done at all, the No. 1  thing that I would attribute what I have done is… and I don’t feel successful yet. I don’t feel accomplished yet, myself.

But if other people look at what I’ve done and they feel that way about me, and if they were to say… What’s the thing that you did that allowed you to do what you’ve done? It is literally that every day I came to work and I worked, and I fought. And no matter how bad things were, I’ve had bad days, I’ve had bad weeks, I’ve had bad years. I’ve just never stopped. I’ve never given up.

I’ve had bad moments where, and there’s a great song I quote, where I was down to my last match. And I’ve been down to my last match three or four times, and as long as you keep fighting you’ll always keep moving upwards. The majority of the people I know that have not succeeded, I would completely attribute it to they just quit. So as long as you never quit, you’ll always succeed…

Now I’m going to really get on my soapbox. But if you’ve been lucky enough to be born in this country, as long as you don’t quit… So I don’t know who’s going to read this or hear about this in other countries, but if you are lucky enough to be born in the United States, just don’t quit and you will succeed.

More on Brian Volk can be found by following Volk-Weiss on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook via @BrianVolkWeiss, while Comedy Dynamics keeps a home online at www.comedydynamics