Comedy Insiders: Recording a Comedy Special: When Is It Time?

recording a comedy special brian volk-weiss

Brian Volk-Weiss of Comedy Dynamics Discusses When to Record Your Comedy

How do you know when you are ready to record your comedy? Is it different for an album versus an hour special? Should you wait, and how long? The comedy special business is booming. There are more outlets than ever before gobbling up recorded stand up comedy. Platforms like Netflix and EPIX have joined the more traditional buyers like HBO, Showtime and Comedy Central, and then there’s YouTube and Vimeo offering additional homes for your content, and of course there’s also the option of self producing and distributing. Brian Volk-Weiss is the President of Comedy Dynamics, the largest independent producer and distributor of recorded comedy in North America. As part of our new monthly series, we talked with Brian, who was very candid answering the big question: when is it time?

Don’t Record Your Comedy Prematurely and Don’t Trust Your Friends

Brian Volk-Weiss produces a huge amount of comedy. Last year, he told us that Comedy Dynamics alone helped create 41 specials. But even with a wealth of new buyers, he says, a comedian needs to be careful not to put out their material too soon. “I think its really good for an artist to always be recording themselves, but I just don’t think that an artist should be publicly exposing what they recorded until a certain period,” he said. Putting your work out there too soon can be detrimental. “No comedian is born brilliant and goes off and does their greatest work. It takes time.”

Find one person or a group of people that you really fucked over and hate your guts…Let those people watch your stuff.

The old adage that it takes a lifetime to become an overnight sensation holds true to him, particularly in a world where you can’t put your work back once you’ve released it. “Be very selective of what you put up there. I would strongly recommend that.” So how to you know when? Brian said asking your friends what they think isn’t helpful. “People are always saying– ‘this makes me laugh- my friends love it- people are telling me its great.‘ I’m always like, well this is what you should do. Find one person or a group of people that you really fucked over and hate your guts. Maybe an ex who caught you cheating or a dude you slept with his girlfriend. If you’re a female comic flip the analogy around. Find those people. Maybe you got caught stealing from a roommate in college. Find those people. Let those people watch your stuff. See what they think and if they like it, then it’s probably good.” Obviously Volk-Weiss doesn’t expect you to start looking up enemies and handing demos around- it’s neither realistic or healthy, but his point is well made. The people who are invested in you being happy, the people who don’t want to bum you out– don’t use them as your criteria even if they promise to be honest.

He’s a little less concerned when it comes to self-releasing audio. An album or Soundcloud clips are less harmful to your career even if they are premature. “Because it’s an audio medium. And then the Soundcloud algorithm is very different from the YouTube algorithm and you can take stuff down off Soundcloud in a way that you can’t on YouTube. I don’t think putting out a premature album is bad.” But there is still an emotional toll that comes along with putting your material out before you’re ready. Brian knows this first hand. “I wrote a book once and I thought it was the greatest book ever and nobody liked it so i know what it feels like to put a lot of time into something and no matter what i thought about the book my fellow human beings did not agree.”

How ‘They’ Know You’re Ready

“The answer,” Brian said, “is the antithesis of scientific method.”  The shorthand is, he goes with his gut, which isn’t very useful to thousands of comedy hopefuls.  He elaborated.  “So then the question of course becomes how does your gut become your gut. How do you analyze, what’s your process.”  There are a few things that go into his “gut.”

He described part of his process as similar to how Pageview works- the algorithm that powers Google search results.  “The way the algorithm works– it still works like this, although not as much as it did in the beginning. Pageview would organize links so if you looked up George Washington, the first link that would come up versus the last link that would come up was essentially based on how many other articles were coming out of an article and how often was a certain link clicked on.”

Of course, whether the artist makes him laugh,  and does he think the artist is funny, is part of his formula. Once he decides to do a special with someone, he said he’s committing to spending six to twelve months going over the set over and over again, listening to the same jokes.  “So is it someone who I would be comfortable hearing their same jokes over and over again from that show for six to twelve months? That’s definitely a factor.”

It’s not about me, it’s about the public. That’s the first thing.

But he’s careful not to only rely on his personal taste. “One of the things that I take a lot of pride in- we’re not judgmental. We don’t judge the audience.”  He recalled the days when he was a manager, and would become frustrated with the gatekeepers at the companies who would never do specials or tv shows with a comic who didn’t make them personally laugh.  “And it really struck a chord with me because I’m like– WHO ARE YOU to………   The guy selling 2000 tickets in January, he’s selling 4,000 tickets in March. Who are you…you’re supposed to be working for a company that is supposed to bring comedy to America that America likes. Who are you to not care about that statistic just because he doesn’t make you laugh. So I remembered that vividly. And this might be a strange thing to be proud of or brag about but…it’s not just my opinion. Our job is to figure out what America things and what America wants and hopefully pick the talent that America is excited to see.”  That means sometimes there are comics who make him laugh really really hard– but he won’t do a special with them.  “Because nobody wants to see it. It’s not about me, it’s about the public. That’s the first thing.”

He shared an example, with the names and gender discreetly kept to himself.  “It’s not a flattering story for them,” he told me. “I guess it was about three years ago,  it was Saturday morning. I had just landed in an unnamed city. So I land in an unnamed city and I’m driving to my hotel, and I get a call from an agent, very very well respected agent. And we’re talking shooting the shit, he’s also a buddy of mine and he goes, what are you doing? Where are ya? I go, oh I just landed at an unnamed city and we’re shooting so and so’s special tonight. There’s a pause and I don’t hear anything, and then he says to me, he says, you know you can say no right? And that special, which everybody made fun of me for- I mean everybody. Everybody was like, have you lost your mind?”  That special, Brian said, turned out to be one of the most popular specials. “And I’ll give you this clue. It ended up on Netflix and it’s one of Netflix’s best performing specials ever. And I knew.” He did give a few clues about the artist.  “They were not a household name as far as America, but they were very well known in the comedy community, and they had a terrible reputation for having terrible material and for not being a cool person or a very nice person.”

He added, “To me it was a no brainer. When everybody starts shitting on your opinion you start to question yourself naturally, but yeah I knew – and by the way, I predicted it would be a triple.  It ended up being a grand slam. So it was a very very big special that we did, that, like I said I’m very proud of. But man oh man did I get a lot of grief.”

Everyone Who is Ready Gets Found, 100% of the Time

Still confused?  Volk-Weiss promises that you will know. You will know.  You will know.  And he believes that others will know, and give you independent verification that your own radar is properly functioning. He cited as an example, the old story about J.K. Rowling, whose manuscript for the Harry Potter novels were rejected again and again– but eventually one publisher said yes.

“What I mean by that is, if you’re a stand up, if you’re a comedian and you’re doing sets and you’re doing sets and you’re in the same city, you’re in New York, you’re in Chicago, you’re in San Diego…wherever. At some point, hopefully, people who have been seeing you for a long time are going to start coming up to you and saying, hey man woah you really turned it around. Then you’ll get a call from a booker at a comedy club that you’ve never been to, trying to book you. Then you’ll get a call from a buddy saying hey man, my manager’s great she asked me if I could make an introduction. Those are the kind of calls when you start getting them where you can be..hmmm alright. Maybe I’ve turned a corner. Maybe I’m doing something here.”

At some point, hopefully, people who have been seeing you for a long time are going to start coming up to you and saying, hey man woah you really turned it around.

And he says, that independent verification will always happen.  “Absolutely,  100%,” he said.  Brian warns it might not happen as quickly as the artist would want, but he says it will happen if you’re good.  In the eighteen years he has been working in the business, he can only think of one time that goes against his ‘100% of the time’ statement. “There is one comedian whose name I can’t remember– and that says a lot– that is talked about by huge Bostonian comics who started out in the ’70s and they talk nostalgically about this one guy who didn’t make it. In 18 years of doing comedy that is the only person I’m aware of, that our community was like- oh that guy is so talented but oh he just didn’t make it.”

That doesn’t include the comics he describes as road dogs.  Really talented performers who he says “opt out.”  He explained, using Boston comedian Kenny Rogerson as an example. “Kenny, for lack of a better expression, he opted out. He made a lot of decisions that — to the best of my knowledge….he never moved to LA for example. To the best of my knowledge a lot of his friends who blew up were trying to help him and he didn’t want help. So he didn’t make it because, depending on how you look at it, he was either self-destructive or just didn’t want to be huge. One of the two.”

Another example he gave was comedian Gary Gulman, who he described “absolutely genius.”  Brian says Gary has remained a road dog by choice.  “I’ll give you who is in my top .00001 percent favorite comedians ever, and that’s Gary Gulman. Gary Gulman, you could make the argument is a road dog. I know Gary Gulman really well. I know him since I was not even in the triple digit days of my career. Gary has decided to be a road dog. That’s what he wants to do right now. I have no doubt in my mind that when Gary wants to be whoever he wants to be, he’s going to be that guy. He doesn’t live in LA, that’s a choice he made. He alternates between when he lives in NY or not. Those are his choices.”

Since he brought up the ‘move to LA’ twice, I asked him if he believes a move to Los Angeles is mandatory for comedians who want to make it.  His short answer is that while its possible to be a successful comic without living in Los Angeles, he believes not moving out west decreases your odds, and slows down the success timeframe.  “Fun fact. Seinfeld took place in New York, and shot in LA so if there’s any small story that makes that point, that’s it.”

Can You Be Too Cautious?

Just as there are those who rush into recording their comedy, Brian says there are others who are too hesitant. “I can’t say who but we’re working with a very big, very respected comedian now who has spent over half a decade getting his act ready and only now is finally feeling like he can record it and put it out in the world.”  Although many time the artist knows best, he says that’s not always the case. Some comedians over edit their material, and the result can be to edit great material right out of their sets.  “I’m biased from the standpoint of the public,” he said, and shared an example of what happens with over-editors.

“So you have a comedian going up 5 nights a week for a year. I don’t do this as much as I used to since I had kids, but I used to be out there between 1 and 5 times a week and I’d see an artist start working on a set in January and it was always so interesting to me. Lets say you break down their act into jokes A-Z.  In January they’re doing 26 jokes A to Z. By May they might be doing LMNOP through Z and they stop doing A through L. And we’ll record their special in August and we record the first show, and I’ll be like, what happened to joke E? I loved that joke.”  In between the shows, he says he’ll sometimes ask them.  “I would say to them, hey, I remember when I saw you in Irvine you had joke E, what happened to joke E? And the comic will either say oh I didn’t like it, I got rid of it or they’ll say oh I could pop joke E in right now if you want me to for the second show.”  He said it’s never made a second show worse, and at least 51% of the time the comic will say to him after the special is locked, “I’m so glad you brought up joke E, because I actually forgot about it and you’re right that was a great joke. Yes, sometimes they do over edit.”

The motto of Comedy Dynamics is “artist obsessed” because they’re alway trying to find out what America likes now, and what the country will like in the future.  And so far they’ve done a great job of it, choosing talent that they just know America is going to love.  “Thats a tricky thing to do. And we get it wrong every now and then but if I’m asked what is one of the things that I’m the most proud of in my career, definitely doing Moshe Kasher and Tom Segura’s first special. Very proud of that. We did Ali Wong’s first special and then Netflix ended up buying it. I’m very proud of that.”

You can still read our previous conversations about comedy with Brian Volk-Weiss. Earlier this year, Brian explained why we are currently in a Diamond Age of comedy.  Check back next month to see what we talk about next.

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