Jeffrey Gurian is a comedian and writer in New York City. He spent the day with Brian Volk-Weiss, president of Comedy Dynamics. The interview has been reproduced in its entirety below.
Those who know me know that I don’t only write about the comics. I also like to write about the people behind the scenes, the people who bring the comics to the public. Club owners, producers, managers, agents, bookers! Without them, no one would have a career. Most comics only know how to write and tell jokes. If it was up to them to get their material out to the world, no one would be famous! It would be as effective as standing on the highway, yelling out jokes to passing cars! You can have all the talent in the universe, but if no one with access to major technology takes notice, no one will hear your material but your family, and they mostly don’t care!
This week I had the pleasure of sitting down with one of the most powerful comedy producers in the biz, Brian Volk-Weiss the young (only 38!) President of Comedy Dynamics, the largest independent producer and distributor of one-hour comedy specials in the United States. They produce just about every big comedy special you see on Hulu, HBO, Netflix, and almost anywhere you can watch comedy, with stars like Bill Burr,
Jim Gaffigan, Aziz Ansari, D.L. Hughley, Nick Cannon, Craig Ferguson and on and on!
Before I tell you all about our get together, and the fun time we had, I’ll give you the stats. Comedy Dynamics, was until this past July New Wave Dynamics, a multi-platform production and distribution company based in Burbank, CA, formed by Brian in 2008 to distribute stand-up comedy specials produced by his original company New Wave Entertainment. Since it became Comedy Dynamics this past July it’s been blowing up bigger than ever. It specializes in being the home of not only established talent but most importantly emerging talent. Brian trusts his comedy intuition. For instance he’s proud that he gave Iliza Shlesinger, and Moshe Kasher specials before they blew up, even when some industry people thought it was premature. He wants Comedy Dynamics to be a destination for all comics who have an audience. And Brian has a great eye for not only who has an audience but also who WILL have an audience with his help!
We talked comedy history for the first half hour or so, because he’s also a comedy nerd like me, and it took time to see all of the pictures I have hanging in my place. Actually we didn’t look at all of them because that could take weeks, and we had other stuff to do! My place is kind of like a comedy museum with walls of photos going back over thirty years. He said it reminded him of his office. I asked him what he wanted people to know about Comedy Dynamics. Basically he wants people to know that he, as the Pres. of Comedy Dynamics welcomes all kinds of comedy.
He said for example, there are some places that limit who they work with. For instance, they might not want to work with blue collar comedy and only with talent from UCB. He wants to work with everyone and make them feel welcome. He wants to be everything to everybody which sounds very ambitious, but after talking to him at length and getting a sense of his determination, if there’s anyone who can do it, it’s Brian Volk-Weiss and the 300 people who work for him. He enjoyed saying “We don’t wanna judge” meaning he doesn’t want to limit Comedy Dynamics to only comics that HE likes, he wants to work with comics that anyone likes, … and comics that have that certain spark. As another example he said he was “very proud to say he worked with Mike Birbiglia, but then again he went on to say, “to be honest with you, it’s very easy to say you’re proud to work with Mike Birbiglia because he’s Mike Birbiglia!”
But now he can also say he’s proud to have worked with Weird Al Yankovic, especially because HIS last album was so successful. He personally would have said that about Al years ago, but the industry response may have been very different than it is now, now that Al’s album has done so well. Brian was also proud of the fact, and rightly so, that with a couple of people whose names I won’t mention, when the word got out that he was doing their specials other industry people said to him, “You do know you can say “No” right?” and the specials, and the comedians blew up afterwards proving him right. Some people just have a good eye for what the public wants, and he can’t always go by what some people think is cool.
He made it clear that the reverse is also true. “There are people who are supposedly “hip and cool” that have no act! You send me a 20 minute demo, where’s the other 40 minutes, or at least the other 20 minutes?
And that’s who we DON’T want to be in business with. If there’s any common attribute to the talent that we work with they are out 5-7 nights a week killing themselves to come up with an act that can be made into a show. If they believe in themselves enough to kill themselves to develop a show that people like, even if I personally don’t find them funny, I’ve still gone out and shot their specials.”
He’s also excited to be able to bring people to the public eye for the first time after they’ve been working so hard for years to make their dreams come true. Another concept he stressed is trust the public.
“If you sell out a 20,000 seat venue two years in a row, you’re funny. You can’t trick that many people into coming out to see you. People like to say that certain comedians aren’t funny. I say trust the public.”
His background as a comedy manager helps him a lot in nurturing talent which is a necessary trait for a manager to have. Brian feels he learned from the best, having worked with Barry Katz at Barry Katz Entertainment before he went out on his own. Before Barry, he wasn’t even into comedy. He had gone to school to study communications and thought he’d be a film director like his idol George Lucas, which is why he originally went out to Hollywood, to make the next Star Wars! He also said his career choice was way different than everyone in his family. He literally comes from four generations of dentists going back to his great-grandfather who was a dentist in Hungary around the time that teeth were first invented. This was another thing we bonded over. . .no pun intended!
Then he met Barry who offered him a job on March 19, 1999 and everything changed. He was Barry’s assistant and then New Wave bought their company. He said he was always behind the scenes, and was happy to do so. While still with Barry, he was Dane Cook’s manager, and toured with him, was on set for Dane’s movies 99% of the time, and was basically there for everything Dane did.
He shares that particular background with Chris Albrecht and Brad Grey in terms of running networks or cable outlets with a background in management. I’d say that puts Brian in good company! And working with Barry is where he got the concept that talent is number one! Talent gets catered to and comes first!
Brian’s company used to be called “New Wave Dynamics”, which was started in 2008, but after a life-changing meeting with Hulu they became Comedy Dynamics. He went to the meeting not really knowing what to expect and left with the idea to launch Comedy Dynamics. He realized that all of the content he had been leasing out to HBO, and all the other networks had reverted back to him, and he had this HUGE library of material that he owned.
“The Hulu meeting changed our perspective of what was possible. You never know what to expect when you go to a meeting, and you certainly don’t expect it to be a life changing thing, but what I had thought was our future in 2016 or 2017, creating our own network, after the meeting with Hulu, I realized we could do it tomorrow. We had the library, so I literally left that meeting at Hulu and maybe for the only time in my career, I just drove back to my office in silence. No music, no phone calls, nothing. I got back to the office and told my assistant Chelsea to hold all my calls, and I just sat there alone in my office just thinking, and then I wrote an e-mail to my whole department and said, “I just met with Hulu and apparently we can launch our own network,and we’re gonna do it.” That Hulu meeting even gave us our name. As we got close to the launch, somebody at Hulu said, ” Hey shouldn’t you have the word “comedy” somewhere in your name?” and that genius was the reason we’re called “Comedy Dynamics.” New Wave Dynamics is actually a physical principle about helicopter blades going through the air.
And the name “Comedy Dynamics” is actually a joke. It’s a play on General Dynamics, which makes tanks, submarines and aircraft carriers, and at that point I reminded Brian that it was very fitting because comedy is very violent. Everyone in comedy either killed, murdered, crushed, or destroyed. The comedy world is filled with violent images.
So they launched on July 19, 2014 and in only a few months have beaten all of their projections time wise. They thought it would take about 7 months to recoup their launch costs; it took 6 weeks, and everything else has fallen into place as well. “All of our projections have been fulfilled and more.” Everyone had to learn new jobs. It was amazing. My job today is almost completely different than it was last year. I start every morning looking at the numbers from Hulu and Roku and I know how many people watched our content the day before. We’re learning new things every day.”
He said having so many platforms made him a little nervous at first. “How do you deliver to five separate platforms simultaneously?” We’ll find out soon enough! He has his own first full platform original release on Feb. 20th, and he said it’s all new to him. “We never did any of this before. Even this conversation I’m having with you is occurring before our first true test of the system, which is simultaneously launching an original piece of material on multiple networks. It’s a feature film mockumentary called “Adventures in Comedy” with Margaret Cho, Jim Gaffigan, Janeane Garofalo, Michael Che, and more. On almost every channel and network, and anywhere you watch comedy you’ll be able to see it. It was written by Tom McCaffrey over a period of about two years, and we acquired it.”
So I asked him about competition and this is what he said: “There’s very few places out there doing what we do. We don’t have actual competitors because we provide the companies that would be our competitors with content. We all work together, which is what people do when it’s in their best interest.” And then I reminded him that when you find your true path The Universe supports you in that endeavor, and he wholeheartedly agreed, as we did on so many other things too. While we were hanging out and talking we realized we had so much in common, not only friends like Dan Levy, the writer/producer from Mulaney, but also many thoughts as well.
I asked him if there was any one particular event he considered to be a game-changer in his career. He said, “The Whitney Cummings special “Emotional Ninja” was a big game changer for me. It came out gorgeous. In the past I had only produced specials for my clients. And then people started asking me, would you ever produce a special for a non-client and at first I was like, ” Why would I do that?” and then after I thought about it for a while I thought “Why WOULDN’T I do that?”
Brian and I literally spoke for hours and had the best time, but we both had events we had to get to. As he was leaving he told me he was producing Colin Quinn’s special, an updated version of “Unconstitutional” that very next night in Tarrytown and we made up to meet there. What happened there is in my column from last week. I asked him what his goal was with Comedy Dynamics. He said that even though you can get a Comedy Dynamics app on your phone right now to watch any comedy special you like, including classics and vintage specials from the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, he wants Comedy Dynamics to be everywhere you go to watch content. Brian says, “If you watch stuff on your X-Box, we’re there, if you watch on Hulu or your iPhone, we’re there. We want Comedy Dynamics to be wherever YOU are, in whatever mode of technology you prefer.”
As we were leaving, he claimed that one of the greatest accomplishments of his career and his entire life was getting food served at the Boston Comedy Club back when Barry had it. The space was owned by a guy who owned a restaurant and he brought people into the club to buy his food, which is like a bit I once wrote about a guy who owned a hot dog stand and opened a department store behind it so his customers could have somewhere to browse while they ate their hotdogs! Brian said, “Of all the negotiations I’ve ever had to do, that negotiation was one of the hardest I ever had, to get cheese sticks served at The Boston Comedy Club.”
Such a fun guy!
Jeffrey Gurian is a comedian, writer and all around bon vivant in New York City. Subscribe to his YouTube channel.