Brian Volk-Weiss can truly say he's landed his dream job. As CEO of the Nacelle Company, he runs Comedy Dynamics, a production studio Volk-Weiss founded that is the force behind such shows as Animal Planet's "Animal Nation with Anthony Anderson" and History's "Join or Die with Craig Ferguson."
Over the course of his career, Volk-Weiss has worked with some of the biggest names in comedy, including Aziz Ansari, Jim Gaffigan, Louis C.K., Kevin Hart and Ali Wong. Comedy Dynamics has also racked up several Grammy nominations and one Grammy win in 2016, for "Louis C.K. Live At Madison Square Garden."
Volk-Weiss sat down to talk with Crain's about what he's learned over many years in showbiz—and what it's like to work your dream job.
Q: How do you set goals for yourself and how do you know when you’ve accomplished them?
For me, every time I say to myself, "We got to the next level," it’s always about "OK, what’s the next level?" It’s a very organic process. The first goal is, I have to build a name for myself that people trust. And the next goal is, I have to make cool stuff even if I lose money. Then the next goal is, I have to make cool stuff but I can’t lose money. Then the next goal is, I have to make cool stuff to make money. And then the goal after that is, I have to keep making money and being profitable but I’ve got to up the quality of what we’re doing.
We won a Grammy last year, and just being very honest, I never cared about awards before. We had been nominated for Grammys all the time and we never won and I was never bummed out that we didn’t win. I didn’t expect to win when we won. And when we won, I suddenly realized that was our peers. People that judge audio and make audio content for a living listened to everything and chose us. Wow, that’s powerful.
Now I’m not going to sit here and say I’m obsessed with winning awards, but at the same time, I want to make stuff that is perceived by our peers as being high quality and that will survive the test of time. I’m in show business because there’s stuff I saw as a kid that inspired me to be in show business, so I want to be making stuff that does that for other people. I really want to make stuff that people are watching and listening to after I’m dead, let alone retired.
Q: Is that your biggest business priority, something that stands the test of time?
The business priority is to be profitable. It’s much sexier for me to just say yes to you, but that’s not the truth. The truth is, any responsible business owner has to be concerned with being profitable. But once you’re profitable, then you can start to have a little luxury. I feel good that we’re going to be profitable this year—now I can focus on quality, now I can focus on the artists we’re in business with. There are artists now that I don’t want to be in business with because I don’t think they represent quality. But truthfully, seven to 10 years ago I would have been in business with them because my first priority was to be profitable—because you can’t do anything if you’re not profitable.
Q: In a prior interview with Crain's, one piece of advice you gave was to protect your relationships in business. Does that still hold true for you?
It's always been true, but it's more true than ever. Relationships are absolutely everything. ... What I would make as an addendum now is, I think it's very important to not take anything for granted. So, people, artists who we've worked with now three and four times over the last five or six years, I never, ever, ever assume that we get the next job, ever. I think that's very important. I think people get entitled very easily. They get comfortable that just because you did the last one, you'll get the next one ... Even if you've had the client for 10 years, you have to treat them like you just started working with them a day ago.
Q: When you do that, you're putting a lot of people on top of the list. Do you ever find yourself in conflict when you prioritize those relationships?
I'm 40 years old. I'm getting into the office now at 7. When I was 30 I was getting into the office at 8, so my way of dealing with the volume is just working longer hours. I have a staggering amount of relationships that all are tied for first place in importance.
Q: So you make up for it by working longer. Do you think there will be a point where that becomes unsustainable?
Yeah! Well, what am I going to do, come in at 5 in the morning? ... I'm also trying to promote from within the company as much as possible and train the people who are being promoted to appreciate the relationships as much as I do and start to develop their own relationships with the contact so that our clients are getting the same level of service that they've always received.
Another thing I’ll say is, I love my clients! I love talking to them. I enjoy being in business with everyone I work with, so it’s just very tough not being on call and not talking to them.
Q: Is it hard for you to put that boss role aside? Do you ever feel like you need to take a step back?
It’s a huge challenge. One of the problems is, I love my job and my job gets better every year because we’re doing cooler and cooler stuff. So we have shoots now that I can’t attend because I have to do something else. And it breaks my heart, because five years ago that would have been the greatest thing the company ever did. I flew about 140,000 miles last year and that was probably a mistake, but I love what we’re doing.
Q: Your latest TV show is "Animal Nation with Anthony Anderson." Do you have specific goals for the show, or are you letting the idea breathe for now?
The goal for the show is to entertain. That’s No. 1, first and foremost, for anything we ever do. We want people to see the show and forget about life for an hour. We want people to see the show and maybe it will inspire them to adopt a dog or an iguana. But the main thing is we just want to entertain and we just want to make people laugh. If we’re blessed enough to get a second season, I want people laughing. And maybe the next day they’re in the office and they know something they didn’t know the day before.
Q: What have been some specific challenges in working with animals?
We really didn’t have any problems. We weren’t going into the forest and bringing in animals, we were hiring trainers who were bringing camera-savvy animals. We had goats pooping on the stage and birds fly when it wasn’t supposed to, but maybe my definition of the word ‘problem’ is so crazy that I thought it was just funny and good television. But that might just be me.
Q: Do you find it easier working with animals than with people?
I definitely would not say easier, I would say there are pros and cons. I’ve never touched a sloth before, for example. They wouldn’t let me hold him because they’re very sensitive animals. But I am not kidding you, I could have just stared at this animal for an hour. It was just the most beautiful, interesting face I’ve ever seen. It was a lot of moments like that, in terms of animals versus people. I think if there was an actor or an actress who I just stared at for an hour, that would be very disturbing. And maybe people would call the cops. But when you’ve got a sloth, it’s cool and you can stare at it and you don’t get in trouble.
Q: The entertainment business has obviously changed since you started, thanks in part to streaming sites like Netflix. How has that impacted your work?
It used to be we would make something, put it out, and if people didn’t watch it in the first 48 hours it was considered a failure. And if people watched it a lot in the first 24 hours it was considered a hit. Well that’s crazy, because it’s not ideal, it’s not efficient. The great thing about streaming is that you’re in a situation where Netflix will tell you they care about the first 30 to 90 days. Many of them just assume it will do well in the first week. A lot of the stuff that I’ve worked on is the kind of stuff that takes time to develop by word of mouth. I like the fact that we’re being judged over the first 90 days to six months rather than the first 48 hours.
Q: How do you know you’re making the right moves? What is something that really validates what you’re doing?
I know people don’t like to talk about money as a motivator, but if you make an album and people buy it and the money comes in, then you know it’s doing well. People aren’t going to spend their money or their time if they don’t like it. Money is the ultimate scorecard in that it’s consistent.
The second thing is when I get a Facebook message from someone I haven’t talked to in 20 years saying, "Hey man, I just saw this thing you did. Oh my god, I love it." That’s the greatest thing in the world. The only thing that’s greater than that is when you meet a stranger and the stranger talks to you about your work. I could cry when that happens, even though it doesn’t happen often.
We did this special last year with Ali Wong that ended up on Netflix. She was seven months pregnant when we recorded the show and she was wearing the white striped dress. I remember sitting there on Halloween going through Instagram before I went to bed, and I was seeing all these people who were dressed like Ali Wong from the special. That’s why I’m in this business. I’m from a family of dentists and lawyers from Queens. And the reason I’m not a dentist or a lawyer is for that moment.
Q: Would you say you are doing your dream job right now?
Yes. This is not a metaphor; this is not a joke. Routinely last year I was on set for shows that I had been involved with, developing and selling for months. And I would be on set and saying to myself repeatedly, "I can’t believe this is real. I can’t believe this happened." So yes, I’m doing exactly what I hoped I would be doing and I literally can’t even believe it. You can ask my wife, I say it all the time.
Q: What’s your favorite part of your industry?
My favorite part is just that you make something for months or years that only the people and the company and my wife know about. And then one day, everybody knows about it. That’s what I love. I love that we get to do something that the whole world shares.
Q: If you had to do a comedy set about your career, who would you want to perform it?
About my career? Gary Gulman. He's extremely smart and very good looking. And taller than I am.