Brian Volk-Weiss | Crain's

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Brian Volk-Weiss

Background:  

Comedy Dynamics produces and distributes stand-up comedy, working with big names like Aziz Ansari, Jim Gaffigan, Louis C.K. and Kevin Hart. The company announced last week that it is producing a new MTV documentary starring Zac Efron, which will explore the intersection of food and millennial culture.

The Mistake: 

I used to be a manager of comedians, and early in my career, I was offered the opportunity to meet with a very, very famous comedian. He had been a part of a huge show, the show ended, he tried a couple of other things that were all disasters, he'd had some publicity problems, and he was not doing well. 

So we were offered a meeting with this guy—we'll call him John Doe—and I met with him, and I could tell he was out of his mind. It was like being in a room with an escaped mental patient. 

Probably about five minutes into the meeting, he looks at me and says, "Let me tell you something that you don't know. The government—they're everywhere." 

I was laughing, because he's famous for being funny and wacky, and I thought he was joking . 

He goes, "I'm not kidding. They're in your eyeballs. They can see me through your eyeballs right now." 

If 100 normal people had sat in that room, within 10 minutes, the stupidest of that 100 would have said this guy should be in a straitjacket.  

But I didn't have any famous clients yet, I had just started, and he was really famous. I thought, yes, he's crazy, but I'm sure I can turn this around. I can recharge his career and bring him back. So I signed him. 

It was slow going. I'm doing everything I can, I'm setting up opportunities and he's canceling meetings, or we'd go to meetings and he'd cancel them.  

One day I finally get him to go to a meeting at one of the big three networks, and it was like a light switch had been flicked; it was like he had put on the character of a normal person. He pitched the show and knocked it out of the park. They were laughing, and it was the first time in my entire career I had sold a show in the room. People were high-fiving and everything. 

We left the meeting, and I immediately got a phone call from the executives in the room, who said, "Hey, it couldn't have been a better pitch. We just want to make sure John Doe is not crazy, because we've heard he's crazy." 

I said, "Let me tell you right here and now, he is not crazy. He is one of the most normal people I've ever met." 

The next day before noon I had paperwork. I had sold my first network show. We're negotiating, things are moving along over a week or two, and then we have our first creative call, where we have the network executives, my client and me on the phone. 

The executives said, "We're so excited to be in business with you, Mr. Doe." 

And my client said, "I'm so excited to be here, thank you so much, I've always wanted to be … hold on a second, this guy just cut me off." 

He goes, "Excuse me, excuse me, don't you ever cut me off again, I will kill you. I will kill you." He kept screaming out the "c" word.  

The executives at the network thought he was joking. They thought he was just trying to be in character, and they went with it. I knew it was true because I knew the guy was crazy.  

We get the deal done, but it's not signed yet, thank god. We end up having a meeting, and while he's driving to the meeting he calls me and tells me that he can't come. What I found out later was he had had a huge fight with somebody at his house. 

I finally said to the network, "Listen, he's crazy. I screwed up. I should have told you the truth, and to be honest with you, I should have never signed him. I hope one day you will do business with me again, but I did lie to you—he's out of his mind."

I met with him, and ... it was like being in a room with an escaped mental patient.  

The Lesson: 

If that deal had been signed and that show had gone forward and then it fell apart, people get fired for those kind of problems. It really could have hurt them—and even if they didn’t get fired, they would have known they could have gotten fired, and they would have never done business with me again because I had lied to them. 

That's the main thing I learned: You have to protect your relationships. Even though I'm not a manager anymore, it's something I take with me to this day. The people I do business with, the people I sell to, they have to trust that when they take my phone call, what I'm saying will at least not make their lives and careers worse.  

I still work with difficult people, but I am always very upfront with the people on the other side of the phone. I say, "I know you want to be in business with me on this project, but I need to be really clear with you. This person is difficult, this person can do X, Y and Z, and you need to go into this with your eyes open." 

With John Doe, I was so new and insecure that I lied. If I had told the truth, they probably still would have done the deal. They just wouldn't have been mad at me. 

Follow Comedy Dynamics on Twitter at @comedydynamics.

Pictured: Brian Volk-Weiss. Photo by Stephanie Kleinman, courtesy of Comedy Dynamics.

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