The Toys That Made Us: Interview with Brian Volk-Weiss by Jerry Whitworth
An eight episode series whose first half debuted in late 2017 and second half May of this year, The Toys That Made Us is a Netflix-exclusive documentary series on the history of popular toylines and properties. Thus far covering Star Wars, Barbie, Masters of the Universe, GI Joe, Star Trek, Transformers, Lego, and Hello Kitty, TTMU was renewed shortly after its second half went live. Nerdfect Strangers had the opportunity to interview Brian Volk-Weiss, creator and executive producer for TTMU, about the first eight episodes and the series’ future.
Brian Volk-Weiss: I was born in New York and got to Los Angeles twenty years ago. I started off as a manager of comedians and eventually transitioned into producing full time, almost exclusively in the comedy space. One of the things I specialize in is stand up comedy specials and thanks to this I got to know a lot of the people that work at Netflix. Some of the executives there know of my love of toys and that led directly to The Toys That Made Us getting made.
BVW: I’ve always been a huge fan of toys and history and when I realized one day as I was in a book store that there were tons of books about the War of 1812 and pretty much none about the origins of Transformers or GI JOE. It got me thinking that it was crazy that a show that dug deeply into the origins of toys had not been made.
BVW: I went with my gut. There were certain brands that were no brainers, like Star Wars and Barbie, but I indulged into some of my personal passions (Star Trek) and also, in one case, my wife’s (Hello Kitty)!
BVW: I always loved the idea of recreating key moments in history that were extremely important but also obscure. I’ve even done this on a few other shows I’ve produced. With toys, once we filmed almost all of the interviews and we’re about twenty percent of the way into post-production, we shot the recreations all in the same week.
NS: One of the aspects of the first season of TTMU that got people talking wasn’t about the toys itself but the sculpture in the background of former Mattel CEO Jill Barad’s interview. Would you speak on this fascination people had with it on social media?
BVW: I think that any time a show gets to be a part of the conversation that it has succeeded in some way with its goal of connecting with the audience. I think that it’s very normal for people to be interested in the statue because it’s very unusual, but I also hope people listened to what Jill Barad had to say, because she’s one of the smartest and strongest people I’ve ever interviewed.
NS: TTMU not only went over the history of toylines and brands but also spoke with people whose lives they impacted. For the Hello Kitty episode, this included interviewing Kimora Lee Simmons and Paris Hilton. You would also interview Peter Cullen, iconic voice of Optimus Prime, for Transformers. How did these celebrity interviews come about and could they indicate what’s to come in the show’s future?
BVW: We reached out to the celebs the way we did pretty much anyone else, even though in some cases it took longer to get a ‘yes.’ And I do not think it indicates what’s to come. Anything we are shooting now or potentially will in the future will be dependent on the story. If it makes sense to have celebs, we will do it, and if it doesn’t, we won’t.
NS: The show’s second part involved travel with brands Lego, Transformers, and Hello Kitty. What was that experience like and was there a culture shock between approaching American toy designers versus their foreign counterparts?
BVW: It was amazing getting to go to Japan (two years in a row for this series) and meet with the creators. We had an amazing translator/facilitator named Saki and she made everything very easy for us. There were some small differences between the US and Japanese creators, but nothing I really think stands out too much. The main thing they had in common was their awesome passion for what they got to do for a living.
BVW: The first cut of Star Wars, for example, was 2.5 hours long. So, we cut one of my favorite things in all of toy history: Vlix! Vlix was a super rare and obscure character from the Star Wars: Droids cartoon and his character wasn’t even released anywhere on earth other than Brazil! That said, cutting it was the right thing to do, because 99.9999 percent of the audience does not want to see seven minutes about a character they’ve never heard of.
BVW: I was absolutely shocked that Hasbro almost launched the first generation of GI JOE without Cobra. That’s the thing at the top of the list, and I guess second was the origin story behind Battle Cat for Masters of the Universe.*
NS: Less than two weeks after the second half of TTMU debuted, it was announced the show had been renewed. Are you still in the process of determining what toylines/brands to feature and do you have an idea when filming will begin?
BVW: We started shooting in March!
NS: The concept of the series lends itself to perhaps being expanded into other areas. Is there any interest to develop a spin-off(s)?
BVW: All I can say about this at the moment is ‘no comment.’
You can watch all eight episodes of the original documentary series The Toys That Made Us on Netflix right now. For the latest updates on when new episodes will debut and what toylines/brands it will feature, you can follow the show on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. You can sign-up for their upcoming t-shirt here. You can find Brian Volk-Weiss on Instagram. You can learn more about Comedy Dynamics and the Nacelle Company on their websites.
*Writer’s note: If you watch The Toys That Made Us for anything, it’s the Battle Cat origin story. It is absurd and hilarious.