Stand-up comedy’s G.O.A.T Bill Hicks may have left this reality almost 30 years ago, but this fall, a little bit of him is coming back. The hilarious Houston icon is getting immortalized thanks to Brian Volk-Weiss and the Nacelle Company in their new Legends of Laughter line of action figures featuring some of the greatest joke-spitters of the 20th Century. Alongside Hicks will be comedy’s cutting Queen of Mean Joan Rivers and the embattled free speech advocate Lenny Bruce.
Volk-Weiss, who has his hands full producing stand-up comedy specials and albums through his group Comedy Dynamics, credits his entry into the business of play things to his surprise Netflix hit The Toys That Made Us. “Not to be cheesy, it’s a peas and carrots situation for lack of a better expression,” he says with a nod to Forest Gump.
“Basically, long story short is I have been a toy collector basically my entire life. The oldest parts of my toy collection were toys I played with as a kid. About a year ago, we started making toys. The toys we started with were toys from the '80s, like Robo Force or Power Lord. That’s exhibit B – let’s now discuss exhibit A, not sure why I’m talking like a lawyer. The entire foundation of my company is comedy. I have been working in the comedy business 99.9 percent of my career.
"We are the biggest producer of stand-up comedy, we are biggest distributor of stand up comedy and as a part of that, we work with the estates of many comedians, for example, comics like Bill Hicks, Joan Rivers and Lenny Bruce. When we were starting our toy business, and we were buying these copyrights, some was like wait a minute... I have seen figures of Johnny Cash or Taylor Swift, how come no comedians. Now that we make toys, why don’t we do the thing we think is missing! So we did.”
Comedians, a long underserved demographic in the world of biopics and biographies and dorm room wall posters, appear long overdue for this type of top-of-the-line treatment. To ensure the project was handled right, Volk-Weiss says he consulted with the estates of all three selected comics every step of the way.
“For legal reasons of course,” he admits, “but much more importantly for moral reasons. They are involved in anything that we do. We are religious about their involvement and their approval. So we called the estates and it would barely be an exaggeration to say, everybody immediately said, ‘Yes, let’s do it!’ From Kitty Bruce to Steve Hicks, to the Rivers estate – everyone got pretty excited about it real quick. They really trusted us and it’s because we are already in business with them. Guess they are happy with what we are doing.”
Each figure comes “jammed” with accessories, says Volk-Weiss. “Every one of them comes with a stool, with a portion of a stage and a microphone, some come with a cigarette in their hands. Yes, we do cigarettes! Bill Hicks has a whisky glass with ice cubes. We are not the first to comedians, but maybe the first to do in a systematic way. The high bar for me has been The Black Series that Hasbro does for Star Wars, we are aiming for Black Series quality.”
Narrowing down the first wave of honorees for the Legends of Laughter seems like a daunting task considering the number of hilarious comics who have broken barriers and changed culture. Perhaps surprisingly, it sounds like this list came together almost instantly after the idea.
“[Hicks, Rivers and Bruce] were the initial group, but there was a fourth person I was trying to get. Unfortunately, we were not able to get that person. And this fourth person, unlike Joan, Hicks or Lenny Bruce, this person is someone we were not in business with already. We were working to his estate and talking to his daughter a lot. Some paperwork going back and forth, but we just couldn’t get it done. So there were four people we went to simultaneously, but my hope is once we have the physical product, we can send it to the estate and it will convince her to let us work with her father’s likeness.”
Speculation abounds. Perhaps the likes of a George Carlin, or Richard Pryor, or even the gone-too-soon Robin Williams? Regardless, Volk-Weiss feels bullish about the prospects of a Wave 2 should this initial offering be a success. “Hate to speak so brutally and capitalistically, but... my rule right now is it just had to break even. We can’t lose money, or we can’t keep doing what we’re doing. If the sales are good, and profitable, there will absolutely be a wave two. So we are talking to estates now, and we are talking with the estate with one of the greatest comics who ever lived.”
But, he adds with a wry laugh, “This toy business so far? I don’t think we’ll be building a new wing on our headquarters from the toy business based on what I’ve seen so far.”
The final piece of puzzle is something that should delight anyone who remembers these humorists fondly – even beyond the die-hard comedy fans who want to see their plastic faces on their desk every day. Every action figure is packaged with a never-before-heard comedy routine from these past masters.
Volk-Weiss explains the coup of getting his hands on a brand new bit from these now departed geniuses. “There were only two criteria,” he says on the process of selecting what made the cut. “Criteria one, it had to be unreleased and besides anyone that was in the room when the recording was made, nobody had heard the clip before. That was the first thing. And the second thing is it had to be funny! It had to be good. It just had to be funny and literally unreleased.”
Buyers will get a unique number and a QR code to download a digital copy of the audio file to listen on their devices of choice.
In many ways, the surprise Netflix smash The Toys That Made Us was a rare opportunity to bring attention back the idea of toys and who enjoys them now. For Volk-Weiss, the new title of toy magnate is a double-edged sword. “I’m Toy Store famous,” he laughs, “anywhere else in the world no one knows who I am, but in Toy Stores, sometimes people will come up to talk. Often, at the 8-minute mark, someone will come up to tell me how they love The Toys That Made Us. Then at the 12-minute mark, someone will come up to tell me, ‘Fuck you for raising prices!’ So you really never know.”
Information about the Legends of Laughter line of action figures can be found on Nacelle’s website at nacellestore.com/collections/legends-of-laughter. Toys are anticipated to ship Fall 2023.