In America, mass-produced toys are a ubiquitous, plasticine underclass loitering on shelves, under couches, and in wooden chests, waiting to be drafted into service as soldier, princes, and dinosaur riders. Kids consider what toys they want to play with and parents consider what toys they want to buy, but it’s unusual for those outside the almost $90-billion toy manufacturing industry to consider how market forces put evolutionary pressure on our 1:12-sized avatars. Brian Volk-Weiss is unusual. The creator and Executive Producer for Netflix’s new show The Toys That Made Us, Volk-Weiss has been obsessed with action figures, building blocks, and model cars his entire life. He sees them as both pop cultural and economic artifacts while also understanding that the sentimental half-life of a figurine is unexpectedly, even shockingly long. With each episode of The Toys That Made Us, Volk-Weiss explores the rich and complicated history of iconic toys, including G.I. Joe, Barbie, and, of course, the Star Wars toys that kickstarted modern toydom.
Fatherly spoke with Volk-Weiss about making the show, why toys are so important for the imagination, and which toys he chose to take when he had to evacuate his home.
Before we get into talking about the show, let’s talk about toys. What are your favorites?
I live in LA and about a week and a half ago, I had to evacuate my house because of the fires. I had about 24 minutes before we decided to evacuate and when we left the house. I took three toys. Two for monetary value and one for sentimental value. I have two original figures that are in mint condition: one is The Imperial Death Star Droid from the original Star Wars and the other is the original Emperor from Return of the Jedi that I had to mail away for. I took those because they are both immensely valuable. But I also took the Die-Cast Miniature Millennium Falcon that was the one I had when I was really little. It’s probably worth less than $10 but I love it so much. It still means a lot to me. There were things in my office that were worth exponentially more than any of those toys yet those are what I chose to take.
Just to get a sense of the scale of what you left behind. How many toys would you say you own?
Last time I counted was about three and a half years ago when I moved and I had over 400 toys. I would guess I have over 700 toys now.
What was the first toy you bought as a collector rather than as a kid or a dad?
The AT-ST Walker. The Chicken Walker from Star Wars. That was the first thing I bought that I had no intention of playing with. I remember buying it in college.
How did you first come up with the idea for the show?
I’ve been a huge toy collector for most of my life and I’ve also been a big history buff for most of my life. I noticed that a lot of the biggest toys do not have much information about them that’s well-known or easy to access. Star Wars toys and Barbie dolls have had a lot written about them, but that’s about it. And even those two have some fascinating details in their history that almost nobody knows. I decided to combine my two loves, toys and history, along with a third love of mine, comedy, to try and make a show that was all about the story of how the toys came to exist and how they evolved over time.
You focus on the history of a different toy for each of the eight episodes. What did the process look like for picking which toys to focus on?
In picking the toys, we sort of created four categories that we would pay attention to when we were asking whether or not a toy belonged.
Category one: Are the toys still being made today? We didn’t want to look at a toy that was great for three years or even ten years and then went away. We wanted to be covering toys that were relevant 30, or, in some cases, even 50 years ago and are still relevant today.
Category two: If there was a Mount Rushmore of toys, would this toy be selected? Could Optimus Prime be up there? Yeah, so that makes the cut. It means there needs to be a personality or a face.
Category three: Does the toy have a fanatical following? I wanted to find out the history of toys that had conventions where people were dressing up.
Category four: Is there a good story to tell? If there was a toy that became a hit and that was that, we didn’t want to cover it.
Why do you think toys can play such a strong role in shaping us even as adults?
Everyone has an imagination and toys allow you to utilize your imagination more than watching TV or reading books ever could. When I was a kid, there were no toy versions of the ships in Star Trek so I would make my own out of LEGOs. And eventually, I started designing my own Star Trek ships with LEGOs. When I started drawing Star Trek ships in eighth grade, I’m drawing the ones I designed as well as the ships from the show. I wouldn’t have done that without LEGO. Toys allow us to manifest our imagination in a physical way.
In the show, you cover toys that become iconic and arguably even timeless. Was there any common thread you found that may have caused all of these toys to be so universally beloved and played with? Or does each have its own story?
Every single one of these toys has been wildly successful, but I think what people don’t realize — I certainly didn’t realize when I started making the show — how delicate each toy’s success was. Every single one of these toys could have been a disaster. Look at Barbie as an example. Ruth Handler, one of the founders of Hasbro, pretty much willed Barbie into existence. Barbie was not a hit when it was first released. Barbie lost money for years. If Handler hadn’t stuck by it, Barbie would have been discontinued almost immediately. Handler was determined to make the idea work that she talked to mothers and children and psychologists to figure out how to make Barbie a success and eventually, it became what it is today.
G.I. Joe would never have been as big of a hit without some luck. The original run of toys was held back an entire year to avoid the toys from Empire Strikes Back and, during that time, the creators were allowed to refine their products. And during that time was when they made all the character profiles on the boxes, which many would say are the most iconic aspect of the G.I. Joe action figures.
What is the most recent toy you bought?
I just bought the jumbo edition of Luke Skywalker from Return of the Jedi. Gentle Giant, a toy company, makes two-foot tall versions of the original Star Wars toys and so I bought the version of Luke from ROTJ where he’s in all black and has the green lightsaber.