Interviews

Todd Weiser


May 24, 2016

Originally from Detroit and a proud Wolverine, Todd Weiser now hangs his hat in Brooklyn and has spent the past decade building a career in television. He’s the VP of Programming & Development at Food Network, bringing shows like Kid’s BBQ Championship to hungry viewers everywhere. He offered us Manischewitz and stories of polyester pants, birthing classes, and his obsession with Natalie Portman.

Tell me about your background.

I grew up in Metro Detroit in a suburb called Oak Park. It’s diverse even though we’re surrounded by areas that are not. My parents still live in the house I grew up in. I went to Ann Arbor for college, then I moved to New York a week after I graduated and have been here for 12 years. I wanted to do film & entertainment, so my two options were NY and LA. One of the places where interned had an opening because someone was on maternity leave. My graduation was May 1, I moved to New York on May 8, and I started work on May 9. I was the assistant to the President of New Market Films, but when his assistant came back, I became the receptionist. Later, I got promoted again to Assistant to the President. I majored in Film and Economics, but my concentration was in screenwriting. I took a job in the business side of film and stopped writing. I stayed there for about 3 years before I moved over to TV.

Would you ever get back into writing?

I’m still into screenwriting, but it’s more, “I’d love to read your screenplay and give you notes.” I barely wrote after college, and I took it as a sign. People are like, “But you’re a writer!” And I’m like, “I’m not. If I were a writer, I’d be writing.” Maybe I would start writing again, but I’d be doing it more as a hobby, not “I’m going to be a screenwriter and sell this for a million dollars and make a movie.” I took a more practical route and I feel very lucky that it’s worked out as well as it has. I have plenty of friends who worked in film 12 years ago who are working at their family’s furniture business. I’m not saying it’s a bad life, but it’s not what they expected.

Describe your professional trajectory.

The film company did distribution, so I was going to festivals to see films that were being developed or produced. I wanted to develop. I felt like acquisitions was glorified film criticism. You can see a movie when it’s done and say “Oh, I liked that, they can make money,” but you’re not actually having a creative say in what the film is. I got a call from my former intern supervisor at Miramax, and she was like “Hey, we have an opening at Animal Planet and Discovery Kids. Do you want to come in and look at it? It’s for Development Coordinator.” I was like great, “What’s Animal Planet? What’s Discovery Kids?” She introduced me to everyone and they said, “Discovery’s a great place to work, it’s worth doing.” I ended up being there for 6 years. I’ve been at Food Network for 3 years. I was actually really happy at Animal Planet. It was like a real family. Discovery, in general, is known as a cutthroat place, but Animal Planet was different. The woman who ran it was amazing and really supportive and our team was close. Then, at a conference in DC, I sat across from the GM at Food Network – we had eaten dinner together, and he asked me to get some wine with him the week after – and, all of a sudden, I got a really good offer and it was like, “Oh, I guess I’m leaving.” Animal Planet made a good offer but they couldn’t match Food Network’s offer, so I was sad to leave, but I had only been at Animal Planet in TV, so, to a degree, I was like, “I should try something different, be somewhere new.” Food Network is a good place to be right now because cable TV is kind of a mess. Everyone’s going to Netflix and Hulu. At Food Network, we know who we are, so we are really stable.

Let’s rewind a little bit.

My first kiss was…

We’re going to go even further back. Tell me more about your parents.

My mom grew up in Detroit and then Oak Park. My dad grew up more properly in Detroit. They met in college at Wayne State, which is in Michigan, but didn’t start dating immediately. They got set up through friends, ended up living together, and he proposed to her at a party they were throwing. She was emotional because she knew he was supposed to propose and he hadn’t done it yet, and I think he proposed through a bathroom door. She was on the other side. While I was in college, my parents got divorced. My dad moved out to Farmington Hill nearby, got a condo, and then his mom got really sick and he was going to move down to Florida to take care of her, but she got so sick that they decided to move her up to Michigan instead. During that time, my parents got close again and my dad moved back in with my mom. To have parents who got divorced and who are closer than they’ve ever been has been a little weird, but it’s good weird. And I ended up getting a lot of furniture from my dad because he didn’t need it when he moved back in.

What was your Jewish upbringing like?

Reform. We went to Hebrew School starting in elementary school and went to services because of our bar mitzvahs. Both my brother and I went to Hebrew High School. It was just Monday night for two hours, and it was really social. A lot of my good friends were in it and that’s why we did it. I have a good friend, John, whom I lived with on the Upper East Side, who got more and more religious and went to Israel for a little bit, so he’s Orthodox now. What’s funny is that he and I would go to Hebrew School together and we’d get in the most trouble. He got kicked out and he ended up being really religious in the end. Both my brother and I got confirmed. My parents were not super religious, it was definitely more like, this is what our family is because of the way they were raised. It was like, “You have to get bar mitzvahed, that’s the way it is.” The questions Dana and I are asking now are like, “Why do we have to get circumcised?” And she’s not saying we’re not going to, but let’s have a conversation about it.

Tell me the story of how you adopted your cat.

We got Happy almost three years ago because we had mice. Our exterminator said, “If you want to get rid of mice for sure, get a cat.” My wife had never had a pet before in her life and she’s like, “OK, we’re getting a cat.” I went to PetFinder, found a cute cat, sent her a picture, and she says, “Great, let’s get him.” I’m like, “Oh, I think you might be serious.” Happy was in an apartment in Cobble Hill with 2 other cats that were not getting along well with him. We sat down, Happy came up to us slowly, let us pet him a little, it was definitely an immediate love. Dana always thought, “I’m not gonna be a good mom, I don’t have that bone,” but she’s like, “Hello, my love.” And I’m like, “Who are you?”

Are you ready for the baby you have on the way?

Yes and No. No one’s ever ready for a kid. We’re very excited and very scared at the same time. I feel like everyone just gets the hang of it. Dana’s never babysat in her life, I never have. You just figure it out. We went to this childbirth class on Saturday for seven hours, and I’ve been reading a book called “The Birth Partner,” so I actually know some stuff. There were four other couples there and they made us feel so good, because we knew so much more than all of them. No one there had done a hospital tour, we did a hospital tour. The thing I was most afraid of was breathing – that’s your job as the husband to coach – I was thinking of Lamaze and all that, and it’s just not the way they do things anymore. The teacher of the childbirth class was like, “You know how you’ve been breathing for the last hour? That’s all you need to do.” I feel pretty good now. Can we take care of the kid? We don’t know how to do that, but the actual birth, I feel a little better about.

Have you talked at all about how Jewish ritual or practice will play into your family?

The kid will definitely be bar mitzvahed. I do see a lot of friends get more religious when they have kids. We’ll probably start going to services and we don’t now. We might join a temple. It will become more important to us then. I am the only grandchild in my family who married a Jew. We definitely feel a little bit of pressure. Not like our parents give us this pressure. It’s our own personal pressure. What’s funny is that Dana dated non-Jews, I dated non-Jews. I was never like, “I need to marry a Jew.” It would be great for my grandparents and my parents, but that’s not the most important thing. It’s not like, “Are you Jewish? Now I can love you. I’ll fall in love with whoever I fall in love with.” When I started dating Dana in 2009, I had not dated Jewish girls for eight years. Dana had gone on dates with Jewish guys, but her boyfriend in college was not Jewish, so it was like we came together in the end, but it was not something that was forced and now we’re like, “OK, it does matter to us,” even if we still consider ourselves mostly culturally Jewish more than deeply religious and believe in the tenets of our faith.

What advice would you would give your younger self?

There are so many paths you can take. My career didn’t exactly go where I thought it would, but look where it ended up. I was single for a number of years when I was in New York, and look where I ended up. I wasn’t crazy impatient, but it definitely was drama sometimes where it did not need to be drama. You take the path you take. I think one of the reasons Dana and I ended up together is because she was no drama. It was not immediately like, “Oh My God, I lust you, I must have you.” It was a slow build over months. This is a mature relationship, we are best friends. I really don’t have regrets.

Be patient. Things will work out in the end.

What do you value most in your friends?

I don’t have a huge family, I have a lot of close friends. I talk on the phone with them every night for a long time. I believe in therapy, I think talking about things is really important, and, for me, I’ve always had that in friends. If i couldn’t talk to my friends about things, I’d probably go to a therapist. As we get older, I’m talking to all these friends about what it’s like to be a father. My brother lives in Park Slope and we’re close, but, outside of that, I have no friends in New York who have known me past 10 years, so that’s hard. The people who know you when you’re younger know you in a much different way than an adult friend. My friends and staying together really, really matters. When I send my emails about my shows premiering, I want my friends to know. I want to know what they’re doing, too. When people respond, it ends up becoming about something else. My friend’s parents are on the list and they responded this time saying, “Heard you’re pregnant, so exciting.” I appreciate that.

Historical or living people that you most admire?

Natalie Portman.

You mean Natalie Herschlag? You know that’s her real name…

Yeah, you want to know how I know about that? From message boards, because I used to obssess over her and go to natalieportman.com and natalieportman.net and things like that. Abraham Lincoln? No, you know…

What’s your favorite place on earth?

Coney Island.

So Jewish.

I’m thinking of the freak show! I love the history, it’s New York, yet it feels so much farther away.

What’s the best bargain you’ve ever gotten?

I could see how the reaction to that question would be like, “Ooooh, because they’re Jewish.”

That’s exactly why I’m asking.

I did a lot of thrift store shopping in high school. All I wore was polyester pants, polyester shirts. That was my look. I didn’t own a pair of jeans. A lot of that stuff went very, very far. I’m not sure they’re items most people would be proud of, but there were shirts that I loved. I actually wrote a short story in high school called “Polly” about a kid who wore only polyester.

Favorite Jew?

Theodore Herzl. I want to answer this without saying Woody Allen. I want to say Lenny Kravitz or Rod Carew.

[Dana, Todd’s wife] Can I feed you an answer?

What, you think you know what my answer is? Paul Rudd?

No. Think about who would be my favorite Jew.

Derek Jeter.

No! He’s not Jewish at all! Who do I wish was my actual grandmother?

Oh, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She’s a good answer. She’s a very good answer.

Favorite non-Jew?

Orson Welles.

Ok, that’s it. It’s not a very ceremonious ending, but…

Do you want to do a shot of Manischewitz?

Photos by Andrew Avrin.

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