Jerry Kolber is having the time of his life just being Jerry Kolber — which includes producing a hit television show, writing scripts, developing films, all while meeting some of the world’s most fascinating people. His is a story, not just of success, but of failures, irony and plot twists he didn’t see coming.
Long before he was walking the red carpet last year as executive producer of the Emmy-nominated hit TV series, Brain Games, the Miami native says with amusement, he was a student at Southwood Middle School and Miami Palmetto Senior High — and not a very good one.
The quirky kid who loved books, theatre, science experiments and being on the debate team, was nevertheless the student who drove teachers beyond distraction, struggled with science and was told he might not graduate from high school because of failed math grades. (He did graduate, Class of 1989.)
“I would say I was socially and intellectually active, but not the best student,” he says, breaking into laughter. “Most of my teachers would say that I was a total smartass. I would generously characterize it as, I contributed a lot to the class discussion, probably more than was appreciated, but that’s just how I am. I’m still not very good at not saying what’s on my mind.”
His mother, Shelley Kolber, a retired teacher and guidance counselor, was on the receiving end of a litany of complaints, he says. Among the calls for help, she recalls a dust-up over a middle school assignment about the Boston Tea Party.
“He drew a stick figure sitting on a toilet and it said, ‘Pay or stay,’” she says.
“The teacher was humiliated, and so insulted. She stopped me in the hall to tell me about this. I got hysterical. I said, ‘That’s brilliant! What a way to depict it. And number two… please don’t stop me in the hallway to talk about my child. Tell me there’s a problem and we’ll sit down and talk about it.’”
It was a balance of supporting his creativity, she says, while pushing him to get better grades and tone down his antics. Like her son, she laughs recalling his adventures.
“He was always thinking, and getting into all kinds of mischief. At Disney World he and his friend went underground to see how things worked at Disney. They got caught, of course, and got kicked out.”
His middle school creative writing teacher, Marian Siegel, was flummoxed by Kolber’s schoolwork.
“He used to write these things and she would go crazy,” Shelley Kolber says, “because they were so off the wall. He was just creative.”
She would say, “I’m so tired of reading these papers of his. One day he’s going to do something I’m going to be proud of.”
Kolber says he first developed a thick skin at Whispering Pines Elementary in Cutler Bay.
“I was one of only two or three Jewish kids in my school and was probably the shortest kid by a couple of inches, so I got teased. I definitely took the sticks and stones approach.Tough skin is a good thing for a writer or TV producer. So I got lucky being short and Jewish at Whispering Pines.”
Learning from his father
Kolber, 43, who now lives in New York City with his boyfriend of 14 years, electronic musician Brian Suarez, graduated from the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University (NYU). At NYU, he produced theatre projects in his spare time, so many, he says, he was given a limit. His first job was business manager at the Jean Cocteau Repertory Theater for a year, he says, making about $400 a week. The job required some bookkeeping skills, which he didn’t have, but he called his father, Cliff Kolber, a CPA, back in Miami.
His dad remembers a call from Jerry at 10 a.m. as he prepared to present a balance sheet and income statement to the theater board. “He said by the time I go to that meeting, I’m going to know what those are, right, Dad? We spent an hour and a half on the phone.”
Kolber then embarked on a career odyssey that included producing theater in Prague and working as assistant to the producer on The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public, a Broadway flop.
“Huge flop, total failure,” he says, “but here I am like 22 years old and I’m working with Bob Mackie, Tommy Tune, Sid Sheinberg, all these amazing people.”
The show was financed by Universal Studios, whose executives liked what they saw in Kolber. Sheinberg, known for discovering Steven Spielberg, ran the studio with legendary mogul Lew Wasserman. Kolber was offered a job as a production accountant for the show New York Undercover, which he says was on-the-job training, since he knew little about the financial end of making television shows or movies.
Not only was he making three times what he’d made the week before, he says, but he realized that he was being given “the code to how to make a TV show work financially. I’m getting to see the payroll, purchase orders. I’m having conversations with every single department head. I’m talking to the producers, the studio, so I have uniquely been given a front row seat to all of the confidential information about how money is spent and how the contracts work. I thought to myself if I’m getting paid to learn this, that’s a great deal.”
For a year, he worked for the legendary television producer Dick Wolf, who produced Miami Vice and the Law and Order franchise, and learned the business of production accounting. The next year he was hired as production accountant for the launch season of Sex in the City.
Then he was offered a job as a production accountant for another show, but what he really wanted was to be a producer. He took it.
“The deal that I made was that I’ll be your production accountant for one season and if it’s successful I want to become one of the producers,” Kolber says. The show, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, was a success and Kolber became a producer.
In between those successes were periods of struggle, he says, including after 9-11 when work dried up. During lean times, his jobs included bookkeeper, magazine writer and bike messenger, while continuing to write and look for projects.
After Queer Eye, he produced many other shows including one of his favorite projects, Confessions of a Matchmaker for A&E, shot in the middle of winter in Buffalo, N.Y., about a woman whose match-making business helped people looking for love.
Then, in the summer of 2007, he says, he became dedicated to meditation after about a year of practice, which lead to a shift in the types of projects he wanted to do.
“I started wanting to do shows that actually did something good for people,” he says.
National Geographic channel
In 2009, he was hired as senior producer for the National Geographic channel, running the New York office, launching a number of shows and helping to create Brain Games. The next year, he and friend and former college roommate Adam “Tex” Davis, founded Atomic Entertainment, a production company that produces among other projects Brain Games, which focuses on the workings of the brain and the mysteries of human behavior. The new season premieres in January.
Airing on the National Geographic channel and periodically on the Fox Television Network, the show garnered the highest ratings for a premiere — 1.5 million viewers — in addition to being nominated for an Emmy last year for Outstanding Informational Series or Special, along with such well-known shows as Oprah Winfrey’s Master Class and the winner, Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown.
The show’s engaging mix of entertainment and information are delivered by charismatic host Jason Silva, a graduate of the University of Miami. An Internet sensation, Silva was chosen because of his viral videos “Shots of Awe” about life’s miracles.
Brain Games is seen in 170 countries and translated into 36 languages. Certain U.S. Air Force bases use it to teach concepts about the brain and human behavior that are easier to grasp than from a textbook. The show takes important studies, for example, and shows those concepts at work with real people, and the surprising ways your brain works, or doesn't work the way people expect.
“We’ve gotten letters from military bases that use this show,’’ he said. “We got some from the Air Force saying that they started using our show to teach their pilots.
“I think people like Brain Games because it makes them feel like they are becoming a better version of themselves,” says Kolber, “which is different than smarter. Smarter is a tricky term that really applies to just one sphere of intelligence, whereas your brain is the window to watch the entire world go by. If you get better at understanding how your brain works and doesn’t work, and that we’re all in this together, it’s just making you better at being human, which is different than being able to solve a puzzle.”
Fun is a key element of the show.
“I think people leave the show feeling like wow I’m energized now. I learned something more about myself, and it was fun. I wish someone had made Brain Games for me when I was in high school. I would have paid attention. I didn’t understand how science was relevant to my life so the lack of understanding made me less interested than I should have been.”
“I went to a teachers’ conference and people were coming up to me saying how much they love using the series in their classrooms.” he says.
Despite his struggles with math and science, Kolber credits several teachers at Palmetto for inspiring him and encouraging critical thinking, Francine Berger, the debate coach, who has since passed away; Harold Brooks, his drama teacher; and English teachers Walter Baxter and Harry Warren.
“In many ways I model my work environment after the environment I experienced in that (debate) class, which was to be fun, loud, no rules and just let people do what they’re good at and push them to be better. That was Mrs. Berger to a tee,” Kolber says.
Kolber was surprised to learn the show is a teaching tool at Palmetto High. Psychology teacher Gwen Schoolar uses the show for her AP class.
“That’s awesome, are they really? That’s the coolest thing I’ve heard.”
Over the past year, in addition to working on the fifth season of Brain Games, Kolber and Davis have been developing a documentary about the engineering feat behind the history-making space jump from the stratosphere by Google executive Alan Eustace. On Oct. 24, Eustace reached an altitude of 135,890 feet, breaking the record set in 2012 by Austrian Felix Baumgartner of 128,100 feet. The documentary, which the team says is the most challenging project they’ve ever done, is still in production and will be released in early 2015.
Eustace says he met Kolber through executives at Paragon Space Development Corp., who knew Kolber, and were familiar with his work. To avoid a media circus during the intense process, access was given to only one news reporter and one production company hired to produce a film – Atomic Entertainment.
“First his (Jerry’s) biography, the things that he’s done, the projects he’s worked on,” Eustace says, “and his connection with science and technology. He knows how to tell a story to kids and adults. He’s obviously an artist, a craftsman and a storyteller.”
Works well with people
Davis says part of Kolber’s success has been his ability to connect with people.
“Once you know him, you stay known… In the short amount of time he actually has to see people, he manages to stay in their lives, which is a great trait and one I’m working on getting better at.”
Kolber is also at good at working with people, Davis says.
“We jokingly say he’s like the Jedi mind trick guy. He’s good at making you think what he wants you to think, that it was your idea. He’s very good at relating to the executives of the channel, at playing peacemaker, knowing when to apply pressure, when to back off.”
Kolber is still outspoken, Davis says, a childhood trait that now serves him well. “That hasn’t gone away, but he parlays it into, hey let’s put that in the script. That’s a funny line, let’s put it in our pitch.”
“[As a kid] he had interesting things to say and he said them… That’s the thing, if he didn’t do that, he wouldn’t be who he is today. Thankfully his parents didn’t break that spirit.”