Shea Serrano Is the Showbiz Mogul Next Door

We talk to Serrano about the path from culture writing to running multiple shows and co-writing his first movie, all without leaving San Antonio
Shea Serrano Is the Showbiz Mogul Next Door

No matter what you’re into, Shea Serrano has written something you need to read. If Basketball (And Other Things) doesn’t grab you, he’s also covered The Office. If you never watched The Office, he also wrote The Rap Year Book. If you don’t need a deep dive on rap, maybe you do need one on Movies (And Other Things). And if you don’t want to read anything at all, then he’s still got you covered: This year saw the release of his semi-autobiographical sitcom Primo on Freevee — perhaps you recently read about it being the year’s funniest show somewhere — as well as the coming-of-age film Miguel Wants to Fight on Hulu and another comedy series, Neon, on Netflix. If you can’t find something to like in a sweet-and-salty family comedy, a contemporary teen take on action movies or an up-to-the-second takedown of the music industry, you may have bigger problems than any one writer could help you with.

Serrano’s career has had many phases, as his more than 425,000 Twitter fans well know. While he was working as a middle school teacher and the new father to twins, his wife Larami, also a teacher, determined that if she returned to work, they’d have to pay more for child care than they would make from her salary. Serrano researched jobs he could do from home and landed on freelance writing. Initially hoping just to add $500 a month to their income, his style soon caught the interest of Bill Simmons, who hired him to write for the sports and culture site Grantland (where, full disclosure, I also regularly wrote in the 2010s, but it was a big staff and Serrano and I didn’t know each other). After ESPN folded Grantland, Simmons and Serrano regrouped at Simmons’s new site, The Ringer. Serrano wrote several books, hosted several podcasts, and eventually came to the notice of Michael Schur, the executive producer of shows including The Good PlaceParks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, among many others. Serrano did not go from their first meeting straight to a TV deal, but he had enough other projects cooking — including, starting in 2020, his own publishing house, Halfway Books, in his native San Antonio — to keep him busy. 

Last week, I caught up with Serrano for a phone call about finding the right actors to play his fictional family; turning Tyler Dean Flores into both a high school Bruce Lee and an up-and-coming reggaeton star; and having his first three screen projects come out during a summer and fall when neither he nor any of his actors and writers were allowed to promote them.

Primo is your first show to make it to air. Is it the first concept that you developed as a TV series?

Yeah, it was the very first thing we did. We pitched it originally in 2017, and we sold it to ABC. As a pilot script, we wrote the script. They do pilot season, where they buy a bunch of stuff and then they cull the list until they end up with two or three that they end up shooting. We did that process, but we never got to shoot it. That was the first thing that I ever worked on or pitched.

How did it make its way to Freevee?

David Miner, who is Mike Schur's manager, just kept slipping the script to people. I didn’t know that this was happening. During the pandemic, in 2020 or maybe 2021, he asked me, “Hey, do you still want to do Primo? Because I think there’s some places that are interested in it.” I said that if he and Mike and Morgan Sackett, who manages the finances for their company, were all going to be involved, then yeah, I would love to do it. 

And so, then it became, well, where do we want to take this? A couple of places were interested. Lauren Anderson was and still is running things at the TV side of Freevee. They did Parks and Recreation with her at NBC. We always pitched Primo as, “It’s going to feel like Parks and Rec, but it’s a family instead of a workplace.” So then I was like, “This decision seems easy, because she’s going to know exactly what the show is and what we want to make, so let’s go there.”

They paid for a 10-week mini-room to write four episodes and a show Bible. So, we hired 10 writers. We hung out for 10 weeks, turned our episodes in, then crossed our fingers and waited. A month later we got a phone call saying, “All right, let’s do it.” And then it became a show.

You’ve said that Mike Schur was the only white person in the writers’ room, and that some of the writers you hired said they had never had a work experience like that before. As someone who, as a writer, mostly works on your own, what was the staffing process like?

The staffing process was super-cool. The mini-room got greenlit. We needed to hire writers. So that goes out to all the agencies, and because Mike was attached to it — Mike makes everything feel like playing a video game with a Game Genie or a cheat on, because as soon as people see Mike’s name attached to it, everybody wants to be a part of it. So it was like, “This new family comedy is coming from Mike Schur, who wants to write on it?” We just got inundated with spec scripts. 

So then it just becomes, all right, read through these 150 or so scripts or whatever, pick out the ones that make you laugh, the ones you like, and then interview those people and see who would you not mind hanging out with for 10 weeks, several hours a day every day.

You’ve talked about what a difference Bill Simmons has made in your life and your career. This was your chance to be Bill Simmons for so many other people. It must have been really exciting.

Yeah, I was very pumped about that. There are five or six people who I can point to like that. Samantha (Weiner, the editor on his second book, The Rap Year Book) is one of them. Samantha changed everything when she let me do books and taught me how to do that. Bill changed everything when he brought me in to write at Grantland. Mike changed everything when he brought me in to do TV stuff. It was really cool to be able to hire some people. It was also really cool to be in a spot where I could go, “All right, I’ve never written for a TV show before, I’ve never written a script before, so it doesn’t matter to me if the people who are applying have written for TV.” 

Three of the people we hired had never written for TV before and it was fine, because I had never done it either. So it was an easy argument to make: “You’re letting me do it, so you should let my friend do it too.”

You have estimated that Primo is 30 to 40 percent based on your real life. You’ve tweeted pictures of your real family side-by-side with their counterparts. How much did they know about the project before they got to see it?

They knew a bunch about it. So we talked about it, of course, beforehand when I told them this is the thing I wanted to do, because the worst thing that could have happened was, I make this thing and then they’re like, “I didn’t want you to do that.” So very early on it was like, “Hey, I think I want to make this show, and I just want to make sure everybody’s cool with it.” And they were sort of like, “Yeah, go nuts, go crazy.” When we sold it, then it started to become a real thing, and then they started asking questions. And it was really funny to hear, “Who would be a good version of me? You should see if Oscar Isaac’s available.” That kind of stuff.

They were a part of the process in that way, where they would just offer suggestions. I showed my mom the audition tapes for the people that I liked and that sort of thing. But yeah, they didn’t know any of the story that was going to be in there beyond “It’s this kid who has a crush on this girl, and the mom and the five uncles are trying to help him figure out how to be an adult.” But they knew that part of it, and they knew it wasn’t going to be a show that made any of them feel bad, which is important to me as well. I said, “You should watch this, and when it’s over, you should go, ‘Oh man, that kid loves me a lot.’” 

One of the people who is in your life, but is not represented in the show, was your dad. How does he feel about not having been fictionalized?

He was like, “I’m cool with it.” We knew pretty early on, okay, we’re going to end the season with the reveal that Drea (Christina Vidal) has been dating Sammy the Bus Driver (Bobby Daniel Rodriguez), and in real life, my dad is Stevie the Bus Driver. He drove a bus for Via for 30-some odd years. So he knew that was coming, so he wasn’t totally left out, but also he is a very old-school Mexican and doesn’t talk a ton. So he was totally fine being like, “I don’t want to be one of the main characters. So this is great.”

I can’t tell you how shook I was when I read that Henri Esteve (who plays Mike) was originally approached to play Mondo. I can’t see it.

When the call went out, people were just trying for everything. I think Jonny Rey Diaz, who plays Rollie, read for Jay as well. I guess that’s how the process works. But yeah, when Henri read for Mike, it was like a little lightning bolt when you watch the tape: “That’s exactly what we’re looking for.” Or they would do a thing you weren’t expecting. The Jay character (Jonathan Medina) wasn’t originally the version that you see today, a super-pragmatic but emotional person. That came through the auditioning process when Jonathan was in the room and reading it, and Mike (Schur) was like, “Try this, try this.” He did it that way, and it was like, “Oh, this is the funniest thing I’ve ever seen. Let’s keep that up.” 

But yeah, it was neat to watch them read. They would start, and we would all look around and be like, “Oh, fuck, this is the person. This is the guy, right?”

Was there pressure from up the chain to cast people who were more famous?

No, that never came. Lauren was immediately an advocate for the show. Another woman named Jessica Breslow, who we dealt with on a daily basis, would give us notes on the scripts. Between those two, they knew exactly what we were trying to do, so I never had to worry about trying to convince the studio or the network of any of that stuff, because we had them, and then we also had Mike, Morgan and Dave. 

If you look at Parks and Rec, they had Amy Poehler, and then a bunch of people nobody had really heard of before then. So we were sort of following that template. We had Christina (Vidal), and we knew she was going to be able to do all the things we needed her to do, so let’s just grab the nine or 10 funniest people we can find who fit together, and go from there. 

Whenever I watch something now, and let’s say John Krasinski shows up, immediately, I’m like, “Oh, Jim Halpert’s here.” He’s connected to that role forever, right? That’s what I hope happens with the characters here. I want somebody to see Jonathan Medina in a movie and be like, “Oh shit, Uncle Jay’s in this.”

Speaking of Christina, a lot of times in family sitcoms, it falls to the mother to be the designated boring killjoy. Drea immediately gets to be just as funny and weird as everybody else. You have said you didn’t want her character to play into Latina stereotypes, waving her chancla and so forth, but she doesn’t play into gender stereotypes either. Talk about the development of that character.

That was a very intentional thing. We don’t want this character to be in charge of eliminating all of the fun. It can’t be that — it doesn’t work, and it’s not fun to watch. So whoever we ended up casting as Drea, we needed her to be as silly as everybody else is. We needed her to be as impulsive as everybody else is. We needed her to be as reckless as everybody else is. And we needed her to be as dumb as everybody else is, because then it feels like a real human. When Christina showed up and read for the thing, it was like, “This is exactly what we're doing.” 

She did the “big eyes” scene from the pilot, and we were all like, “Oh, okay, she can do this part of it. Can she do the funny part of it?” So, we specifically wrote a scene for her to read, with funny romance novel titles. That was originally just an audition scene, and she read it and it was so funny that we just put it into the show (in the cold open of Episode Seven, “The Recruitment Fair”). 

But yeah, we were trying to be as intentional as possible, allowing her to do all of this stuff that everybody else got to do, because it just seemed like it’d be a more fun way to go, and she crushed it. 

Some behind-the-scenes info: We were doing a table read for “The Game Champ,” so nobody had seen the script yet. We hand them all out, and she gets to the Scarface monologue. She tried to do a version of it then. We all thought it was hilarious, but she thought she didn’t do a good job of it. So she messaged me afterward: “Hey, listen, I’m going to do a good job when we film that. I didn’t do a good job of it here, but don’t delete it from the script.” I was like, “You already did great, but I’m excited to see what you do when we shoot it.” 

Sure enough, she showed up, and nobody had heard her do that impression. I guess she worked on it for weeks or whatever and just crushed it. But yeah, she was super-funny. She could just do all of the stuff we needed her to do.

Was there a scene that, when you wrote it in the room, you were especially looking forward to seeing it shot?

Oh, yeah. When we wrote the scene where they asked all the bus questions, we were like, “This is exactly what we want the show to be.” We were all excited to watch that scene get shot, and the original version of it was 15 pages long or something stupid like that. But when we shot it, it was one of the funniest days on set, and a lot of it was just letting them do what they wanted to do. You shoot a thing, like, five or six times, right? By the second one, we would usually have what we needed. And so then it became, all right, just let the actors play, let them make stuff up, let them try stuff.

Which of the skills that you needed or developed to teach middle school served you the best as a TV showrunner?

When you start teaching, for the first two or three years, the kids just kick the shit out of you. They’re so much smarter than you are. They know every single hustle and every single angle, and you’re just not ready for it. What ends up happening is the teachers who want to be good seek the tutelage of the ones who are already good. You just end up asking a thousand questions. And it was the same thing when we were shooting or when we were in the writers’ room or whatever. I was very comfortable saying, “I don’t know what I’m doing here. How do I do this?”

Being a teacher teaches you how to be comfortable asking for help. And it was the same here. Every single thing that happened on the show, there’s probably a person who I would just ask, “How do I do this? I have an idea in my head of what I want it to look like or what I want it to feel like, but I don’t know how to get there, so how do I do that?” That’s the skill for me that was the most useful, because then it just makes the show better — to have the input of so many other people. And then after two or three weeks, everybody’s comfortable offering up suggestions or ideas or doing their own thing.

Primo is just one title you’ve had come out this year. There’s also the film Miguel Wants to Fight on Hulu, and Neon, another TV series, on Netflix. Back in May, you wrote an essay for the L.A. Times about what it was like to have your first show come out during a writers’ strike. Now you can tell us what it’s like to have your first three streaming projects come out during a writers’ and actors’ strike.

It’s not that awesome. When the show comes out or when the movie comes out, you want to be able to sit down with someone like you and get to talk about all of the stuff that happened and get to sing the praises of all of the talented people who worked on it. You want to celebrate everything that’s just been accomplished. I want to talk about how funny Henri was on set and how funny Jonathan was and Johnny and Carlos (Santos, who plays Ryan) and Martin (Martinez, who plays Miguel) and Nigel (Siwabessy, who plays Harris). I want to talk about Stakiah (Lynn Washington, who plays Mya), when we shot the finale and she had everybody in tears when she decided she was going to make herself cry in that last scene. Nobody knew she was going to do that. I want to tell all of these incredible stories about these very talented people, but you don’t get to do that.

It sucked a lot that we didn’t get to do that, and then they don’t get to go do all the interviews and they don’t get to have everybody saying all these nice things about them to their face. And I was sad for that part of it — less sad for myself, because I don’t want to be in front of the camera anyway. But I was bummed that the actors didn’t get to be celebrated. That part sucks.

Primo is a family story, but to me, Miguel and Neon both belong to the “friendship cinema” category. Talk about that, because friendship I think often gets short shrift in pop culture compared to romance, and as someone who works a lot with your friend Jason Concepcion, I feel like you probably have a lot to say about what it takes to maintain a good friendship.

That’s exactly right. When we did Miguel Wants to Fight, it was just straight up, “Hey Jason, do you want to write a movie together?” And he was like, “Yeah, let’s give it a try.” That’s all that it was, because I’ve been working with Jason or alongside Jason since 2014, and he’s a good friend of mine beyond a work friend — he’s a friend in real life who I like to hang out with. I was excited to write that movie. I was excited, when we pitched Neon, to get to show a group of friends just trying to figure some stuff out together creatively. 

Think about all of the movies that you love. There’s always some sort of big friendship in there. You know The Town, with Ben Affleck and Jeremy Renner? One of the best movie scenes ever is when Ben Affleck’s character walks into the room like, “I need your help. We’re going to mess some people up, and you can never ask me any questions about it.” Renner just goes, “Whose car are we going to take?” Or whatever. That 45 seconds right there is perfect movie writing; it’s perfect moviemaking, because it’s just two friends who care about each other without ever saying that. I love that stuff, so I was very excited to work on Miguel Wants to Fight. I was very excited to work on Neon. It was great.

You and Tyler Dean Flores, who stars in both Miguel and Neon, are on your way to a Scorsese/DiCaprio kind of connection.

Tyler is so talented. He has a brightness about him that just draws you in his direction. There’s a scene in Neon where he had sex with some girl and then the friends are asking him, “What the hell is going on? We thought you were gone.” And he just says, “I don’t know what happened, I went for a walk and then next thing I know we were having sex.” Just to watch him deliver that line was like, “This is an exactly perfect Tyler moment.”

He just has a life to him that you don’t see a lot in the world at large. He’s so excited about everything. That was another situation where he read for Miguel and we were all like, “Oh, I guess we’re done. We found the kid.” Then, while they were filming that, the call for Neon went out, and he messaged me: “Hey, what do you think about me reading for Felix (the lead’s creative director)?” I was like, “I would love for you to read for every single thing that I do for the rest of my life if you want to do that.” He read for Felix, and Netflix loved him so much that they asked him to read for Santi, and we were like, “Fuck, he’s even better as Santi, this rules.” I was very excited to sign him up. He’s super-talented.

For years, you’ve kind of famously been a Twitter super-user. You've made professional connections there, and platformed charitable campaigns and causes. Do you foresee a time when you may have to let it go?

I would love to get off Twitter eventually. That would be so awesome. That would be so great. Maybe if we get to keep making TV shows. Right now, so much of my work is dependent on being able to share it and promote it. Maybe at some point I won’t have to do that. I run this little publishing company, and the only way anybody’s going to know that we’re publishing a thing is if I go on Twitter or Instagram or whatever and tell people about it. But at some point I would like to be off of there. Probably, for the next several years, though, I’m stuck on that sinking ship with everybody else.

Last year I became a fan of fake basketball because of Winning Time. I have since purchased Lakers apparel like a real poser, even though I do not watch basketball. Make the case for me to become a Spurs fan.

All of the stuff that you watched in Winning Time: the real-life version of that is even better. That’s what it is. It’s fun to watch characters on TV do a thing. It’s a whole different thing to know there’s a real person who really did some wild shit. It makes it fun.

What’s going to happen is, it’s going to feel like when you start a new TV show. This happened to me: I started watching the WNBA. The 2018 season was the first time I was like, “I’m going to pick a team, and I;’m going to watch all the games like I do with the Spurs.” So I pick a team and start watching it. And what happens is, same as when you’re watching a TV show, you don’t know any of the characters or any of the storylines or anything. You’re just sort of watching it to watch. And then, as you make your way through the season, you become invested in the characters, because you learn about their backstory. 

When I started watching the Aces, I started learning about A’ja Wilson, the rookie that they drafted. She had all this weight on her shoulders to be this great player. But you start to learn all of that stuff and then you’re watching her chase it down. By this point, five years later, she has now won back-to-back WNBA championships. She’s the league MVP, a two-time Defensive Player of the Year — she’s won all of this crazy stuff. You got to watch her do all of that, but you weren’t just watching her play basketball — you were watching her story arc. 

So when you start watching Spurs games, at first, you’re just going to be like, “Wembanyama’s really tall.” But by Year Three, you’re going to know all of the storylines, you’re going to feel in your stomach when they play a team that they hate, because now you hate them, too.

Remember when you were watching Breaking Bad for the first time, and finally, Walter White and Hank are in the garage, and Walter tells him, “If that’s really true, if you don’t know who you’re talking to, maybe your best course of action is to tread lightly.” Telling him “tread lightly” doesn’t mean anything if you just watch that clip. But because we watched five seasons of buildup to get to this moment, when we finally have the reveal of Walter telling Hank, “I’m who you think I am” — oh, I was so fired up when I saw that. I was standing up in front of the TV like I was watching a playoff game. It’s the same thing in sports. You get to the moment because of two or three years of history, and you’re like, “Oh, this rules so much.”

Thank you for putting it in terms I would understand. You’re speaking my language now.

TV and basketball, two of the best things.

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