Shea Serrano Used to Write About Culture. Now He’s Creating It.

The writer and Twitter darling is about to drop a new sitcom based on his life

May 18, 2023 6:00 am
Shea Serrano
Shea Serrano
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A teacher-turned-writer-turned-Twitter-personality, Shea Serrano is a man of the people. That’s clear in the way he has rallied his followers and readers (the FOH Army) to raise tens of thousands of dollars for women’s shelters, hurricane relief and charities working to end childhood hunger. It’s also clear in his work, which takes a clear, critical look at everything from basketball to hip-hop. That’s garnered him some famous fans — in 2017, President Obama put Serrano’s book Basketball (And Other Things) on his “favorite books of the year” list — and now, it’s helped him create his own TV show alongside Michael Schur, the creator of shows like Parks and Recreation and The Good Place

Out Friday (May 19) on Freevee, Primo is a single-camera sitcom about Rafa, a 16-year-old Texan who struggles to deal with the realities of having five meddling uncles. It’s charming, unique and funny, and it’s at least partially inspired by Serrano’s own experiences growing up in San Antonio. InsideHook talked to Serrano about the series, his close personal relationship with the former president and that time the Clippers beat the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA playoffs.

InsideHook: What got you interested in going from writing about entertainment to actually creating it? How did you decide to make that jump?

Shea Serrano: I think what ends up happening is I’d do a thing for a little while, and then I always felt like, “Alright, what’s the next extension of that thing?” When I first started writing, I was doing sports journalism, so I was like, “Let’s try some music journalism. That seems cool.” Then from music I went to writing about movies and TV. Then I thought, “Well, let’s try a book.” I like to move around a little bit, so once I did my books and journalism and criticism, making something like a show just seemed like the next thing to do. 

It seems to be going well. You’ve got Primo on Freevee, you’ve got a reggaeton series coming to Netflix, and you just signed a cross-platform development deal with Amazon Studios

Yeah, fingers crossed. I’ve gotten lucky. Also, the other part of all of that is that they only announce the stuff that works. All of the other stuff that I’ve tried that didn’t work nobody ever hears about. They just ignore that part of it. They ignore the four other shows or whatever that we tried to do where nothing ever happened.

How did you hook up with Mike Schur? I know he’s also a big sports guy, so can you also tell me why all his sports opinions are wrong?

I hooked up with Mike because I was coming out to LA to meet with people and Mike, as you mentioned, is super into sports so he was familiar with some stuff I had written about basketball for Grantland. Because of that he let me in the room and we started chit-chatting. 

We just got along pretty quickly. He’s a few years older than I am, but we’re both about the same age. We both have kids who are about the same age, and we’re both interested in a lot of the same stuff. So it was just a very quick, “Oh, we’re friends. This is cool.” 

With regard to why his sports takes are wrong, it’s just because he roots for all the wrong teams. That’s all. He’s a Celtics fan, which is not great. He also told me that he was at game seven between the Clippers and Spurs. I’m from San Antonio so I love the Spurs, and they lost to the Clippers in game seven. Chris Paul hit that jumper over my beloved Tim Duncan right at the end of the game. And so we talked about it a little bit. 

Actually, it was one of the first things he mentioned to me, so it was just like, “Wow, you’re the worst. Awesome.” 

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There are some nods to San Antonio in Primo, like a Manu Ginobli jersey and a few other things. Why did you decide to set the show there, and why is the city so near and dear to your heart? 

Well, it’s near and dear to my heart because that’s where I was born. That’s where I grew up from the time I was a baby until I was 17. The first time you get into a fight with somebody at the park, the first time that you graduated high school, the first time you are in a car driving around listening to music, all of that stuff happened while I was in San Antonio. 

I left to go to college in Houston, and that’s where I met my wife. We lived there for 14 years and then eventually made our way back to San Antonio. 

It’s just a place that I care about a lot. I can’t remember a time that I really saw it on TV, either. So when we were setting the show, I thought it would be really cool to set it there. We didn’t get to shoot it there because they don’t have the Hollywood infrastructure yet, like they don’t have stages or crews. So we shot it in New Mexico, where we found places that… if you didn’t know we didn’t shoot in San Antonio, you’d be like, “Oh, that’s where they shot it,” because it looks really similar. I’m super excited about that. 

Primo was first announced in 2017, so it’s taken a little bit of time to come to fruition. What did you learn along the way? 

Oh, man, I learned so much stuff, because I had never done anything. For example, after I met with Mike he was like, “We should work on that thing that we talked about for five minutes,” and I was like, “That sounds cool. Let’s do that.” So we started developing it together and the first thing he said was, “You need to write a character doc,” because all I had at that point was a two-paragraph pitch. And I was like, “Okay, cool. I’ll do a character doc. What’s that?” He had to show me what that was. He gave me an example of one that he had worked on. He’s like, “It looks like this and it outlines who the characters are, what their engines are, and so on and so forth.”

So I did that, and then I had to do a story doc, and then he told me to do a show bible and I didn’t know what was either. Mike and his team were essentially teaching me every single step to making a show. Then when we finally went to shoot it, I remember we were sitting there talking and they said, “We’re gonna put you through showrunner training camp, because that’s what these next couple of months are going to be. You’re going to be on set every single day, you’re going to be in the editing bay every single day, and we’re going to show you beat for beat how to do this.” And they did. They were really, really great about that. 

So when somebody asks me what I learned over the course of this process, I say I learned every single piece of information that’s in my head now about how to make a TV show, which is still not a lot. It’s like five percent of the things I need to know, but I learned all of that stuff while I was doing this one.

It’s amazing that you had such a helpful mentor.

It didn’t matter what was going on. They were always there. I was asking Mike, [executive producer] David Miner and [executive producer] Morgan Sackett 1000 questions a day, and they always made the time to answer them. They always made the life space for me when I needed it. I can’t imagine having to do this show without a team like that. 

On your Twitter, you referenced Parks and Recreation as a touchpoint for what you wanted Primo to feel like, but what other sorts of things were you looking at when you were making the show, either as visual references or for tone? 

Prior to going out to LA I said, “What are my favorite TV shows? Cool. Over the next few weeks I’m going to rewatch all of them and I’m going to try to figure out what makes them good.” So I watched Parks and Rec, The Office, Abbott Elementary, Scrubs…  all of these great comedies that had heart and that were funny, but that could sneak up on you every once in a while. 

So I watched those, and I think I figured it out. And then I just talked to Mike about what they were doing when they were making Parks and Rec. I was trying to take pieces of advice and work those in there, too. 

Then you get out there and you just have to trust the people. When we were hiring people, they said, “We need to hire a director of photography.” So you look at the list that they give you, “These are the people who are available, and that we think would do a good job.” And then I saw Michael J. Pepin, who is the director of photography on Abbott Elementary, so I was like “Oh, that’s one of my favorite shows on TV right now. Let me talk to this guy.” So I asked him a ton of questions and he seemed great. I was like, “Can you do for me what you did for Abbott? Can you make the show look good and cool?” and he was like, “Yeah, I’d love to do that,” so, great. Done. 

Then you meet with costume designers, and I see Unshin Lee on the list. They had just come off doing Winning Time, the basketball show set in the ’70s on HBO. I was like, “That looked great. Can you come do that for us? Can you make it look good?” And she goes, “Yeah, of course. I would love to do that.”

Then you get a list of directors, and one is Melissa Fumero. It’s like, “You mean Melissa Fumero from [Brooklyn Nine-Nine] a long-running, super successful, super funny sitcom? Okay, great. Melissa, can you come just be on the set and do stuff?” And she was like “Yeah, I’d love to create stuff.” 

Mike and Morgan and David did such a good job of having all these really talented people around me that all I had to do was get out of the way and trust what they were doing. All I was really responsible for was vocalizing what I was looking for and what I was hoping was going to happen, like what I would like for the show to feel like and then they made that stuff. It was so incredibly impressive to watch.

Do you think your freshness to the industry helped your perspective or helped you create a show that is different from other shows?

I don’t know if it helped me do that, but I know it helped me. It helped me to be able to say I don’t know what I’m doing. Because I knew coming into it nobody was going to expect me to know how to do this. So I felt very comfortable on set just saying like, “I don’t know how to do that. What does that word mean that you just said? What does ‘set dec’ mean?” And then they would explain it. “Okay, cool. And what are the responsibilities of the person who’s in charge of that?” 

On Twitter you said that you’re like “Where’s Waldo,” in that you’re in every episode in the background. Is that true?

That is absolutely not true. I was joking around. I had no interest in being on camera or directing or doing any of that stuff. I really enjoyed writing. I really enjoy editing. I wanted to do those things. But beyond that, let me get out of the way and let the people in who know what they’re doing. I like to stay in the shadows.

How much of the show is ripped from your personal headlines? 

There are loose connections to a bunch of stuff to a bunch of people, like I did have five uncles in real life and they are an assortment of characters. The Mya character is based on my wife who I met my freshman year of college. Little things like that are in there, but they’re always in service to the story. 

For example, we wanted to have it set up so the Mya character is new to the neighborhood. That way, we can introduce various things to the world through her, like she’s our version of the audience, because then it becomes easy to say a thing or explain a thing without it feeling forced. So it’s like, “Alright, well, how do we explain that they just moved to the neighborhood? Oh, her parents are in the military! Perfect.” Because Larami’s dad, my father-in-law in real life, was in the military — he was in the Air Force — so in the show her mom and dad are both in the Air Force. 

It wasn’t like it needed to be a shot-for-shot remake of my life. We just took some pieces, built some characters, and then everything from there is fiction going forward.

You have cultivated quite a following online. You’ve activated the FOH Army to raise money, of course, but are you going to use them for your own gain? How can you get them to spread the word of the show or even just to watch it?

I think anybody who doesn’t watch the show should go straight to hell. That’s how I feel. 

I’m just gonna talk about it as much as I can and try to get people excited about it and hope that they come and watch it. 

You can never predict any of that stuff, really. You can think something is going to do terrible and then it does great. Here’s a perfect example, actually: One time I wrote a very silly short story about this goofy action hero and I was like, “Nobody’s gonna be interested in this,” but I really wanted to do it so I did it. I put it up for sale, and it sold a ton of copies. It was like, “Yo, this is crazy. I thought everybody was going to completely ignore this!” 

Another time I was like, “You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to organize a Twitter running club and we’re all going to exercise at the same time, or we’re going to hold ourselves accountable.” I had this whole big plan. But then I posted it on Twitter and everyone was like, “You can go fuck yourself. We’re not going to participate. We will go buy this thing that you have not told us anything about. We will happily go pay for that, but you want me to go outside and run? There’s no way that I’m ever going to do that.”

I thought the running thing was going to be like a big hit, too, and I thought we were going to be doing it for a long time. I never even got to do it one single time because nobody was interested. And so you can never predict what the internet is going to do. I hope that people like the show, I hope that they talk about the show, and I hope that it’s a success, but who knows? 

So you’re not gonna call Barack Obama and tell him to watch the show then? 

I’ll text him. I’ll text Barack and The Rock. Those two.

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