When Vanessa Ramos was first approached to develop a show loosely based on the last Blockbuster store in existence, it reminded her of doing improv back when she first started in comedy.
“It was a little improv style, like: ‘Here’s your location.’”
As she explained in an interview, one of the show’s producers, John Fox, had the rights to the classic video store’s brand and image. “He was like, ‘I have uniforms and the signs and everything, and all you gotta do is build a world,’ which — it’s not a small thing — but I was like, ‘OK, I’ll figure it out,’” Ramos said. “My goal at the time was: If I can make them build me a Blockbuster, that’s the end game.”
But who would fill that brick-and-mortar store, keeping both the movies in stock and the nostalgic memories alive? Ramos thought about building the show around a fictional store manager: Timmy Yoon (Randall Park), who, as we learn in the first episode, has worked at his hometown Blockbuster since he was in seventh grade … and never left.
“I was like, ‘OK, who would be working at a Blockbuster in 2022?’ They’d have to not just love movies but have an emotional connection to the store,” Ramos said. It was the fall of 2020, and Ramos was living alone with her dog at the height of the pandemic. In developing Timmy’s Blockbuster staff, she thought about the family and friends she missed. For example, one of Timmy’s longtime employees, Connie (Olga Merediz), is based on Ramos’ mom.
Premiering Thursday on Netflix, “Blockbuster” contains many classic tropes of great workplace sitcoms, such as a sense of camaraderie among the characters, as well as topical jokes and memorable comic pairings. Park shares several uproariously funny scenes with J.B. Smoove as Percy, who is both Timmy’s best friend from high school, as well as his landlord, owning the Blockbuster’s surrounding strip mall. This naturally leads to some comically awkward situations. And like in many workplace comedies, there’s a will-they-won’t-they arc between Timmy and his childhood friend Eliza (Melissa Fumero), a new hire trying to restart her life while in the process of separating from her husband.
The 10-episode series is Ramos’ first time as creator and showrunner. But it comes from years of writing on acclaimed workplace comedies like “Superstore” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” (also starring Fumero), and perfecting the art of writing a killer joke.
“I was a very quiet kid and not the greatest at making friends growing up in Texas. So, I was home a lot and I watched a lot of comedy, primarily standup, and that’s I think how I learned joke writing,” she said. “After a while, the rhythm of it clicked. But I wouldn’t figure it out until later that that’s a thing I had in me.”
After college, she moved to Los Angeles to intern at iO West, an improv theater and school. The position came with class credits, so she took an improv class, and then decided to try a stand-up class. “I went in the black box theater in the back and did my first stand-up set that night. I did five minutes and it wasn’t the worst thing in the world. It was like, ‘OK, the scariest time is getting up for the first time and getting the words out,’” Ramos remembered.
She kept doing stand-up for about four and a half years, but discovered she was perhaps a better writer than performer. “I hadn’t figured out my anxiety. So, I would get a lot of comics coming up to me, like, ‘Hey, you’re a really great writer,’ which is just like, ‘OK, you need to figure out the stage thing.’”
It put her on the map as a skilled joke writer. She started writing for other comedians when they were appearing on late-night roundtable shows at the time, like “Chelsea Lately.” That led to a meeting with standup comic Jeff Ross, who was developing a show on Comedy Central: “The Burn with Jeff Ross.”
“I had burned my hand on a Swanson’s turkey pot pie the night before. And when Jeff Ross put his hand out to shake my hand, it was bandaged up, and I had to explain that I had burned my hand on a pot pie, because when it flips over, the innards get stuck to your knuckles. It was a whole thing,” she said. “So, he, of course, didn’t hire me — as I would not have — with my pot pie burn.”
Despite the pot pie fiasco, Ross fortunately recommended her for some other Comedy Central projects, leading to her first TV writing job on Comedy Central’s roast of Roseanne Barr in 2012. She wrote for other Comedy Central roasts, as well as award shows like the Oscars and the MTV Movie Awards, and the Comedy Central late-night show “@midnight.” From there, she started getting staff writing jobs on scripted comedies. After having made joke-writing her bread and butter, it was on shows like NBC’s “Superstore” where she started to hone her skills in writing a great story.
“My first script, you could not pay me to go back and read it. I think, story-wise, it’s a mess,” Ramos said. But from watching “Superstore” writers Jackie Clarke (now one of her collaborators on “Blockbuster”) and Sierra Teller Ornelas (who went on to create Peacock’s “Rutherford Falls”), she took note of how to craft a story. “It was kind of like a kid watching stand-up. It just clicked one day,” she said. “I just credit that show with teaching me how to really write a story.”
As she worked on different shows, she also saw the importance of valuing writers’ time, which she brought to the “Blockbuster” writers room. A common practice on TV comedies is for writers to create a list of alternate lines or jokes called “alts,” which may or may not end up in the final script or filmed scene. Sometimes, actors try out the alts on different takes to see what lands best.
But on the Netflix animated show “Big Mouth,” where Ramos was a consulting producer for a few seasons, she noticed showrunners Nick Kroll and Andrew Goldberg doing something different. “It was the first time I’d seen someone where they don’t just pitch a bunch of alts just to have. Whatever joke gets the biggest laugh, they’d go, ‘Great, let’s put it in,’ because you trust your staff that they’re funny and they know what’s funny. And so, it saves you a lot of time,” she said.
“In my writers room, we work from 10 to 4, with an hour-and-a-half lunch break. So if you have an errand, you know exactly what time you’re breaking and you can plan. You can have a work-life balance. That was very important to me based off of some of the experiences I had.”
Ramos, who has a development deal at Universal, initially pitched “Blockbuster” to NBC, which passed on it, before Netflix greenlighted the series. When Netflix announced the news, it was hard to ignore the irony of a show about Blockbuster being at Netflix, which famously began as a service to get DVDs in the mail, helping to precipitate the decline of the video store era. Luckily, Netflix executives never had an issue with the show poking fun at the streaming service, Ramos said.
“I think we were all on the same page. It would have been way weirder to not address it,” she said. “I think I would have felt more sinister about it had we not been like, ‘OK, guys, we know what we’re doing here.’”
One of the show’s hallmarks is its wide variety of movie-related jokes befitting the store’s staff, who would of course have an encyclopedic knowledge of the store’s catalog. For example, in one scene, a customer needs a recommendation: “I’m looking for a movie about a pig, but not Babe. It’s too big a city!” Another customer, a substitute teacher, needs a movie to show his class instead of teaching. When he asks for “The Blind Side” or “Freedom Writers,” Connie directs him to the store’s “White Savior” section.
“When you sit around and you try to come up with movies to reference, you’d be surprised at the ones that float up to the surface, because they’re not these Turner Classics that you think they’re going to be,” Ramos said of the writers batting around movie jokes. “It’s just like, ‘Oh, one time, I watched ‘Rush Hour 4’ on a plane.’ It’s not even the first one you think of. We had a lot of fun in the room going through, like, ‘OK, what’s the last movie you saw?’ They were wildly different.”
For Ramos, it always comes back to finding the perfect joke. One of her favorite shows is “Detroiters,” co-created by and starring Sam Richardson and Tim Robinson. “They think of things that my brain wouldn’t have thought to put jokes there. The biggest example I think about out the gate is in the pilot, where they’re like, ‘Two beers.’ [The bartender is] like, ‘Hot or cold?’ … and they angle on the man blowing on his hot beer to cool it off. If I saw that script, I would not have thought, ‘Oh, that’s where the joke goes!’ I’m just continuously fascinated by the choices they make there and just the funny stuff they find.”
Throughout “Blockbuster,” there’s a similar joke density using visual gags for the viewer to spot. For example, there’s a running bit involving the TV in the employees’ break room, which is playing the local news. In different episodes, a different news anchor reports they are filling in for an anchor featured in a previous episode, who is on vacation.
“Jokes are where I really get excited. The story stuff I think is good and it’s important, and I’m happy that these characters are coming to life. But it feels like jokes is where I really get to play,” she said. “With jokes, those are the moments when you’re making dinner later and then you just remember something, and it really cracks you up.”
Or there are lines that live rent-free in your brain, ones you might quote to your friends out of context.
“That’s my dream,” Ramos said. “If I can get even one person doing that with the show, that will make me so happy, because I totally grew up as that kid.”
“Blockbuster” premieres Thursday on Netflix.