Creative Space

Jax Media Producers on Surviving Roseanne, Samantha Bee Near-Catastrophes

Guerin Blask
"We like to do things in the most unencumbered way possible," says Lilly Burns, with Tony Hernandez, photographed June 4 in their SoHo office.

Couple Lilly  Burns and Tony  Hernandez produce some of TV's most celebrated comedies — 'Broad City,' 'Search Party,' 'Russian Doll' — which also happen to be among the most cost-efficient: "I can tell you within a few bucks what a script is going to cost to make."

When word got out that Tony Hernandez could make a critically acclaimed comedy for under $400,000 an episode, the veteran line producer suddenly found himself very popular.

Calculating budgets from a single glance at a script and helping creative partners stick to the bottom line by troubleshooting during physical production, Hernandez's upstart shingle, Jax Media, soon boasted auteur hits such as Louie, Broad City and Inside Amy Schumer. But as that portfolio has grown — 11 current TV productions, reaping 18 Emmy noms — so have budgets, creative involvement and ambitions. Alongside partner Lilly Burns, who has worked in the writers room on Jax series Search Party and is the daughter of documentarian Ken Burns, the pair are eyeing the next act.

The New York-based duo, married since 2015 after meeting four years earlier during Burns' interview to work with Hernandez at Onion News Network, have an 8-month-old daughter and adjacent offices at Jax's Manhattan headquarters — not that they can spend much time there. Jax, acquired by Imagine Entertainment in 2018, has burgeoning film aspirations, satellite offices in L.A. and London, 25 employees and marquee projects in Netflix's Russian Doll, ABC's The Conners and TV Land's Younger. (Their latest original, Pop's well-reviewed Florida Girls, premiered on June 10.) Burns handles development with Comedy Central alum Brooke Posch. And Hernandez, alongside John Skidmore, remains occupied managing productions — as he was one June afternoon, 60-some blocks north of their SoHo offices, on the set of Showtime's Desus & Mero. Just before the taping, Burns, 32, and Hernandez, 44, talked comedy, growth plans and near-catastrophes (see: Roseanne's infamous tweet, Samantha Bee's C-word and Louis C.K.'s aborted I Love You, Daddy).

How did you become known for these budget auteur comedies?

TONY HERNANDEZ I produced Louie. That was a $350,000 union and guild show when lots of small shows were running away from unions in New York. So when Louie was on the air and this celebrated show, all the cable heads of production started calling me to be like, "Oh, we want a $400,000-an-episode show."

Was Louis C.K. your gateway to the comedy community?

HERNANDEZ Back then, he was the comedian's comedian. And I had worked with David Wain and Michael Showalter. By the time we had Inside Amy Schumer, we did Chris Rock's Top Five and Broad City. It became, "Oh, if Louis C.K., Amy Poehler and Chris Rock don't fire you, then you're fine."

LILLY BURNS Working on all low-budget shows, which isn't the case anymore, we figured out how to keep cooks out of the kitchen and run creative interference for these people. That ethos we carry with us no matter the budget.

Which of your series has the biggest budget?

HERNANDEZ Probably Roseanne and, now, The Conners.

What an outlier. How did it happen?

HERNANDEZ Tom Werner and I are friends. He called and asked, "Hey have you seen Roseanne? Can you make it for me?"

BURNS Tony loves to do something new. When we first did Sam Bee, he had never done a studio show. It was the same thing for multi­cam. That show is not in our wheelhouse, creatively, but it was a professional curiosity.

Tell me about the transition after Roseanne went off the rails.

HERNANDEZ I was really involved in Roseanne. I moved to L.A. for months. But that space in between, where Roseanne became The Conners, it was about figuring out how to move that machine forward — with thousands of hours of conference calls.

BURNS The same week that Roseanne put out that heinous tweet, Sam Bee also called Ivanka Trump a "feckless c—."

HERNANDEZ I was the one person in the middle of that Venn diagram! I had reps for something like 27 actors and writers saying they'd have to sue for their contract. Everybody played really nice, but that's a lot of financial weight and navigating. With [TBS] it was, "Sam and this show are not apologizing to Trump."

BURNS We were saying, "They have to cancel Roseanne and they cannot cancel Sam Bee." Hilariously, we were in Italy when it all happened — one of the only vacations we ever tried to take.

Did there end up being more network oversight of Sam after the C-word?

HERNANDEZ No. It was more about navigating it in a way where the show could stay on the air and Sam could be happy, the network could be happy and the sponsors could be happy, and everybody could move forward. Kevin [Reilly] is creative. He wants Sam to do the thing that she wants to do. It wasn't that crazy in the end — but it was for 10 days.

You produced Top Five and the Amy Poehler-Paul Rudd rom-com They Came Together. How much does film fit into the strategy now?

HERNANDEZ Movies keep you cool. Hopefully they'll keep us from being known as just a TV factory. There's a void of smaller movies out there. Nobody's making them.

Jax made Louis C.K.'s I Love You, Daddy, which was shelved after he admitted to sexual misconduct. Will it ever see the light of day?

HERNANDEZ Based on literally nothing, I bet Louis will at least put it on his own site if he wants to get it out there — but it'll never have a traditional release. R.I.P.

BURNS We never actually saw it.

A few Jax series have bounced between networks or streamers. What's the challenge there?

BURNS We have to watch where things land, because it means uncertainty for some creators.

HERNANDEZ I have to deal with EP-level writers and the number one on every call sheet. It makes a difference to UTA to send their client to Paramount over TV Land, when you're trying to cast Emily in Paris. We made First Wives Club, which went from Paramount to BET's streaming platform. I think Viacom's intent is to give it a really sexy launch, but we don't know if they are going to do a $50 million marketing rollout for this new platform — or a $15,000 campaign. That determines if the move is super cool or super lame.

I heard the Russian Doll renewal got held up because no one was sure where to go with the show after it took off. What is it about second seasons that are so hard to crack?

BURNS In the rooms that I've been in, season two is the most stressful. When you make a first season, you're alone with it and just hoping people like it. The moment people respond, it takes on a life of its own. Then you need to deliver to expectant fans. It's terrifying. In the Search Party season two room, we were tearing our hair out. Then no more. It's been smooth since then. But it's really a lot of weight once a show finds its audience.

Maybe you need to make bad first seasons.

HERNANDEZ I'm never in the room when I'm in New York. I'm always getting outlines and I’m like, "This is awesome! I can't wait to make it!" And the writers are all like, "We're all thinking about quitting and moving on to another show. This is too hard to figure out."

BURNS We do different things. (Laughs.)

Tony, how did you become the money guy?

HERNANDEZ I can tell you within a few bucks what a script is going to cost to make. I go to the writers room and say, "OK, this is three scenes too many." I don't even say, "Great ep!" I just say, "You can't have four explosions."

BURNS He'll read something without even writing anything down, and be — no joke — only a few hundred dollars off. It's psychotic.

What series gives you show envy?

BURNS Oh my God, PEN15! I love it. It is such a Jax show!

HERNANDEZ I was that way with Tim Robinson's sketch show, I Think You Should Leave. I watched it and thought, “I wanted to make that!”

Interview edited for length and clarity.

A version of this story first appeared in the July 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.