Blockbuster Showrunner Vanessa Ramos On Writing Workplace Comedies And That Finale [Exclusive Interview]

"Oh, let's talk about jokes," Vanessa Ramos says. "I only ever want to talk about jokes." The writer's first series as showrunner, "Blockbuster," is packed to the brim with them. There are even gags audiences might not catch at first glance, including a subplot about a missing person that basically plays out in the background. 

"Blockbuster" isn't Ramos' first experience with workplace comedy. Previously, she wrote for "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" and "Superstore," not to mention produced and penned a handful of standout episodes from HBO's "Crashing." During lockdown, she had the idea for "Blockbuster." The ensemble comedy, which stars Randall Park ("WandaVision") and Melissa Fumero ("Brooklyn Nine-Nine"), taps into some nostalgia for the days of roaming video stores. Although the Netflix show's tone is mostly nice and light on its feet, it also has its moments of strange references and bizarre subplots. Recently, Ramos told us about how a few of those jokes came about.

'Well, actually it's a prequel and it's Angels & Demons'

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity. It contains spoilers for "Blockbuster" season 1.

First off: Where did the "ferret Waco" joke come from?

I think that was the first pitch I had in the room because Hollywood Harold was in my early pitch. It was pitched as a Timmy (Park) episode, but then it was the idea of, you find out Harold is a weirdo. There were just a ton of different things, like, "What authorities are describing as ferret Waco." I think it was one of those pitches where you go, "Okay, obviously this is too crazy, not this but..." And then someone goes, "Well, why is it not that?" We just put it in and then Netflix lets us do it.

What were some of your earliest ideas for the show?

In the original pitch, it was Hollywood Harold and then the Halloween episode where they get busy with horror movie fans. Then the Block Party ... I'm trying to think of some very weird ones. We've had a couple where I'm just like, "This isn't a thing we can or should do" that we've had to talk ourselves out of doing. 

You do have some occasional strange, dark jokes. In the finale, there's a certain director mentioned in a trivia question.

Oh yes. And then Timmy comes through the thing.

It caught me off guard, but that was great.

I was amazed they let us do that. I think it was a little — because I got my start in the Comedy Central Roast World, so it's just writing mean, dark jokes for three weeks at a time about someone and then you come and do it again the next year. I think it's nice to be able to scratch a little bit of that itch. The other stuff I've worked on has been very network comedies, but since it's Netflix, you're able to marry the two.

For Hollywood Harold, I think a lot of us remember our local TV movie critic. Was he influenced by anyone?

I grew up in San Antonio, and Texas has some real gems in the local entertainment scene. So he was an idea I had from the beginning that I was like, "Okay, I want to tackle this character. I feel like Timmy would have a relationship with him having been such a movie fan." I think in my original idea, it was Timmy's story and then as we started putting the pieces together, we're like, "Oh, with Carlos' immigration story and everything, it's a better fit for that character."

There are those moments as movie fans you can find relatable, like someone buying one ticket to "Space Jam 2." We've all done that for some bad movie. In the writers' room, were a lot of you sharing your moviegoing and rental experiences?

Oh, yes. Less so me. All of the jokes, like lot of Timmy's takes, "I love bad dance movies," that's like me. I'll be the one who's paying to see "Space Jam 2." Other people who are into arts here would come in, and it's like, "Okay, did anyone watch anything this weekend?" And we have one of our writers who would describe whatever movie he saw. It was a lot of comparing notes and then sometimes we'd pitch, like, "Okay, is this Connie's sensibilities?" And then we'd pitch on a couple more and, "Yeah, that feels like a thing Connie would've seen."

How did the reference to "the feature film 'The Da Vinci Code'" come about?

That one came off of my assistant Mary, who's just the best. We were in the room and we needed a customer moment and [writer] Jackie [Clarke] was asking, "What's the sequel to Da Vinci Code?" And Mary goes, "Well, actually it's a prequel and it's 'Angels & Demons.'" She said exactly that. And then Jackie goes, "What was that again?" And she wrote word for word and put it in. We called the character "dork customer" for a good while and then changed it to Mary, of course, with Mary's blessing. She's thrilled. And then we were in the costume meeting and they're like, "The customer, Mary, what does she wear? A K-pop T-shirt, grandpa's sweater..." Basically, I describe what my assistant Mary wears. That's how some of that stuff came about. When you're talking about movies all the time, the stuff that seeps in is not as artsy or as refined as you think. It's a bunch of very silly movies that we end up just amusing ourselves with.

'Oh, it feels like a real Blockbuster'

You've worked on a few workplace comedies now. Any rules for yourself when it comes to writing those stories?

I think the biggest one that I do feel is the need to deliver on is the "will they, won't they?" here, between Timmy and Eliza. Having worked on a ton and then having seen a ton, there's stuff I like, stuff I don't like. I personally feel you want to slow play it. It's more satisfying to slow play it as much as possible and leave the audience wanting more. That being said, if we are lucky enough to get future seasons, I'm not going to be a jerk about it [laughs]. I'm not going to be, "Oh, you want that? Yeah, never."

There's a surprisingly bittersweet ending for them in the finale.

It was. I was surprised they let us end the pilot in a sad place, because we're like, "Okay, it's a comedy out of the gate, it's Netflix." And they're like, "No, I think it works, because he gets the win of the store. It evens out." For the finale, as a room, we were happy with it and we had our fun stuff. Some characters, Connie and Patrice, had their win, which we also considered the other love story of the show. I don't know that it came across after editing, but the Patrice character, her whole deal is her nail salon is Paris-themed, but she's only been to the Paris Hotel in Vegas. So, there's a slot machine. You see it in there on occasion, like, "Why is there a slot machine?" It's because her reference of Paris is Vegas, and she thinks that's the same thing.

The Blockbuster store itself has a lot of entertaining DVD covers. Most of the covers were designed for the show, right? Could you use any original DVD covers?

Oh, no. They were mostly made up, and it was for legal reasons. We were allowed to use real titles, but we couldn't use the covers. We'd have to license the real ones that you saw. The other ones were mockups but with people's names from the art department. My favorite one is, there was one for the movie "Selena," but it's just this woman wearing an '80s-style vest with a jean jacket holding a mic. It looks like a standup special and says, "She dared to dream." In between takes Randall, Melissa, and I would go through the floor and read the front and back of them like, "Oh, did you see this one?" They weren't like extra gags; it was what we had to do to fill the shelves.

How important was it for you and your production designer to be faithful to the design and layout of a Blockbuster?

Ricardo [Spinacé], our production designer, was amazing. The way he saw the flow of it and everything, he had all the details of what should be facing what. Basically, this is my first time showrunning. My experience was, "Okay, I'm just going to hire people that are brilliant and that I trust and then I don't have to think about it." So Ricardo was in contact with ... Dish Network owns the Blockbuster rights, but there is someone from Blockbuster in my brain, just a Blockbuster historian, they gave us notes and made sure we use the exact colors of the blue and the yellow [to recreate] what the store would look like.

They were very helpful and amazing and the one thing they said, because Timmy's office is kind of up in the back, they were like, "We would never do that in our store but we understand it's TV, so you have our blessing." It was really Ricardo working hand in hand with them to make sure that it looked like a real Blockbuster. When we started watching the cuts, I was like, "Oh, it feels like a real Blockbuster." It was interesting having different guest stars come in every week and they would just go, "Holy s***." It's a time capsule.

For the piece of memorabilia Timmy buys, how did it end up being the plate Ray Liotta ate his brains off of in "Hannibal?"

The "Hannibal" plate was actually the first pitch and it made us laugh so we stuck with it. I believe our prop master Matt watched the movie, paused on the plate, took a photo and did it best to recreate it. Not sure how close the finished product is to the one in the movie.

'Yes, yes, you all think we are wearing the blood of our enemies'

For your first time as a showrunner, how did expectations compare to reality?

I think the expectation was great. I get to figure out breaking stories and hire my writers that I trust and that are so funny and get to focus on the actors and the story and this and that. The reality is, "Oh, I also need to look at 65 pictures of one candle." All the different departments I have to sign off on all of that stuff. That was overwhelming because in the writers' room, I've been doing that for 10 years. I know what I'm doing, but I was very worried about picking the wrong cardigan for Olga [Merediz] for some reason.

Now, I'm not as worried about it because I know what to expect on that stuff. I know it's, "Okay, this is at least the look of the show and the people we cast and these are the types of customers that worked or that we found had legs." And then the news — did you catch the news bits? I'm always curious.

The ones the characters focus on, yes. There are some news bits going on in the background, right?

We had a thing — some people clock it, some won't ... there are little Garrett things in the background.

There's also another news bit from David Caspe, who was one of our producers. After reading the second episode, he said make sure that it's the same newscaster as the first one. And I was like, "How about just to mess with you, it's never going to be the same." And so, every news anchor is like, "I'm Floyd Becca filling in for Randa Golder, who is on vacation." So everyone's on vacation and then at the end you see Remington Alexander, who is your first one. And he says, "I'm Remington Alexander, back from vacation."

There's a lot going on, but that's my thing. We had a lot of fun with those. We got some good responses from Netflix about those. Figuring out what the season 2 news joke is or what the things happening in the background are, I'm very excited about that. I think that worked.

As a comedy writer, do you have any rules or set ideas for yourself about what's funny or works?

Not really. If something makes me laugh and then I find myself thinking about it later and I seem like a crazy person in line for coffee because I'm laughing, then I'm like, "That's a joke I know I should fight for." 

Do you ever carry around notepads, just to jot jokes down?

Oh no, no. There's some stuff I'll make a loose note on my phone, but rarely. I know writers who have one of those waterproof pads in their shower because they write stuff down and I'm just like, no. If something makes me laugh, I remember it always. I think about, there was this "South Park" forever ago, it was a tooth fairy episode and they're like, "We need to be a half chicken, half squirrel, five-foot-three with a mild understanding of algebra." Just the specific words will stick in my head if it makes me laugh.

How did you want to joke about or comment within the show about making a series set at Blockbuster streaming on Netflix?

I think it's coming into the room and acknowledging it even in the pilot, calling out Netflix a little bit in "The Great British Bake Off" line. I think we felt we could sleep a little better at night having nodded to it in certain places. We were all very aware of it. When the show was announced on Twitter, people immediately had feelings about it. And I'm just like, "Yes, yes, you all think we are wearing the blood of our enemies." Also, I wasn't about to pass this up; it was getting a golden ticket to go back and create my world within this world. It was so important to me and I have such fond memories of as a kid [at Blockbuster] and I was like, "If I don't do it, someone else will."

Just to end, I'll say I enjoyed the shoutouts to Diane Lane in this show.

Well, Randall Park, a wrap gift he had made for the cast and for the producers is an "Under the Tuscan Sun" sweatshirt. It's a beautiful sweatshirt, it's very comfortable, and it just has the "Under the Tuscan Sun" cover on it.

"Blockbuster" is now streaming on Netflix.