Meet Television’s Comedy Whisperer: Jax Media Head Tony Hernandez

Cynthia Littleton
Variety

In the span of five years, Tony Hernandez has gone from being the line producer on “Louie” to running a bustling New York-based banner that has made him the go-to production guy for auteur-driven comedy series.

Hernandez’s Jax Media was instrumental in the launch of “Broad City,” “Inside Amy Schumer,” “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee,” “Younger,” “Odd Mom Out,” and “Difficult People.” This year, the company took the leap from production services to financing the pilot for the TBS dark comedy “Search Party,” which bows Nov. 21.

Jax Media’s specialty is working with creators and stars (often one and the same) to make half-hour comedies for an attractive price (around $750,000 per episode) that can buy a whole lot of creative freedom. It’s a page from the Louis C.K. playbook that Hernandez helped write with “Louie” exec producer M. Blair Breard.

Once it became clear that “Louie” could be realized, with full guild and union coverage, for $375,000 an episode (in season one), Hernandez saw a natural opening in the market. His timing couldn’t have been better, as TV production in New York skyrocketed and cable and streaming services stepped up their appetite for original series.

“Our selling point to a network is: Give me the talent and the price point you’re willing to spend, and we’ll customize the show so that it works for the talent and their voice,” Hernandez says. “To the talent we say: What’s the story you want to tell, and we’ll figure that out for the budget you have.”

He’ll never tell writers what they ought to say, but he will push them to think of alternative approaches to storytelling when their vision is beyond their means. “I like efficiency,” he says. “I hate waste and bureaucracy. I have a math-oriented brain, and I like to work with awesome people.”

Jax Media’s sub-seven-figure budgets compare with $2 million-$2.3 million for a midrange broadcast network comedy. The savings come in part from doing four-day shoots (compared with the usual five or six), keeping writing staffs smaller, and having more guest stars than series regulars. Hernandez also makes a pact with his creators: If a show manages to come in under budget, the funds go back to the production, not to Jax’s bottom line.

“We don’t keep underages,” he says, as a point of pride. “If I’m beating you up on your script, you can’t think I’m going to make money off the line-producer notes I’m giving you.”

Hernandez credits his early experience as a production manager, line producer, and location scout on low-budget independent films for giving him confidence that there’s always a way to write around a budget problem. He worked with “Wet Hot American Summer” director/producer David Wain, among others, after moving to New York from his native Florida in 1999.

“In our model, we can shoot your pilot and drop it into the marketplace in the amount of time it would take your lawyers to close the deal at a studio.”
Tony Hernandez

Hernandez’s reputation as a production master brought him to the attention of the team behind “Search Party.” Jax opted to self-finance the pilot in order to allow creators Michael Showalter and Sarah-Violet Bliss to avoid development hell.

“This allows you to send it out into the market and say, ‘This is what we’re making.’ The tone might shift 15% in any direction, but it starts from this,” he says.

The show is a blend of serialized murder mystery and dark Generation-Y comedy, with a cast of unknowns led by Alia Shawkat. The deal gives TBS ownership, while Jax remains the production company and receives an “awesome chunk of backend” that will be split evenly with the showrunners.

The success of the “Search Party” pilot has drawn other notable creatives to the Jax fold for pilot deals. The company is now in talks with multiple bidders for a comedy series, with Parker Posey attached, based on Jesse Eisenberg’s short-story collection “Bream Gives Me Hiccups.” Eisenberg plans to write and direct the episodes.

“I met Jesse Eisenberg, and three weeks later, we were filming,” he says. “In our model, we can shoot your pilot and drop it into the marketplace in the amount of time it would take your lawyers to close the deal at a studio.”

Other projects in the hopper include a pilot with former “Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore” exec producer Robin Thede and a Fox show with rising comic Joel Kim Booster. And the company has just planted a flag on the West Coast with its first Los Angeles-based production, the TV Land comedy series “Nobodies” with Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone.

Part of what drives Hernandez is a clear love of the game. “We just want to shoot awesome shit,” he says. “I don’t like dealing with lawyers. I don’t like accountants. I like people who make TV for the love of making good television.”

Jax Media, which is based near Little Italy in lower Manhattan, started in 2011 with Hernandez and an assistant. Today, the company has 14 full-time staffers. It’s wholly owned by Hernandez, with no outside investors. His wife, Lilly Burns, is the company’s head of development.

“This company is 100% ours. We reinvest our profits into our pilots,” he says. “We’re trying to grow it on our own dime.”

Innovators is a new monthly column spotlighting media insiders who are forging creative paths in a fast-changing business landscape.

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