Series Creator and Showrunner Phil Augusta Jackson Talks Grand Crew Season 2

Comedy Features Grand Crew
Series Creator and Showrunner Phil Augusta Jackson Talks Grand Crew Season 2

I am not shy about my love for NBC’s sleeper hit hangout sitcom, Grand Crew. Since it premiered within a week of Abbott Elementary in December of 2021, it’s the show I’ve been telling everyone and their cousin to catch up on once they’re up to date with Janine and her fellow Philly teachers. I’ve even gone long on it here in Paste’s digital pages.

So it was an immediate YES, then, when the series’ press team reached out to connect me with series creator and showrunner Phil Augusta Jackson in advance of the Season 2 finale. Considering that the last few episodes of the season brought fans the shocking and sad twist that original Crew member Fay (Grasie Mercedes) would be leaving LA to take on managerial duties at a Grand Cru wine bar spin-off out in New York City, this was a call I was more than ready to take. And while the conversation didn’t quite turn to what might be in Grand Crew’s now Fay-less Season 3 future—or even if, indeed, it’s likely to see such a future—it was nevertheless a delight.

Enjoy the conversation, and then get back to streaming Season 2! The world deserves as much Grand Crew as Jackson (and NBC) are willing to make. 

Note: The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Paste Magazine: So I am really loving Season 2. 

Phil Augusta Jackson: Thank you so much. I appreciate that. 

Paste: Often when I get these [interview] assignments, I have to cram. But with this conversation I didn’t have to because I’ve been keeping up since day one. Keeping up and telling everybody else, you should be watching Grand Crew! When you’re sick, when you’re doing laundry, when you’re looking for comedy—this is the one.

Jackson: I love to hear that.

Paste: So I’m sure a big thing that comes up in every conversation you have about this show is the chemistry of the cast, which has just been so absolutely lived in from the very beginning.

Jackson: Yeah, absolutely.

Paste: For any Paste readers who might not have heard you talk about it before, could you give us a bit of the behind-the-scenes of getting this group together?

Jackson: For sure. So I have an improv background. I came up at the UCB Theatre in New York. And while I was there, I met Nicole Byer, and she became a very good friend of mine. We’ve been on vacations together. She’s the homie. And you know, her career has just been taking off I feel like for the past 10 years, from her being on Girl Code to now. So when I went to shoot the pilot, the character Nikki was [actually] named after Nicole, and so she basically was the first person that I reached out to.

Then Echo [Kellum] I’ve known since I came to LA. So I met him maybe 2013, 2014. I’ve known Carl Tart for just as long. And then when it came to Justin [Cunningham], Aaron [Jennings], and Grasie [Mercedes], it just felt like I’d known these people for a long time. And I think they feel the same way about each other. They all had amazing auditions, and so I think part of it is making the right choices, [but] I think a part of it is a little bit of luck, as far as a cast that has chemistry that you can really feel on screen. 

But what I think you’re keying in on, that energy, is actually how they are off set, too. I’m hanging out with them later today, down the street in Silverlake, actually! So you know, all the cast really gets along well. And yeah, it’s really fun to write for a cast that gelled so immediately.

Paste: I’m sure. And then obviously one of the things you can do with an ensemble show/hangout comedy like this is that it’s basically like geometry, you can pair people together in so many different combinations. Do you have any stories about surprisingly successful (or unsuccessful!) pairings, or even just something surprising that happened when you put the two characters together?

Jackson: As far as the pairings go, it’s interesting because, you know, at the beginning of every season, we sit down as a writers’ room and talk about the journey that each character is going to take individually. And then as we break the season, and kind of pair the characters together based off of the trajectory we have them [each] on—we have certain goal posts, certain milestones that we want to hit during the season. But beyond that. It’s kind of just what feels right for the episode. 

I think as far as specific pairing, I’m maybe surprised by Echo and Nicole. Echo and Nicole have been performing together for a long time at UCB. But them playing a brother and sister, any time we’ve cracked those types of stories—we’ve had two in the series so far—I’m just surprised how great they are together! So I think that’s the first one that comes to mind, just that brother-sister dynamic that’s just really fun to play with. And I think for performers that I’ve performed with, and have seen performing for years, just seeing them on camera as brother and sister is always [great]. They always throw in some improv, they always throw in some levels of performance that I’m really delighted and surprised by.

But I think everybody, any iteration of the crew, I think always comes out really, really fun. I think Justin and Carl are great together. But everybody, really—I mean, there’s no pairing you can name where it’s like, Oh, it was a struggle. No. It’s all really, really, really as fun as it looks on screen.

Paste: You gestured to this a little bit in one of your last answers, but in terms of developing Season 2, and then at least half of the actors have such a strong improv background, I imagine the whole cast is able to kind of inform where the characters take things, especially in terms of jokes. And now with them all knowing their characters better, how has that played out this season?

Jackson: We always try and leave room for all of our actors to have a little bit of improv with what’s on the page, but we definitely have [other] jokes and stuff handy, just in case what was on the page originally isn’t working. I think at a macro level that’s the answer: we leave space for all of our cast to just have fun. And I mean, I could go through everyone in the cast and just tell you what energy they bring to the table and why it’s so just delightful to write for them. 

But there are a lot of improvised moments! Especially with Carl Tart—he really likes to put his own touch on stuff. He has a lot of experience in writers’ rooms, too, so I think a lot of times his improv is really strong. But so is everybody’s on the cast!

Paste: This is not a deep question at all, but I am so curious about the progression of the Anthony’s hats in “Wine &  Roasts” (Episode 2.06). Like, you must have gotten to go into a room full of hats and decide: okay, which are the funniest ones.

Jackson: I mean, it’s moments like this where I’m really thankful to be a creative! Because it’s so silly. It’s literally, you know, sitting in a room and being like, Oh, this hat? Maybe not funny enough. This hat? Maybe too broad and too funny. But that was me working with a mix of props and wardrobe, and we were very particular and meticulous about which hats we chose, and the progression of the hats. But that [came out of] a random pitch in the room, and it just felt like a really easy opportunity for a runner that had some visual comedy that you didn’t really have to speak to too much, that didn’t take up too much real estate, story-wise. But the end of it [had to be] the Pharrell hat. I just love Pharrell Williams—

Paste: Oh yeah, that was the second Pharrell Williams joke this season! 

Jackson: You really are up to date! Yeah, and then in 2.07 (“Wine & Honors”) we have the joke about him being 75 years old. So little easter eggs like that just give you a sense for not only my sense of humor as a showrunner of the show, but also my interests in particular. So that was why we landed on the Pharrell hat for the end of that runner, because I’m just such a huge fan.

Paste: It’s such a good hat for that task, because it looks like a joke hat. But then, if you’ve been keyed into American pop culture for the last, like, 10 years, you’re like, No, that’s a real hat that a person who is paid real money seriously wears.

Jackson: So much money! And it’s weird because people will joke about it, but it didn’t look bad on him, that hat. That hat looked good. And like, I should be so fortunate to be able to wear a hat of such magnitude and pull it off with such gravitas. I aspire, absolutely, to such… to such… I don’t even know what to call it. Quality. Swagger. 

Paste: And then the other joke, about his age—he’s 50! So that 75th birthday joke is like, it is hyperbole, but not nearly as much as you’d think. 

Jackson: You know, it’s an interesting thing. Like, I like jokes like that, too. Because I think there’s a world where, you know, [Mike O’Malley as reclusive billionaire Zeb Jenkins] says, I gave that to Pharrell for his 92nd birthday. But something about that feels a little disingenuous, you know what I mean? So [92]’s too high. I gave it to Pharrell for his 80th birthday. I think we’re getting closer! The 75 felt like… like, there is a 75-year-old that looks like Pharrell. He’s out there. You know what I mean? And, you know, just blessed with the youth of melanin. 

Paste: And the aforementioned gobs of money.

Jackson: And the gobs of money. Yes, well said! So 75 felt right.

Paste: So let’s get to the main reason we’re here—the big casting cast shift that we’re getting with Fay [the character] leaving, and with Grasie [the actor] leaving with her. So the composition of the crew is going to be really different. And, while I was not being disingenuous when I said earlier that the cast has had great chemistry since Day 1, it’s simultaneously very true that the chemistry really locked in as soon as Fay showed up. She’s been so important to the show, both from the perspective that it’s always good to have that audience avatar, that outsider character who can get into a really tight-knit crew, who can really—

Jackson: Call them on their bullshit, introduce mystery, yeah, yes, I know exactly what you’re saying.

Paste: Absolutely! And then also to improve the gender balance—to not have one single female character. And now, in addition to having to let go of a great character, and a great actress, both of those things are going to go away. So I am just curious about how you all in the writers’ room approached those two really key elements when taking on this big change?

Jackson: To your point, Fay was doing a lot for the crew, coming in from an outsider’s perspective. Having her own backstory, being at a point in her life where she had a successful career as a performer and was looking for that next chapter in her life. So as far as the season goes, you know, from a creative perspective, we were talking about the show and the cast, both individually and collectively, [in terms of] this idea of the thirst for more. That was the hook. Season 1 was new beginnings, and then in Season 2, the macro theme was the thirst for more

Being in your 30s is when you start to figure out what types of ambitions you really, really want for your life, and what types of people you really, really want in your life. It feels like a lot of that starts to crystallize as you’re more sure and aware of yourself. And so as we were breaking the season, we also realized that a lot of times the timing of things might make you know what you want for yourself and who you want around you, but the timing [for all of those things] doesn’t always work out. It’s kind of a beautiful tragedy, in a certain sense, and it’s a very real thing. And so from a creative perspective, that’s where we ended up landing. 

But, you know, from my perspective, Fay will always be a part of the Crew. She left an indelible mark, and behind the scenes [Grasie] is also an amazing person. But from a storytelling perspective, there’s something bittersweet—I think in a good way—where it’s like what she lost was her foundation in LA and her love with Anthony, but what she gained was a huge career opportunity. And at a certain point in your life, when you get to a certain age, you need to decide whether you’re going to take that leap. And I think she doesn’t take that leap without meeting the Crew. 

That’s a long answer. But that’s essentially, that’s where we ended up.

Paste: Okay I lied and do actually have one more tiny, yes-or-no question about Fay’s departure—

Jackson: Please, go ahead!

Paste: Okay, so that final shot of her in New York, wearing that giant vegan fur coat Anthony gave to her—I couldn’t find the specific visual reference I was looking for, but it struck me so squarely as a reference to Rhoda and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, of them in their fur coats, independent ladies in the big city. Was that intentional, or?

Jackson: Okay so I feel like I feel like I should know that reference, but I haven’t seen it! But yes, there was a specific reference [for that shot]. I’m a huge fan of dramas, and there’s this movie that started off as a play, Closer, with Clive Owen, Natalie Portman, Julia Roberts, and Jude Law, I think. It’s just a really fucked up movie about, like, relationships that are falling apart, and people who are falling apart and losing their identities and losing themselves.

Paste: And you were like, yes, this is perfect for my hangout comedy! 

Jackson: Exactly, yeah! And so at the end of the movie, Natalie Portman has this iconic—to me—shot where she’s walking through New York City in slow motion, having kind of overcome and gotten you know, I forget the exact arc that she had, but like, it was just a beautiful shot. And I just always remember watching that movie like, That’s a fucking really great shot. And so that was the reference that we used, put [Fay] in slow motion just like they did in Closer.

And I think the fact that you had a feeling that [the shot] was a reference to something is really impressive, because it definitely was.

Paste: Well, I will have to go out and watch Closer now! And you know, pop culture always informs itself, so it’s very possible that that shot might have been inspired by one classic sitcom, and now here it’s coming back around to inspire Grand Crew.

Jackson: Absolutely. Thanks so much for watching. I appreciate you.

The final two episodes of Grand Crew Season 2 will air Friday, April 28 on NBC at 8 and 8:30pm ET. Both seasons are streaming now on Peacock and Hulu.

Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.

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