On ‘The Detour’ with Jason Jones

Jason Jones doesn’t look at his new TV role on The Detour as much of a departure from his days as a correspondent for The Daily Show. In fact, one of his biggest takeaways from working with Jon Stewart is the driving force behind his new series, which he co-created with his wife Samantha Bee and debuted on TBS last year: “The best pieces are making a point, telling a great story, and also leaving you on the floor laughing,” he says, “and so funny that you’re almost missing the point because you’re laughing too hard at the face value.” Somehow, The Detour strikes a wonderful balance between silly sitcom irreverence – there’s plenty of screaming, family chaos, and bodily fluids to go around – and heart. I spoke with Jones yesterday about developing the show, casting Natalie Zea, and what it’s like to be a parent in New York City these days.

Are you enjoying your President’s Day?

Well, I’ve been running around a lot, but other than that, it’s, you know…an ironic President’s Day.

It really is. How’s it been transitioning from the late night role you played on The Daily Show to the sitcom role you have on The Detour?

Well, it’s not like we weren’t characters on The Daily Show, you know? As correspondents we were characters. We were playing very obtuse, heightened versions of ourselves. So I guess it wasn’t that big of a transition for me. I always saw field pieces as mini stories – they had a beginning, middle, and end, you have the cast of characters, you know what they’re going to say, and ultimately, you just have to weave your dialogue through what you think they’re going to say. Now, they don’t always say it, which is very difficult, but I just see The Detour as a larger version format of a field piece.

When you were developing The Detour, what was important to you in terms of the larger vision and the kind of family you wanted to depict? I’d say it’s a family show that’s not family-friendly – is that fair?

I like to call it a comedy show about a family. [laughs] I just wanted to give a voice to the kids, which you never see in sitcoms – that voice that would normally tell a glib joke or half a joke and then run off and do their homework and you never see them again. I wanted them to be real and equal, and that means giving up real estate. I don’t think there are a lot of comedians out there – not that I’d call myself a comedian – but there’s not a lot of people out there who have their own show and give up real estate to children, and that was important to me. This was not a star vehicle for me. This was a show, first and foremost, about this family’s journey and the honesty that they bring in their relationship, which sometimes is to their detriment.

We spoke with Natalie Zea last season, and she told us how she got the job by tweeting to comedy writers after another project fell through then essentially getting offered the role by you the next day. I wanted to ask you how that came together from your perspective – seems like it happened fast.

It was really fast! I’d even inquired about Natalie earlier on because I liked her and I thought she was really terrific, but she was involved with that other project. So we went through a couple rounds of casting and made a couple offers, but thankfully it didn’t really pan out because I wasn’t really onboard with all of them. And then, almost simultaneously, my agent – who also happens to rep Natalie – called me and was like “Hey, Natalie’s available!” And I saw her tweet and I went “Oh, well that seems like kismet!” It was Thanksgiving by this point and we were shooting a week later, and she was flying home to Texas for Thanksgiving, and I called her and said “Hey, read the scripts, tell me what you think. If you have problems, let me know.” I always want to work on things to make everything better, so I’m always open to great ideas. She flew home to Texas and she called me when she landed, and she was like “I’m in!” That was it! It was pretty great. And then at the same time you show up on the first day of shooting on set, which was I think at the strip club, and you’re like “I don’t know this woman – she’s supposed to be my wife!” But she just jumped right into it. She’s such a professional and such a great actress, and she made us feel real almost instantaneously.

Wives on sitcoms can be frustrating sometimes. So often they’re just uptight and annoyed by the goofy husband who gets to be the funny one, but Natalie’s character is funny and complex…and pretty screwed up at times too.

Yeah! Because my wife’s not like that, obviously – she’s not the person who puts her hands on her hips and wags her finger at me when I do something stupid. She’s in there doing stupid things too. She’s just as much at fault as I am for sloppy parenting. When Natalie saw the script, that was her first impulse too. She was like “I love her because she is so flawed.” And that’s what I love about it – you rarely see a female character like that. They always seem too perfect to exist.

Were there any lessons you learned making the first season that helped you out this time around?

I’m not one to learn lessons. [laughs] I’m not a big lesson-learner. You just have to surround yourself with people you find funny, you know? And the cast are just people I think are great and we’ll never let go and I’ll employ them as long as I can, because at the end of the day, that is what we’re trying to do: make people laugh. Sorry, I shouldn’t say that – make people laugh and tell an engaging story at the same time. And if you go back even further, my one takeaway from The Daily Show, from Jon in fact, was always that the best pieces are making a point, telling a great story, and also leaving you on the floor laughing – and so funny that you’re almost missing the point because you’re laughing too hard at the face value.

How’d you strike the right balance between making the show funny and irreverent but also grounded and with a heart at the same time?

Natalie, me, the kids, and subsequently everyone else who is cast, I always tell them: “Let’s just play this real. These situations are outlandish, they’re outrageous, they’re sometimes very disgusting, but play them as real as possible. How would this character really react in these situations, even if they’re not remotely possible? How would you react to this?” And I think that’s the thing – we’re not winking and nodding at anything. We’re just reacting to the outrageousness of the scenes and the writing.

How’d you land on New York City as the location for season 2?

I had sort of a plan in mind where the first season is a literal vacation – a detour, I guess – and I wanted each subsequent season to sort of embrace the metaphor but not actually be literal. So I had the idea of the first season being sort of a travel thing, the second season was gonna be sort of an urban city setting, the third season was going to be ultimately…well, you’ll find out. [laughs] But it’s something completely different. Because when you have imbalance in your life, you are, I think, the most vulnerable, and that’s consequently when some of the funniest situations occur.

What’s it like to be a parent in New York City these days? Especially when you and your wife both have your own TV show?

It’s chaos! It’s absolute chaos. But it’s fun – I wouldn’t have it any other way. We get up in the morning, drive the kids to school or put them on a bus, and it just feels boring and normal. I’m dragging my kids through construction zones and just dragging them across the street while they’re complaining. But it’s fun. I’d be bored in any other city if I went there now. And they don’t know any different, so I win!

I always laugh at the bumper at the end of The Detour and Full Frontal you and Sam have for your company, Randy & Pam’s Quality Entertainment. So thank you for that – it’s a good one.

That’s a Solid Gold dancers reference. I don’t know if you noticed this, but all the boys are me and all the girls are Sam.

It’s the best. Where’d the “Randy & Pam” name come from?

“Randy & Pam” is a story. Sam and I went to a bed and breakfast one time and we woke up in the morning and the owners were gone, and they left us a note. They said “Dear Randy and Pam: Breakfast is in the stove. Just leave the money on the table.” Sam/Pam I kind of get, but Randy? That’s so far from Jason!

Season 2 of The Detour premieres on TBS tonight at 9:00pm.

On ‘The Detour’ with Jason Jones