Jason Jones on ‘The Detour,’ Politics, and Making It in the States

Photo: Daniel Zuchnik/WireImage

In his show The Detour, Jason Jones plays the dad in a family that is constantly trying to evade capture from some authority or government organization each season, but in the process must go through all the normal problems of a marriage or parenting or just trying to survive his own hubris. The Detour’s first two seasons may have slipped under your radar, a potential effect of being on TBS while the network was still establishing itself as a place for quality original content, but past episodes are available on Hulu.

“I’ve always said, we weren’t fast out of the gates with numbers or people talking about us,” said Jones, who created the show with wife Samantha Bee, “but I guarantee if you keep us on audiences will find us. And they have been slowly. I welcome people to come watch the show because I love making it.”

The New York Times recommended it as a show to watch in bunches, which makes sense given that each season feels like its own extended movie. The third season, currently airing and apparently driving the family towards a major climactic ending that Jones and Bee have been aiming for from the beginning, has the family trying to tough it out in Alaska, but if you haven’t seen any of the prior episodes, they’re worth finding first.

Is making a show like this one more challenging as you go because you’re always setting a new bar, or easier because you’ve got more experience?

Some things are easier because you know what you’re doing and you know what works – people’s capabilities, what resonates with fans of the show. For me it’s really not about one-upping yourself as much as continuing to tell a story that is engaging. That’s not easy. It’s really, how long can we hold people watching this one family and the trials and tribulations that they go through? When people ask me, “What’s for season 4?” I’ve got an idea but it’s gonna require a lot of work.

You’ve been saying that the fourth season, thinking of one, would be the toughest yet because it had only been planned out ahead for three. Still the case?

When you go in and you pitch these, you pitch out multiple seasons ahead. They wanna know where you’re going with things. I had this ending that I wanted to drive them towards, which becomes the end of this season, and we sort of wrapped everything up in this current storyline. It’s wrapped up so it makes sense when were doing all of this stuff, but then something else happens that gives us options for season 4. I have set up season 4 very dramatically in fact, but what happens? I don’t know.

There’s a running gag in The Detour, intentionally or not, of you having gross things done to you or going into your mouth. Can you keep finding new gross things to happen to you?

You know, what’s funny is that we never set out to gross anybody out. We set out to just make each other laugh in the room. The very first episode that we shot, the pee bottle was only supposed to be thrown at my chest. It was supposed to be all over my clothes, that was what was scripted. Then she threw it and it spilled, but we’re like, just throw it at my face. I’ll be yelling and it’ll go in my mouth, and so much went in my mouth that first take that we just went with it and played it. It’s kind of a fun thing to revisit. A lot of the times I will then be on set and go “Let’s push this a little further.” In the birthing scene last year I was supposed to fall in, and that’s the end of the scene, but once I was in there I was like “This is so gross – let’s play around in it for a bit.” Telling the actress, “Push my head down, use me to get up.” A lot of stuff can come from me just trying to always make more of what we have already set up.

You’ve also got a callback in season 3 to the season 2 Hamilton parody “Going Postal” about Ben Franklin. It was a really nice, catchy song. Did that experience make you think about how Lin-Manuel Miranda has a super tough job if he makes a whole musical, or was it easier than you expected?

Listen, I don’t want to compare myself to what he did, it’s a great thing. We put that together pretty fast, so you draw your own conclusion. [laughs] That’s one of my favorite parts of this show – writing lyrics for these songs that we write. Our incredible composer Rob Kolar takes these lyrics that we give him and turns stuff into this crazy masterpiece.

The heart of the show seems to be the relationship between you and your wife, played by Natalie Zea, and the desire for them to stay together even as so many things are pulling them apart.

That was always the germ of this series, which was this couple. A lot of focus had been on the kids in the first season, but truly the beating heart of this series is this couple and how they can fight and push and pull and bend but never break. That’s the fun. It is the joy of seeing how far we can push them. There was this great video that I watched, they were seeing how far they could bend the wings of a gnat. They were up to like 60 degrees, and could they take it to 61? I was so tense watching it. That’s the metaphor for this show. They can bend, bend, we flirt with the break. At the end of episode 6, every person I’ve shown that episode to goes “No! No!” They can’t have it. They can’t have this couple break.

A lot of people may remember Zea from The Other Guys as Christinith or from Justified, and Samantha Bee has been effusive in her praise of Zea’s comedic abilities in this show.

I’ve said this before, but the best way to describe her is effortless. She has this natural ability to just be this character. She’ll say something in real life and I’ll say “I gotta use that.” Cause that’s just how I write, I steal stuff. She just has this ease about her that makes me a better actor, makes everyone around her a better actor, and anchors the fantasy that we write. This is a crazy world, but I don’t think it’s that crazy because I’m living with this real person.

It’s usually best to avoid internet comments, but I’m curious what you think about this Reddit post about The Detour, specifically about the content of the show being “political” and not agreeing with your “views” even though he really loves the show. Do you agree that the show is political?

I don’t think anybody set out to make a political point. If something comes across politically charged it’s because that’s who me and my writers are. We see that, but I think what I like about writing is taking the piss out of both sides. Not a lot of people do that anymore, it’s very partisan – just stick to making fun of the right, stick to making fun of the left, conservative, liberal – but I like to make fun of both. I don’t spare any target. I go “If this is funny, if this is hypocritical, if this is stupid…” I’ll make a joke about it. But I also won’t belabor it. I don’t think we verge on the point of mean ever, and there’s always a reflection back on us ultimately: “Are we wrong here? Are we the assholes? Maybe it’s us.” You can almost choose what to laugh at in some cases with something political.

Are there are a lot of conservative fans of the show that you didn’t expect because of your history on The Daily Show?

Because comedy’s gotten so divisive, I think Daily Show is actually seen as a pretty centered show based on where we are now. The confliction comes now from “Samantha Bee’s involved? I can’t watch it” Or they’ll secretly watch it.

You’re doing a lot of comedy now but that wasn’t always your goal. Did you ever have a type of comedy, whether it be standup, acting, improv, that you wanted to do as a kid or was it just something that happened to you during your acting career?

I always loved comedy. I was a giant wrestling fan – I would stay up once a month to watch Saturday Night’s Main Event back when Hulk Hogan was some juggernaut of a hero. One night I thought it was on but it wasn’t, it was Saturday Night Live, and I was like “What is this!?” I was watching it and laughing hard like I’ve never laughed before. Because I was “getting” jokes. I remember the first time I was like “Oh I get that. I’m smart enough to get that.” Then it transitioned to me being really upset when Saturday Night’s Main Event was on instead of SNL. Wrestling is on? I want SNL to be on.

I went to theater school, and I enjoyed comedy but I was hellbent on being a serious Shakespeare actor. Then a couple buddies and I went to go see sketch comedy one night when we graduated and we weren’t doing anything, just waitering, and we watched it and said “Holy shit this is terrible. We can do so much better than that.” That’s what prompted us to start sketch comedy, just knowing we could do it better, and then we did. We worked at it for awhile, got a couple small TV shows in Canada that nobody saw, but what I loved about it and what we did that was different was brought – we were these trained Shakespeare actors – we brought that serious tone to what we did. That reflects what we do on The Detour – nothing is winking at the camera. Nothing is zany. There’s no catch-line character, really. Even the catch-line character we have, the “Whatcha doing there?” guy from the very first episode, he’s still rooted and plays very seriously. So it’s that style that I gravitated towards and continue to enjoy. “Serious comedy.”

You and your wife were both born in Canada and I think it’s easy for comedy fans to point to all the funny people who come from north of the border. Do you see there being anything inherently funny about being Canadian, or is that just a misnomer?

I’ll point you towards French Canadians and that lowers the bar. But yeah, there’s a very cherry-picked argument that “Canadians are funny.” For every funny Canadian, I can name ten funny Americans. That is basically the population difference. But if there is one thing about Canadians that is inherent, it’s the self-deprecation. Because we’re perpetually number two – I shouldn’t say “we’re” because I’m an American now – but we’re always known as “America’s friend.” “Country number two, second place, Silver medalist.” So you’re sort of born not knowing you’re the best. I think that breeds a level of self-deprecation which is always funny. If you can laugh at yourself you can laugh at anything.

I want to read you something else, which is an excerpt from The Globe and Mail that came out after you became a US citizen and there was some Canadian backlash: “We have long been suckers for that sort of validation and recognition of Canada. While many of those who’ve done well in the United States have been sincere in their celebration of Canadian roots, it was also a tactical manoeuvre to please a Canadian audience and to benefit from a Canadian TV and film industry that, embarrassingly, prizes Hollywood success over local talent and excellence.” Is that how you see it from the Canadian perspective? That real recognition only comes from Hollywood success?

Holy shit, slow news day for The Globe and Mail. But you know, there was always a thing working as an actor in Canada that even if you are on a Canadian show you haven’t “made it,” because truly making it means getting a call from the States and coming down and being celebrated down there. Yeah, there is some truth to the placating that certain actors would do, Canadian shoutouts and that was the breadcrumb. Canadians would go “Yeah, we are great!” Ask a random Canadian who a “famous Canadian” is and most will give you a list of people who are famous because they gained success in the United States. But some are homegrown. There’s just not the money to support the business there. You’ll have a successful canadian TV show and a million people will watch it, but Seinfeld comes on and 12 million people watch it. Just because you just know it, you hear more about it, there’s billboards and stuff, and there’s just no money for Canadian promotion of a show. I always felt I would’ve loved to stay there and build that industry and built it bigger, but when the States call you, you gotta go. Also they called me down for my favorite show at the time, which at the time was a dream.

You write and star in The Detour, you executive produce your wife’s show Full Frontal with her, and you have three kids. Do you have time in your schedule for more or at your limit?

I’m writing a movie for a company right now and also prepping to shoot a pilot that I wrote as well, so no, I got room. I’m also running very soon to go finish sound mix on the ninth episode, so I’m still in post on this season, and if our numbers look good I’m gonna jump right back to writing season 4. It’s kinda ongoing, which is great. I’ll be very sad when this show goes away because I’ve enjoyed all of it. We’ll go out on our terms so we can write out a nice beautiful ending instead of “Nope, you’re done.”

Jason Jones on ‘The Detour,’ Politics, and Making It […]