Jonah Ray’s ‘Hidden America’ Takes A Seriously Funny Look At Travel

My two favorite things on the face of the earth are travel and comedy. I love to go to new places, to see new things and eat new foods and — most of all — meet new people. And, when I can, I love to make people laugh. That’s why I was instantly, almost hysterically, excited to watch Hidden America, a parody travel show that’s streaming on Seeso.

With narration that makes subtle allusions to a volatile ex named Stacy, as well as quotes from and the musical garbage-fire that is Smash Mouth, Hidden America is easily one of the sharpest, most targeted parodies that I’ve ever seen. It takes dead aim at shows like Anthony Bourdain’s The Layover and creates a pitch perfect ventriloquist act that is an almost seamless recreation of its source material. But what I love most about Hidden America is that — all jokes aside — it’s an incredibly sincere call to travel.

The show is hosted by the extremely busy Jonah Ray, co-host of the Nerdist podcast, co-host of Comedy Central’s The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail, and host of the upcoming revival of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (I know, right?).

In Hidden America, Ray plays a kind of heightened version of himself, one filled with hubris and self-loathing. It’s a big part of what makes the show work, because it spends as much time poking fun at Ray’s character as it does Bourdain. All things considered, it’s a brilliant performance, which is why I was extremely grateful for the opportunity to ask Jonah Ray a few questions about comedy, music, and the benefits of travel.

Why did you decided to make a fake travel show?

I’m a huge fan of parody, I always have been. Comedy from Mel Brooks and Weird Al pretty much raised me. And I’m also obsessed with Anthony Bourdain, and I kind of realized that it’s ripe territory to do a travel show, because with a travel show you’re talking to all these different characters in all these different places, and it’s such a good format for a sketch show.

It’s kind of like Comedy Bang Bang, which is a talk show, but also essentially it’s a sketch show. That’s kind of how I wanted to approach it.

And I love the way that Bourdain is shot, I love that it takes itself so seriously. A few years ago me and a couple of buddies did a web series called The Freeloader’s Guide To Easy Living, which was a parody of old educational reels, except it was all about how to get free drinks, how to get free food, how to get free travel, and it was all fake. The director, who was also the co-writer, Peter Atencio, he went on to direct Key & Peele.

We actually met because we had mutual friends, I was working at a movie theater and he had just been fired for punching a hole in the wall. And because we had the same friends at the movie theater we became friends, and it was just one of those things where he liked comedy but he came from a place of just loving Michael Mann and Michael Bay — you know, big epic-looking stuff — so he was able to kind of pull off this action look. Especially when he went on to do Key & Peele, it really blew me away. Comedy doesn’t just have to service comedy. You can also work really hard to make it look really cool, and the fact that Bourdain looks really cool and is shot really well, that would be a great way to combine a lot of the things I love in entertainment.

It’s interesting that you bring up Anthony Bourdain, because I’ve been a fan of his for years, and when I was watching your show he was the first person I thought of. And now, after watching all of Hidden America, I feel like the curtains have been pulled back and the mystery is gone. I guess that’s what good parody does, right? It’s like all of a sudden I can see the BS of it.

Oh no, I’m so sorry!

No, no, it’s great!

[Laughter] Bourdain is so good at it, he is really good at it, and he’s so specific. He is really good at making things mystic and he is such a good writer and he does have such a great cadence, and ZPD productions, the crew who makes the show, those guys are crazy as far as what they’re able to pull off with the look of every episode.

And so I am trying to parody the guy who is trying to do that, the guy who saw Bourdain and thought “I can do that, I can wax poetic.” So I didn’t mean to like, reveal that Bourdain is pompous or anything like that, I think it was more about the idea that he is really good, and what if a guy thought he could do it too. Which is something that I like to play with in each episode of the show, that hubris of thinking that you can pull off something that you can’t.

It’s obvious that you have a lot of respect for Bourdain, and for travel, and even in just watching the show it feels like you really respect each place you visit too. I think it was most evident when you went to Denver.

Yeah, I mean, a problem I’ve always had with doing parody, and it’s a good thing to a point, but when it comes to doing parody I like to get as close to the real thing as possible, and to be as realistic to what we’re doing as possible. So you wanna get those really good shots of Denver, and you want to show stuff that’s specific to Denver, which is also good for the writing.

Ideally you’re going to make a bunch of these episodes, and if you kind of do these base sketches for every city then it’s going to get kind of repetitive. But if you make it specific to the city and let the city inspire the bits then you’ll be able to almost have a love letter to go along with the footage that you want to show of that city. And that was kind of the idea, but the problem is sometimes you can get lost in the parody.

It’s like, I’m trying to make fun of the thing I’m making and I sometimes forget to put commentary on it, or a twist on it, so it’s a fine line of making the thing without just making the thing.

And I love that aspect of it, the care that you put into each episode. I mean, if you were going to make a fake travel show I think it would have been really easy to go too far with it, but at the core of it the show is almost trying to take itself seriously, and that’s what makes it so funny. Like in Chicago, where the episode opens with you wanting to talk about gun violence instead of food, but then you hear a gunshot and get spooked so the rest of the show is just about food.

That joke right there is one of my favorites too, because it is layered in a comment on Chicago having the worst gun violence in the country, but it also plays into the parody that this is a travel show and “what we’re going to talk about is so serious, oh it’s so serious.” And it plays into the hubris of a host who thinks he could talk about it, and take it so deep, and then who bails immediately when there’s danger. And so that’s why I really like doing that kind of stuff because it plays into the strong points of the show, I believe.

Because in the end, the guy — it’s me, you know — but I’m doing my best Bourdain with elements of Alan Partridge, but it’s basically this guy that has the ego, that thinks people want to hear him talk about stuff, even if he has no right to do it, he has no education to speak about it correctly.

Oof. Dude, that kind of hits me. As a writer I’m constantly afraid that I’m that guy.

Oh totally, so much of the show comes from what I think about myself, you know that idea that I’ve snuck in the backdoor and I’m not deserving.

Man, that feeling never goes away?

[Laughter] No it does not.

But even in that, there’s this sincerity that comes through really nicely. At the very end of the first season you have this soliloquy, and I actually wrote it down because, in its own way, it moved me. You say:

“We’re told from day one that money is the one thing in this world that can buy the ticket to happiness. And all though I was paid a good amount of money to make this show, what I found in the end was that it’s not cash or fame or validation or being on an actual television channel that can make this an easier ride. It’s the experiences, the people, the places, that exists within arms reach to all of us that in the end make up what’s great about Hidden America.”

I mean, all jokes aside, that sounds like a pretty impassioned call to travel if you ask me.

I love travel. The part that people don’t like about travel is getting from one place to another. They always say that it’s about the journey, not the destination but, not when you’re flying. Flying sucks. When you’re there, that’s what’s great.

I’m 6 foot 5, so flying is not fun for me, it’s a real pain in the ass, and the knees, and the neck. I go to use the airplane bathroom and I have to bend my neck and bend my knees just so I can pee. It’s not fun. But it is great once you get there.

Traveling isn’t only a way to meet new people and experience new things and see things you wouldn’t see otherwise, it also gives you a larger perspective on your country and on the world, and it also makes you appreciate where you decided to live and where you decided to stay. It’s one of my favorite parts about travel, it’s more about the people and the experiences and being able to come home with that.

Yeah that’s exactly what I’m talking about, and I don’t think the show does anything to sacrifice that sincerity. It’s a hilarious show, but it’s really tender at the same time. Even the soundtrack is incredibly intimate, one could argue. Am I crazy to think that the soundtrack is like, 100 percent Sub Pop?

[Laughter] It is 99 percent from Sub Pop. Let’s say 95 percent from Sub Pop and Sub Pop subsidiaries. That’s really cool that you noticed that.

Essentially I wanted to try and figure out a way to have good music. You know there is some good music in the different music libraries out there, but I’ve been making TV stuff for a long time and I’ve had to settle so much that I just hate it. When I was working at the E! Network and G4 and Attack of the Show, I’d make these sketches and I could just never find the right kind of song, it never felt real. There was no passion behind it because it was probably just some guy who made it to sell to the library.

So it never sounds right, and I think people can pick up on that. And then my friend Isaac, I asked him about it, because he’s been the music advisor on a couple of movies. I asked him how it works and he said “you know, I always thought that a project should work out a deal with a label and just use their music.” So I started working with Lacey Swain over at Sub Pop and we emailed about it and kind of just figured out a small flat fee per song.

And I thought we were never gonna get Band of Horses, or Father John Misty, but Lacey said “oh no no no, Father John Misty loves this kind of stuff and he’d probably be down if I showed him the pilot.” And so we ended up using like, four Father John Misty songs.

But outside of that there were a couple of times when I just wanted a specific song for a scene, so I would reach out to those bands. Like the song at the very end, I really wanted that Cheap Girls song “Slow Nod,” and then with the band Toys That Kill at the very end with the song “Little Bit Stranger,”…I’ve been obsessed with that song for 15 years, and I almost wanted it for the opening song, because it’s got the lyrics “out here it’s a little stranger, but what’s a trip without a little danger.” It’s perfect, and it was so cool to use actual songs.

You know there’s a lot of talk about comedy being the new punk rock, and with the soundtrack of this show and in a few other spots I really felt like that shone through. It was really cool to see Hutch Harris from The Thermals show up in the Seattle episode, playing the president of Sub Pop.

Yeah he drove up from Portland for the day, it was great.

He’s trying to get into comedy, right?

You know, I’ve heard people use that phrase before, that he’s trying to get into comedy, but he is in comedy. He kind of is a part of the scene, and the only way to try and be in comedy is to be in comedy, and that’s what he’s been doing. And he’s a funny guy. He’s a good actor, I thought he really did great in that scene.

He really did. I honestly didn’t recognize that it was him until about halfway through it.

Hutch is great, he can be subtle, and he really knows how to play the straight man.

You know, as we’re talking about this fake travel show that has a lot of real influence from your own life, I’ve got to ask, is Stacy real?

[Laughter] AH, no, but she represents like, a couple of people. Stacy was kind of a one-off joke when we made the pilot, which was New Orleans. There was a network that we made the pilot for originally before coming to Seeso — and everyone at Seeso has been great — but the original network had these notes that asked “why is this guy traveling?”

And we were like, well it’s a travel show. When a travel show comes out no one questions why the person is traveling. They don’t go “wait who is this guy? Where does he come from?” Like, no one cares. So the Stacy joke was kind of the answer to that, like he was doing this show and traveling to get back at his ex.

In my experience travel is a great way to heal a broken heart.

Exactly, so when we were writing Denver we wanted to do a kind of personal story for him. And Denver seemed ripe for it because it’s a great city and there are a ton of things to touch on, but it was kind of a trickier episode to write because when people think of Denver they think about weed and mountains, and in reality it’s not even that close to the mountains. I mean, you can see the mountains. They’re there, but you know, the mountains in L.A. are closer to the city proper.

And that’s when we started expanding on the idea of Stacy. She is fake, but she is reminiscent of different people who had real effects on some of us who worked on the show. You know, fake but real.