When someone does something at the highest level, many assume that they will continue to do that thing or something exactly like it in perpetuity. After all, that’s the thing that they’re good at. For almost ten years on The Daily Show, Jason Jones was very good, but now he has taken on a very different challenge. As the co-creator (alongside his wife, Full Frontal host and fellow Daily Show legend Samantha Bee), sometimes writer, sometimes director, and star of TBS’ The Detour, Jones is trying to present a sitcom about families absent the typical saccharine sweetness. It’s a role that we’re not used to seeing him in despite previous forays as an actor, but it’s also one that he seems determined to nail.
In our interview with Jones, we discuss the spark behind the creation of The Detour (which has since been picked up for a second season), taking aim at family sitcom tropes, corrupting young minds, leaving The Daily Show behind, and the strain of staring at the news cycle day in and day out.
When you’re pitching this idea, how do you get around comparisons to National Lampoon’s Family Vacation, Little Miss Sunshine, and other family trip movies?
You know, I don’t think we get around it. I think we sort of embrace it, but celebrate the differences in it because there certainly are, and once people start to watch it, they’ll go, “Oh, this is familiar, but it’s completely different at the same time.” Then, especially where we’re going with the show — it’s a radically different change. A detour, if you will, from the expected.
Are there any road trip memories from your life that informed the idea of the show?
You know, growing up, my parents would take us down to Florida and those [trips] were always horrendous. It’s not so much they were bad, but they were just boring. Just being on the road was always boring. That’s kind of the idea behind this: it’s not about the journey, but it’s completely about the destination.
The show goes through a lot of life-changing conversations that parents are going to have with their kids. The daughter has her period for the first time, the son has his first crush. Any personal experience that you’re drawing from there as a father, or are you kind of horrified by the prospect of those things still?
No. No, not at all. We embrace those things as parents, both my wife and I. We had our “where do babies come from?” talk really early on. [Laughs] Probably too young with the kids, which led to obvious questions and that was a fun, awkward conversation that we embraced in that second episode when we’re in the garage talking about it. A lot of these really do come from our own personal lives, these types of conversations.
You guys handled it in such a unique way. I’m kind of curious about what other TV tropes you’re are looking to tackle in your own kind of way. And also, what kind of TV tropes you’re looking to avoid. I know you’ve said in the past that you guys really didn’t want to be a standard family sitcom.
Oh, God no. No, no, no. Basically, the idea behind this was, “Hey, I want a show about a family that I would like to watch and laugh at.” I don’t laugh at family comedies. But a comedy starring a family? I would absolutely laugh at. That’s what I created it for. It was for parents or for non-parents, or just kids who were part of that family or mature enough to laugh at this stuff. I wouldn’t expect children to watch this show, but certainly mine have seen some of it and find it funny. It wasn’t so much [that] we set out to sort of turn tropes on their heads, but if we ever encountered a trope, we would certainly do our best to find a unique way or angle in on it.
The kids on this show aren’t decorations. On some family sitcoms, the kids are just kind of there to say a precocious thing and then walk out of the room. This really feels like an ensemble.
I think it’s a true four-hander, in my opinion. I think you said it. Kids are appendages on so many family sitcoms. They’ll come in, they’ll make half a joke, and then they’re like, “Okay, gotta go to school” or “I’m going to my room.” And then you never see them again. It’s trusting… we found two terrific kid actors, obviously, but trusting these kids to pull off jokes was the big thing, or to land moments of truth. I think that they both did it exceptionally, exceptionally well.
There’s a lot of adult humor in this. These kids are in the thick of the jokes on this show. Have there been any awkward conversations with their parents?
Yeah. It was funny because the parents would always read the scripts first and then I’d get emails from the parents going, “Oh, great. Thanks, wasn’t ready to have this conversation.” So I forced them, maybe, to have the conversation. It only happened twice. The sex conversation, which the boy already knew about. The girl did not, so her parents had to have that talk with her. And then the second one — she didn’t even need to have that talk because he didn’t actually need to know context — was where I think that he’s masturbating and he’s really just putting lotion on his lands. His mom was like, “Oh god. I gotta talk to him about that. Great.” But at the end of it, they actually thanked me because it was like, “I don’t think we would have actually had these conversations with our kids because they are uncomfortable and you forced us to, and now we’ve got this better relationship now because of it.”
That’s something I preach with my kids, “Talk to me first. Talk to me, I’ll tell you everything. I will be the cool guy who will tell you every single thing. Don’t go to the school yard, they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about, I do.” [Laughs]
When you and Samantha Bee left The Daily Show and went to TBS, was that intended to be a package deal? What was it about TBS that spoke to the kind of show you wanted to do?
No, no. Not at all. So it was 2014, I think it was September. We sold the script in concept and then we shot the pilot in December, which was a pretty quick turnaround. The only reason Sam wasn’t in it was that, if this thing tanked and bombed, she would still have a job at The Daily Show. Then in January or February, Jon (Stewart) announced that he was leaving. Simultaneously, like the day he announced, like that morning, I found out they were picking up The Detour. So seeing that, I was like, “Great, because I want to get out of here.” [Laughs] The Daily Show was Jon Stewart and always will continue to be Jon Stewart. So I was leaving, I was already out the door. Then there was talk of Sam replacing him, but, you know, they never came to her. And, you know, certainly, TBS was interested in us as a couple. I started talking to a couple of the development execs with Sam, so we pitched them a once a week, half-hour topical show for her to star in. And they jumped at the chance and signed her up. That’s kind of how it all came about.
Did she have a minor cameo in the second Detour episode as your mother’s voice in the movie theater?
That’s absolutely her, yes.
I was just curious about that.
Some sort of weird Freudian thing. [Laughs]
[Laughs] I wasn’t gonna ask about that, I didn’t want to go there. So, have you paid attention to Trevor Noah’s version of The Daily Show or is it just not something you’ve had time to watch?
Honestly, when I left, I was like, “Eh, I’m done.” Now I’m executive producer over at Full Frontal, as well, and I’m helping out there a fair amount. That’s kind of what I’m focused on, I don’t really watch the show too much anymore. And by “not much,” I mean not at all. [Laughs]
Would you have ever wanted to host The Daily Show?
Truthfully, no. I did my thing. I was a giant fan of the show before I was on, or before Sam was on. I always looked at (Steve) Carell’s trajectory as where I was going to go and was hoping to go. I had a great time [at The Daily Show], I loved every piece I did. But no, hosting was never really in the cards for me. Certainly to replace the irreplaceable is an impossible feat. So…
And you did it for almost 10 years on the show. Can you talk a little bit about the grind of doing that kind of comedy, just staring into the news cycle every day, which can be really depressing?
It is. It’s fun right now. Sam is having a great time right now because it’s so frothy and so pulpy. It’s Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, and Hillary not putting this 74-year-old socialist Jewish man away. It’s crazy. That was always my favorite time at the show, which was election cycles. The election cycles that I worked were nowhere near as crazy as what’s going on right now. But those come to an end and you’ve got to go back to the news cycle and it’s like you said, it can be sad, depressing. Especially when there’s a tragic event happening — it’s always a tough place to be on a political show or a current events show when you’ve got to navigate through that web. I don’t miss that part of it in any way, shape, or form.
The Detour premieres Monday, April 11 at 9 p.m. on TBS.