TBS’ outstanding half-hour family comedy The Detour returns for its fourth season this week, picking up where season 3 left off: daughter Delilah (Ashley Gerasimovich), fed up with the Parker family’s life on the lam, ran off on her own with stern instructions not to come looking for her. I got a chance to speak with series creator, showrunner, and star Jason Jones about the origin of the show’s premise, the difficulty of casting kids, and shooting all over the world.
Sling TV: Congratulations on season 4, I’ve seen a few of the episodes and this show is consistently funny in surprising ways, I really enjoyed it.
Jason Jones: Thank you so much for that, I appreciate it!
The show started pretty simply, as a vacation gone wrong, before spiraling into the extremely twisty misadventure it is now. Did you have all of that in mind at the outset?
I always wanted to do something a lot bigger than just Vacation: The TV Series. That’s why in the very first episode, at the end, I’m being interrogated — so you go, “Oh, there’s a lot more here than meets the eye.” So it was always planned to become something bigger. It was initially sold as “A vacation that goes wrong,” and certainly that’s what the first season mainly focused on, but it was always meant to be about the misadventures of this family. The show is called The Detour — and not Vacation: The Series — for a reason. It’s about constantly moving and redirecting as a family. It’s really not about the journey, it is truly about detouring, and recovering from the detour.
Looking back at season 3, it’s loaded with hints that Delilah was getting fed up with life on the lam, all the way back to the season premiere.
Which begs the question, did you know what you’d be doing in season 4 even before you started shooting season 3? And, do you already have a plan for season 5?
We knew that we wanted to do a season about looking for her. We weren’t sure when it was gonna be. We’re always bridging what I want to do versus what the network wants to do, and I don’t think they were ready for that in season 3, so we pulled up sort of short of that in season 2. We were talking about doing season 4 as season 3 when we were doing season 2. (laughs.) So we’re always sort of looking one season ahead. We always have these jokes where we think, “Oh, it’d be great if we seed that for the next season.” Fingers crossed that we do a season 5, there are many plot points in season 4 that are tipping toward season 5.
The premise of the show has you on the road all the time, getting into different scenarios for as long as they’re dramatically interesting, and then you can just shake the etch-a-sketch again, go to another town, get someone a new job, or follow a new lead, and repeat. So what came first as you developed the show? The premise, or the desire for that kind of flexibility?
I think they both sort of mutually happened at the same time. I wanted to tell an honest story about a family, but I don’t think that would be interesting enough for a TV show if we were stuck in one place, so I wanted to move it around. We as a family, my real life family [Ed. note: Jones co-created The Detour with wife and fellow Daily Show alum Samantha Bee], we live in New York City and we’re just constantly uprooting — every New Yorker is always moving. Either you stay in one place forever, or you’re constantly uprooting, moving to a new place every two years. That’s what our life was like, we were just always moving and changing locations and areas of the city. So I thought, ‘Oh, this’ll be great if we just move from city to city, as a show.’ But in terms of the production, we really painted ourselves into a corner there: the first season we shot in Atlanta, the second New York, the third up in Calgary, and then season 4, we shot everywhere, all over the place. So that presents its own set of problems that we had to deal with.
A lot of what we write, we’ll amend along the way based on where we’re shooting. We’ll meet a character and think ‘Oh my god, this is a great character to put in the show,’ that we couldn’t have dreamed up in a writer’s room. We just met this person and we’re like, ‘Oh great, perfect. This is a character!’
The Parkers really feel like a real family. How do you build the sort of family shorthand that the Parkers have with three other people who, while very talented, are not actually your family? Do you guys hang out off the set?
I’m their boss, so they don’t like to hang out with me! (Laughs) It’s very bizarre, because the kids will be whisked off to school, and I’ll be off writing so Natalie [Zea]’s often left alone. So we don’t have that much time to really hang out when we’re not shooting. But, I’ll tell you, since the first day we shot together on the pilot, to this season when we’re all back together again, it all just works like clockwork and I can’t really explain it. I’d say it’s part writing, part great performers, but something else happens there and I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s the speed at which we talk? I don’t know, something magically happens when all four of us get together, and those are always the greatest scenes. It’s just an intangible, I wish I could explain what it is, but I think it’s part luck, I really do. Good premise, good writing, great performances, you know?
I think you really scored with the kids.
It must be really tricky to cast children who you’re hopefully gonna work with for five or six years of this thing, we’re gonna watch these kids grow up — you don’t want to fall into the A.J. Soprano problem, where the kid turns out to be not so great. So what do you look for when you’re casting 10-12 year olds that you’re hoping to be working with as 15-16 year olds?
To be honest, I had real trouble with the girl casting. I mean, Ashley [Gerasimovich] was the best and that’s why she has the part, but there were probably seven other girls who were excellent! I was just talking to — I don’t wanna name-drop, but I will, because he’s great — I was talking to Alexander Payne, and he said “good luck casting non-Hollywood actors for the kids, because that’s the toughest part.” So I went into the process with that trepidation.
And these kids were so prepared and so good, I had trouble narrowing down the girls because they were so prepared. The boys were a different story: I saw about 300 boys, and Liam [Carroll] was actually the first boy that read, and I thought ‘All right! This is going to be the easiest process ever,” and it was downhill from there, unfortunately. But I only needed one, and he came first, so he was the bar, and he was the only one I brought in to test, because he was so good, and then I tested him against four other girls and it was truly the chemistry. All the other girls who tested were fantastic, but Ashley had that intangible that I couldn’t quite put my finger on at the time.
But here’s the other thing that we do that I think is different from most shows: We actually give them funny things to do. Most shows I think will just give the kids a shitty line, and then they go fuck off for a while. “Where are the kids?” “Oh, they’re upstairs playing.” Ours is a true four-hander show, where we make them a part, and I give them punchlines, and I give them comedic premises, and they have to pull them off. So not only are they great performances, but the trust that I have in them to actually nail their punchlines is what brings their game up.
Yes, Liam particularly really delivers them.
Yeah, it’s never more than really two takes! That’s the great thing about them. We do so much. We’re not a big-budget show — I know at times it can look like we have a big budget, because we know how to stretch it — so where we make up our budgets is the speed at which we do things, so we’re able to shoot 16, 17 pages a day, just because everyone is so good. You know, I’m in the writers room from day one to the end. I’m the first person working on the show, and the last person working on the show, in the edit. And many times I feel like I know the lines, but they know their lines way better than I do. Ashley will know my lines and prompt me many times, because they are so, so, so prepared, which is a testament to them and to their parents, who are great as well.
The character of Robin is consistently one of the funniest parts of the show, because she is so far from the typical scolding, side-eye mom just barely tolerating dad so common to TV comedies. Can you talk a little about how you conceived the role and what Natalie has brought to it?
That was one of the major things that I wanted to do — you know, I do what I do, I’m smart sometimes, I’m stupid sometimes, and I fall down a lot. But the one thing I really wanted from the wife character was not to be infallible, which is so the norm for TV sitcoms. It’s the wife who’s the perfect woman, and never messes up, and is always right, and it’s just such a trope that I wanted to get away from. So we wrote a flawed character, and I think we are always willing to forgive someone who is trying their best, and she is always trying her best, and her fucked-up personality and her fucked-up upbringing really gets in the way of it. That’s the big thing. And it’s kinda based on my wife: my wife was a major fuckup when she was younger. I don’t want to say that I was the one who turned her around, but I was. (Laughs) I gave her life purpose!
It worked out pretty well for her, I think. [Ed. note: Samantha Bee has her own show on TBS as well, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee.]
Yeah, she’s doing fine! But I think what Natalie brings on top of what we had already created as an archetype is this effortlessness in her performance. This woman feels so real, you know?
I totally agree, yeah.
It’s never pushed, it always just sits in this perfect zone. And she makes me a better actor. I can’t say enough about her, how good she is.
Do you now or have you ever used GET SOME all the time in real life? If not do you know someone who does? Is this a tribute to someone?
You know what’s funny about GET SOME? It was never meant to be a catchphrase. I don’t think it’s ever been written in the scripts, to tell you the truth. I did say it when I was playing sports with my kids, I’d always go, “c’mon, let’s get some!” and that was kind of my thing. So it started as just an improv that I would do. I think I did it on the pilot once or twice, and it was really just me filling space where there was no — like I had to walk around to the back of the car to push the car in the pilot, and I think I just did one of those claps and like, “c’mon, let’s get some,” and it just kind of snowballed from there. I don’t know how it became a catchphrase, I don’t think I ever wrote it in a script.
It’s just so perfectly meaningless.
Yeah, it has no substance whatsoever.
And now you’ve got everybody else saying it.
Yeah, I think the kids improv’d it too! They don’t do a lot of improv because they’re very studious and they really want to honor what we’ve written, but the couple times that “get some” has creeped into their mouth, I think it was improv. So it’s become its own thing, just purely organically.
How many seasons do you see the show going?
I could keep this going for as long as people want to watch it and TBS wants to make it. I think we’ve set up such a fun world that we’re only starting to scratch the surface of what we can do. And you know, they’re short seasons, they’re only ten episodes, so it’s a month of prep and two months of shooting. It’s so quick that I could keep it going — I could easily do ten, let’s say that. Whether the network gives me that many, I don’t know, but I could very very easily be perfectly satisfied doing that many.
As you mentioned, you shot all over the world for this season, did you guys get to have any fun off the set while shooting overseas, or was it like any other work-related travel?
I always have fun. This is the luckiest job in the world. I get to make up stupid ideas with a bunch of my friends, and there are 200 people trying to make the stupid ideas happen, and we’re going to great places, so I always have fun. There’s always drinks at the end of the day. It’s the best job every day, I wish I could be down on it, but it’s just the best. We shot in Budapest this year, and I begged my wife to stay an extra four days, and I had a little man-cation to myself, I did a little Eastern Europe, Prague and Vienna trip by myself and it was fun! But the highlight is really shooting and dreaming up these impossible scenarios. There’s one, I think it’s the ninth episode this year, I’m hanging out a window on bedsheets just swinging back and forth, with the Budapest capital in the background, and I’m sitting up there on a safety line, and I’m swinging back and forth going, “This is crazy. This is so crazy. I’m hanging out a window on the 10th floor and I’m in underwear and a fur coat, this is awesome. This couldn’t get better.”
It’s nice work if you can get it!
Yeah! It really is great work if you can get it.
Season 4 of The Detour premieres at 10:30pm ET Tuesday on TBS; all season 4 episodes will be available on demand.