In “The Detour,” which recently returned to TBS for a fourth season, married partners Jason Jones and Samantha Bee have created a singular sitcom: a comedy about a family that is not exactly a family comedy. It’s full of mayhem and love and usually interrupted sexual situations. One could call it both mature and juvenile, intelligent and dumb — not by turns, but all at once. As I wrote of it once before, it can be violently physical, which is not to say physically violent. I think it’s brilliant.
Jones plays father Nate Parker, with Natalie Zea as his partner, Robin — Bee, of course, has her own TBS show, the current events comedy commentary “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee.” Liam Carroll and Ashley Gerasimovich play mismatched twins Jared, sometimes called Jareb, and Delilah. Nate is a big lug with a righteous core; Natalie a woman with a past, bits of which keep escaping into view. Jared is a sort of idiot, who last season succeeded an alpaca as the mayor of the Alaska town in which the family was hiding. (To explain almost anything in the series would be to begin a long story and, indeed, every season is framed as one, told to some mystified body of officialdom.) His sister is a smart square peg who took off running at the end of Season 3; in the new season, the family is trying to find her, a trip that takes them to a Tibetan lamasery, down South American rivers and onto a Japanese game show.
I spoke with Jones recently by phone, as he walked in Manhattan.
The Parkers are frequently at odds, but above all, “The Detour” strikes me as a portrait of a good marriage.
That was our first and foremost reason for writing it, to show an honest marriage — even though we’re not married on the show. An honest relationship, let’s call it. One that is not saccharine or built with too much judgment — all the tropes that you see in TV comedies, for the most part.
When you sat down with Samantha to create the show, were there specific things you each brought to the table?
We’ve always defined our relationship as a chainsaw and a scalpel. We each have a trade; I’m more of the lumberjack where she’s more of the surgeon. I would maybe bring the bigger ideas, the bulkier stuff, where she would get in there and just carve away and really nuance things. I guess that would be the best metaphor; a lumberjack and a doctor.
In the first season, the show was structured like an episodic road film, a family trip through strange places. Subsequent seasons feel more intricately worked out.
That’s why we have that bit in the first season where I’m being interrogated; it acted as a recap of previous episodes but also let you slowly into a bigger world, and that we were in a lot more trouble than, let’s call it, “Vacation: The TV Series.” It was always supposed to be here’s a regular family, they’re on the road on what seems like a normal vacation with its own plot about I’ve been fired and I’m trying to get my job back, and at the end of the season, it’s not about that. It’s about my wife, her life. I don’t think a lot of shows completely turn the narrative around; a successful show that came out of the gates with a road trip, they’d go on another road trip. I didn’t want to give up the road, ‘cause that’s interesting to me — a family comedy where we’re having discussions in our living room every week, I had no interest in shooting that. So the idea was to always keep it moving, and the trope we came up with was we were on the run — unknowingly in the second season and then very knowingly in the third.
And in the new season you’re running after something.
Yes, we’re the chasers now.
How far ahead do you let yourself look in your plotting? Can you think one or two seasons ahead?
I always like to tip in to something else to come, which fans never like if you’re unceremoniously canceled. Obviously, creators have plans for the future. So this season — have you seen any of the season?
I’ve watched it all.
So you know obviously in the end there, I don’t want to leave it like that.
Nate has a pretty well-defined, perhaps too well-defined, sense of right and wrong. Are you like him at all?
I think I have the same moral core. I’m maybe not as rigid as he is. I’m a little more flexible. I’ll walk away from something that’s none of my business, where he’ll stop and fight for the right of the moral high ground. I think we broached this in Season 1 — would you rather be right or happy? And I think Nate would rather be right, and I would rather be happy
For all its edgy outrageousness, “The Detour” does come across as a pretty moral show.
I like to think that we’re coming down on the right side of history. One of my favorite scenes this year, Delilah goes to college and meets these girls and they’re like, “We’re the most accepting people on Earth.” Until they’re not. And one character’s like, “Oh, now there’s two sides to every argument?” And I think often we’ll present both sides and let the audience sit where they want to sit.
Robin’s a raging atheist, and Nate, I don’t want to say he’s a devout Christian, but he certainly has feelings toward faith. Maybe you can call him an agnostic. He’s just really hoping there’s something else beyond here, and she’s just, “No, we’re dead; we just lie in the ground and it goes black.” Is there a place between those two people? Sure.
There’s an epic scope to the series — you’re up on mountains, on rivers. There’s a tank.
When you say it like that, it sounds awesome. [A voice from the street intrudes.]
Did someone just yell, “I love your show”?
Yes, they did — while they almost hit me.
[Back to the epic scope question.] Yeah, that’s huge. Again, I have no interest in family conversations on a couch, but let’s have them on the side of a mountain, let’s have them while our plane is crashing, let’s have them while we’re running away from a tank or in a town with Japanese live-action role players. Where do we put a grounded conversation in a crazy setting?
Scope is everything to me. You know someone on Twitter said the other day, “You’re just like ‘Malcolm in the Middle,’ but you’ve got a bigger budget. I’m like, “We’ve got half the budget, maybe a third of the budget that ‘Malcolm in the Middle’ had.” But we put it on screen. I will shoot an episode in two days — we shot that Japanese game show episode in two days so we could afford to be on the mountain for five days.
The Japanese game show was a thing I wanted to do for a long time. One of my first jobs out of theater school was dubbing Japanese television, and my beat was game shows. And it just fit naturally into this season, because we were looking all over the world for Delilah.
There’s a lot of physical comedy in the show, which you don’t see often on television.
It’s honestly my favorite thing. I get so much joy out of it. And sometimes the second I’m about to do it, I’m like, “I could die here.” And then it’s like, “We’ve got a stunt guy.” I just love it. Like old Harold Lloyd videos I still watch — they’re so good. It just transcends everything. Because it’s just funny when someone falls down — when you’re not expecting it, that is.
And there’s nothing more egregious to me than falling out of frame. You see mats down, I’m like, “Get those mats away.” I want to hit the ground hard. And stunt people love working with me, ‘cause I want to show their work. If they’re going to hit the ground, I want to see it. Let’s show off their work — ‘cause it hurts.
Are your own parenting styles reflected in the series?
Yeah, I think, maybe the honesty with which we speak to our children on the show, I have that same sort of honesty with my kids. I do love my kids — my kids are my best friends. It sounds cheesy to say, but they really are, and I would do anything for them. So besides that honest relationship with my wife, it’s that “do anything” nature for your children.
You put the kids on the show in, or at least next to, some pretty adult situations.
Their moms are amazing; I couldn’t ask for better partners in them. And I would always call and go, “Hey, this is what we’re planning. I know it’s far, but we’re pushing the boundaries.” And they always saw the comedy. They were concerned for a minute and then I’d talk them through it. And they would ask [their kids], “Hey, do you want to do this?” And the kids were always up for it, like, “Whatever, I’m down.” They’re just players, and they love to be pushed.
Last season you had them up on a mountainside, dosed with MDMA, and they were pretty hilarious.
Oh, it’s amazing. And all I had given them, was, I had sent them a couple videos of some young people on molly. And then it was just them. They started watching YouTube videos of how people act on drugs, and they came in and I was like, “Oh my God, this is really good. I’m glad I didn’t write myself on molly because I would not be acting as well as you guys are right now.”
Have your own kids watched the show?
They’ve been on it, so they’ve watched themselves on it. I show them all the big stunts and stuff. I won’t show them the sex scenes — we skip forward past those. But pretty much everything else.
It’s funny, my oldest, her friends are now starting to watch it, because they have Hulu, and it just comes up on an algorithm if they’ve watched “Friends” or something. “Oh, we watched your dad’s show. It’s really funny.” I’m going up in her books a little bit, which is good.
Are they impressed by what their parents do for work, or not so much?
They try to act a little cool about it, but I think they’re quietly impressed. I think they like what I do more than what my wife does, because they maybe don’t understand what she does as much. As I said, everyone can relate to falling down a mountain. A takedown of Congress isn’t for every 8-year-old.