“I travel quite a bit”, says Jason Burns, expanding on a question asked about how his shift in career changed his geography. “But I don’t fly, so when I travel I either drive or take the train. So it’s 3,000 miles between where I am and Los Angeles where I do quite a bit of business. So whenever I have to go out there for business meetings it takes me about three days”. There’s a warm chuckle at the end of this, Jason realizing something profound. Perhaps something about the poignancy of how insignificant and yet deeply necessary human action is in the face the swarming and complex mathematics of chance that governs our lives. In the moment I don’t realize it, but stepping back it becomes clear. Jason’s is the perfect perspective for a comedy writer primed for making a deep mark in the world. And the difference between conducting this interview and transcribing it is marked by this realization. I’d only just met Jason, and already I feel cheated by him.
But that realization doesn’t set in till long after. When pressed about the extended journey times, Jason goes on to say, “Yeah, you know, it started for me with… I used to fly, then I had this vision that that would be my demise. That that would be how I was leaving this world. So I knew that I wasn’t going to fly anymore. And at the time I was pretty much completely localized, in Massachusetts, so I didn’t have a whole lot that I needed to travel. Then my career started to take off in writing, and I started to have to take meetings in Los Angeles quite a bit. And I thought to myself that this would be a really great adventure. And that year it led to me having to go out three times, whether it was by train or car. And at first it was always this big sort of, well, adventure for me. I would turn it into an event in my life. And then now it’s gotten sort of like a really long commute. Especially now that I’ve settled down and I’m married, it’s a bigger band-aid on my life that I have to go now for it. But on the same side of it, I usually go alone, so that’s three days on a car or on a train where I can get a lot of thinking or a lot of writing done.
“It’s now honestly the only place where I don’t have any distractions”, Jason continues, “I’m pretty good about not picking up my phone for texts and emails when I’m on the road. And even when I’m on the train… the train travels on a very out there pattern of the country where a lot of times you don’t get a lot of service. So I’m literally cut off from the world for three days and it allows me just to block out everything and focus on creative endeavors”.
There’s something emergent about Jason, a mixing together of two types that produces an unexpected surpassing of the mere combination of these types. Listening to him now, there’s a strong creative core. Jason’s not at all unlike the strong control of your environment necessary for becoming writer that a thinker like Paul Auster preaches. And much like Auster, Jason is deeply meditative. The theme of self-alienation in both writers’ work seems a gateway to a genuine and intense compassion. But another strand in Jason’s creativity is closer the sardonic, hopeful empathy of perhaps the keenest of comedic writers, Woody Allen.
It was Allen himself who more than a decade ago (in a New York Observer op. ed.) captured the palpable difference between living to die and dying to live. Writes Allen in “Thoughts of a Know-Nothing Fan”, “When asked why it is so important the Knicks win, since at the end of the game or even the season, nothing in life is affected one way or the other, I can only answer that basketball or baseball or any sport is as dearly important as life itself. After all why is it such a big deal to work and love and strive and have children then to die and decompose into eternal nothingness? To me, it’s clear that the playoffs or 61 home runs, a no-hitter, the Preakness, the Jets or human existence can all be much ado about nothing, or they can all have a totally satisfying, thrilling-to-the-marrow quality. In short, putting the ball into the hoop is of immense significance to me by personal choice and me life is more fun because of it”.
For Woody Allen there is a clear difference between survival, and life. Art is a liturgy, a list of choices that embolden our capacity for living above merely existing. Jason’s career is reflective of this emotional core of choice in the face of complex a mathematics of indifference that encircles our existence. By 2004 Jason had made the jump from journalism to creative work. His success proved to lie in his uncanny ability to find the germ of truth in diverse media. He became the go-to comics writer such divergent titles as Fraggle Rock, Kung Fu Panda, Megamind and Jericho. And yet his creator-owned pieces stood out for themselves. A Dummies Guide to Danger and The Underworld Railroad and The Expendable One were high quality works that made Jason an easy pick for the Project Fanboy Award for Best Indie Writer in 2008. But that’s not where Jason wanted to be.
There’s a joy and a fearlessness in his voice he he speaks about making the move from comics to the comedic writing, direction and production of his new web-based TV show Adults Only. “Oh yeah, for me there’s a sense that I always wanted to be involved in a film and TV atmosphere, to write and direct. I knew from day one, that that’s what I wanted to do. So every little step I’ve taken, every comicbook I’ve written, for me has been marching towards that goal. Prior to starting the company [Plymouth Rock IP] and getting ready to shoot this show I was still writing and I was still working, I was still writing. I was still Editor-In-Chief at Ape Entertainment who puts out all the Dreamworks Animation books. And I had decided that if I didn’t leave and pursue my dreams now, I’d blink and in ten years I’d be still doing it. So it was down to me to literally take a leap of faith and go”.
Founding Plymouth Rock IP in the wake of the financial crisis, and taking the plunge into writing and directing television was a way for Jason to leverage his talents to gain a broader audience. The move comes at exactly the right time. Adults Only is a deeply moving, profoundly humorous, quirky show about a lead character needing to live up to the expectations fabricated by his former glory. It is also a showcase for Jason as a gifted producer bringing together such diverse talent as Vincent Pastore of The Sopranos fame, and Sebastian Bach erstwhile lead singer of Skid Row and seen earlier on VH1’s Supergroup.
Jason Burns is just about to explode. It’s been nearly two decades of him crafting his skills, so when he reaches us as writer, director, producer, he does so fully formed. Even his musings on 21st century business model for the entertainment industry is visionary. “I think this is the start of something big in that, in the future, there will be no model”. He goes on to discuss how mass-marketing of content has led creators and producers alike to rely on a transmission model that ultimately stymies creativity. He speaks about our current moment as a horizon, opportunities abound.
And in this sense an old familiar feeling arises, something from when I first began this interview’s transcript. I feel cheated by Jason, and listening to him, it’s hard for you not to feel this way. Not for the work he’s produced thus far and not for the upcoming Adults Only (out late October, but we’ll “leak” previews a little before). But cheated in the sense that this brilliant mind that is equal parts Paul Auster and Woody Allen hadn’t made the leap into film before. Had he done this earlier, there’d have been more of Jason’s work to see. More ways for us to choose to live, rather than simply survive. Adults Only already has the feel of Kevin Smith’s early, gritty work with Clerks, of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck when they were relevant as creators (Good Will Hunting), but even those seem to stumble slightly in comparison. October’s coming soon, so maybe that feeling of having been cheated needn’t last.