This Ames is True
Published September 21, 2011
Jonathan Ames—novelist, memoirist, storyteller, sometime boxer, essayist, notable neurotic—is hard to pin down. You might be able to get an idea of where he’s at by doing any of the following:
• Searching YouTube, where you will find Throwdini!, a man throwing knives at a poofy target, resembling a cat toy, that rests in the writer’s mouth.
• Reading his book titles: I Pass Like Night (1989), The Extra Man (1998) Wake Up Sir! (2004) What’s Not to Love?: The Adventures of a Mildly Perverted Young Writer (2000), My Less Than Secret Life (2002), I Love You More than You Know (2006), The Alcoholic, with Dean Haspiel (2008), and The Double Life Is Twice As Good: Essays and Fiction (2009), which features a story called “Bored to Death,” which was turned into a hit TV comedy of the same title for HBO, starring a Brooklyn-writer character named—you guessed it!—Jonathan Ames. (In the story, and the show, he moonlights as a detective.)
• Sitting across from him one evening, eating oysters and ricotta, and listening to him say to you, “The human body is like a cockroach.”
Even after exercising the third option, which we did recently in anticipation of the third-season premiere of Bored to Death, you still may not be able to figure out writer/producer Jonathan Ames. But you’ll certainly be fascinated. We talked with Ames about the screwball thrills the upcoming season has in store.
JENNIFER SKY: How did you find yourself creating a show called Bored to Death about a character called Jonathan Ames?
JONATHAN AMES: In 2007, I wrote a short story called “Bored to Death.” At the time, whenever I wrote fiction, people always seemed to think that what I wrote was true, that it was entirely autobiographical. And when I would write non-fiction, they often accused me of exaggeration and fictionalization. So I decided to write a piece of fiction that seemed like an essay in that it featured a protagonist named Jonathan Ames. Many authors have done such a thing, this is nothing novel, and so I decided to give it a try and thoroughly confuse my few readers—was this story true? Make-believe? Then, later, I pitched to HBO the idea of adapting my short story into a television show and the concept of keeping the protagonist “Jonathan Ames” remained in place.SKY: How does one write a funny faux-detective show?
AMES: I’m not sure. There’s not necessarily a prescription or a set of rules, but thank you for thinking the show is funny. The easy answer to this question is the answer to the question of how one writes anything—you sit down at a desk and make an effort.
SKY: Do you write for your cast or for the character? Because this is quite a compelling and talented threesome: Jason Schwartzman, Ted Danson, Zach Galifianakis.
AMES: When I wrote the pilot, the show was not cast, because we didn’t know if the pilot script would ever be filmed. That said, I did have Jason Schwartzman in mind from just about the beginning. After the pilot script was greenlit, I wanted Zach for the role of Ray, Jonathan’s best friend. HBO suggested Ted for George Christopher, and I thank them for such a brilliant idea.
SKY: Where did your idea for the voodoo doll of last season come from? Do you practice the dark arts?
AMES: I don’t practice the dark arts or the light arts, and I don’t remember where the idea for the voodoo doll came from. Having finished filming the third season just recently, the second season is a distant memory. I vaguely recall thinking that it would be funny if the Super Ray voodoo doll had secret hidden female genitalia since Super Ray, the super-hero character created by the Ray character, is known for his prodigious member, which is the source of his powers. In the origin story of Super Ray, Ray falls through a subway grate and his cock hits the third rail, like Peter Parker receiving the bite of a radioactive spider, and that’s how he, Ray, becomes Super Ray.
SKY: Are we going to see the return of Super Ray?
AMES: Yes. Super Ray is very much a part of season three.
SKY: Beer, wine, or straight up?
AMES: I drink only temperance beverages. In interviews.
SKY: What kind of games did you play as a kid? Clue, perhaps?
AMES: I didn’t play or like a lot of board games as a child. I liked playing with my G.I. Joes and making up adventures for them.
SKY: Did you ever watch the noir-styled, murder mystery comedy Haunted Honeymoon starring Gene Wilder, Dom Deluise, and Gilda Radner? Or Murder by Death with Peter Falk and Truman Capote?
AMES: Never saw Haunted, though with that cast it sounds great, and I recall seeing Murder, but that was probably more than 30 years ago and it didn’t make a lasting or profound impression. Of the films of that era, I loved Young Frankenstein.
SKY: Who were your comedy idols growing up?
AMES: Abbot and Costello, the Three Stooges.
SKY: In the teaser for Bored to Death, season three, we find our fellows at Coney Island. What’s your favorite ride there?
AMES: I don’t like rides. I take everything in life quite literally, and so I genuinely feel terrified on rides and liable to vomit at any moment, and I hate to vomit even more than I fear rides. So, all this to say, I don’t have a favorite ride. I don’t go on rides. Well, that’s not true. A few years ago I had a beautiful, romantic moment on the Ferris wheel at Coney Island, known as the Wonder Wheel, and so I guess that’s my favorite ride, though even that, to be frank, terrified me. I’m not good with heights. I respond to heights the way Hart Crane, the poet, responded to water when on a steam ship—I want to leap.
SKY: Bored‘s heroes always have each other’s backs, so to speak. Is this story ultimately about friendship?
AMES: I don’t know if it’s ultimately about friendship, but I certainly want to portray the importance of friendship. I had noticed in movies and TV shows that friends often treated one another terribly, and my friends, the few I have, are never cruel to me or unkind, so I wanted to convey that in the show.
SKY: As we know, the TV Jonathan moonlights as a detective while not writing. What does the real Jonathan Ames enjoy doing with his downtime?
AMES: I have very few hobbies. In fact, I have no hobbies. The only thing I like to do in life is to go to the Russian Baths in Manhattan. I also like to watch sports on TV, and I like to read books. So that’s it—Russian Baths, sports, and books.
SKY: You speak about being a sensitive man, one easy to cry. What was the last thing that made you cry?
AMES: I played this video on Youtube, “Busby Berkeley Dreams,” by the Magnetic Fields, and I wept repeatedly while watching the video and listening to the song.
SKY: How did you get started writing?
AMES: My sophomore English teacher encouraged me to write for the school paper, and that’s what got me started. About 18 months later, I read, in quick succession, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson and then On The Road by Jack Kerouac, and suddenly it struck me that being a writer could be a romantic and adventurous position. Previously, I had thought I would be a tennis pro, giving lessons at a local club. I thought that would be a good life, and it might have been.
SKY: Do you enjoy the writing process behind creating television or a novel better? How are they different?
AMES: I enjoy them the same, and they are very similar. The goal is to entertain and amuse the audience, and I subscribe to this P.G. Wodehouse piece of advice: “Try to give pleasure with every sentence.” So whether I’m writing scripts or prose, the goal is identical. To give pleasure. Now whether I succeed or not is up for debate, and, mostly, I fail. But I try. I like to make things. It’s a way to stay busy during one’s ephemeral and confusing life.
SKY: Can we expect any exciting guest stars?
AMES: We’re really lucky this season to have great returning guest stars and new guest stars. Some of the people you’ll see this year are Patton Oswalt, John Hodgman, Dick Cavett, Oliver Platt, Mary Steenburgen, Olympia Dukakis, Chris Elliot, Isla Fischer, Casey Wilson, Sarah Silverman, Zach Woods, Halley Feiffer, David Rasche, Bebe Neuwirth, Brett Gelman, and Stacey Keach.
SKY: Will the character Jonathan ever be happy?
AMES: Does he seem unhappy? I think the character, despite his struggles, is usually in pretty good spirits. That said, he’s not happy all the time. Nobody is. Personally, I’ve never had it as a goal in life to be happy. Seems impossible to achieve. Even the Declaration of Independence seems to acknowledge this. They talk about the pursuit of happiness, not happiness itself. So I think the Jonathan character will have joyful moments but never sustained happiness, since such a thing doesn’t exist. At least not in my worldview. Doesn’t mean it’s not out there, though. It’s just something I can’t see. Like being colorblind.
SKY: What hijinks can we expect from season three? Any more domination dungeons or spa castles?
AMES: There will be a season-long case for Jonathan, a murder, a sword fight, a frame, and a con, but no dungeons or spas.
SKY: What’s next for fictional and/or the real Jonathan Ames?
AMES: For me, it’s more of the same. To quote Beckett: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” So that’s what I’ll be doing, and what’s in store for the character Jonathan are more adventures, hi-jinks, mishaps, and mysteries.
SEASON THREE OF BORED TO DEATH PREMIERES OCTOBER 10 AT 9PM ON HBO.