Q&A: 'Bored to Death' creator Jonathan Ames
Episode 6 of the eight-episode third season of "Bored to Death,"HBO's delightful, Brooklyn-set, cross-generationally bromantic, nothing-human-is-foreign-to-me stoner detective comedy, premieres Monday night. It stars Jason Schwartzman as Jonathan Ames, a novelist-cum-unlicensed private eye who shares a name with his creator, the novelist Jonathan Ames; Zach Galifianakis as Jonathan's comic-book-artist friend Ray; and Ted Danson as George, formerly a magazine editor and now a restaurateur.
It has been a busy season that has seen, among other things, Jonathan and George in "friendship counseling" (with Sarah Silverman), George's daughter dating a man in his own age and income bracket, Ray in an affair with a senior citizen (Olympia Dukakis), George sleeping with his singing teacher (Danson's own wife, Mary Steenburgen) and Jonathan celebrating the arrival of his second novel, framed for murder, confronting his doppelgänger, hanging like Harold Lloyd from the clock of the Williamsburg Savings Bank and interviewed by Dick Cavett. Ray has met the baby born from his sold-than-stolen sperm, and Jonathan, who has learned that he himself is a sperm-bank baby, is searching for his biological father.
A little before the season started, I talked with Ames for a Times feature; here are some outtakes from that interview. We began at the beginning, with the short story that led to the series.
Jonathan Ames:At the time I had been reading a lot of David Goodis, most well known for "Shoot the Piano Player," which Truffaut turned into a film. There was this real rush to his stories and I wanted to write something like that, something of a thriller, and maybe something a little bit darker than I had previously. And I named the character after myself, as I've said before, because often when I wrote fiction people would say, "C'mon why don't you just call that a memoir," and when I wrote nonfiction they said, "You made that up, didn't you? You exaggerated that. That didn't happen." I couldn't win. So I thought that I'd write a piece of fiction almost initially in the tone of one of my essays to kind of lure my half-dozen readers in — maybe I have a dozen readers. And after I finished it I thought, "This could make a movie."
Was that a thought you had had before?
JA: I had adapted two of my books into script form, trying to get them made; it wasn't really happening. I had written a TV pilot for Showtime called "What's Not to Love?" based on my essay collections — that was how I got my foot in the door out here a little bit, 'cause a guy heard me give a reading in Los Feliz at Skylight Books and said, "I think there's a TV show in your essays." So I pitched something with him to Showtime and they green-lit the pilot. I played myself, I played Jonathan Ames; I had done a fair amount of performing, doing monologues sort of like Spalding Gray. I pitched it at the time as a poor man's "Curb Your Enthusiasm" — literally a poor man, because I was a struggling writer, and the show would be be about this guy in Hollywood. And we shot it, and it came out all right, but it didn't become a series. But to be frank I had kind of given up on all that in 2007 when I wrote this short story.
What was your first impression of the Hollywood process?
JA: I had a kind of great first impression, because I went to two pitch meetings and Showtime said yes. And the remuneration out here is kind of crazy compared to what I would get for a book — what I could do in a week or two with a script is financially equivalent to three or four years of novel writing. So the mind boggles a little. It was a little disappointing that they didn't want to go to series, because I really enjoyed it; I had so much fun going to the set the first day. I was, like, "Wow, because I wrote something there's all these people gathered and they're kind of in good spirits." And I felt some pride that because I'd written something all these people had jobs, and there was a truck with coffee, and I could get free coffee.
I still have that thing of — when I was a taxi driver in Princeton, N.J., across the street from the taxi stand was this Burger King. The old-timers would go in there and have breakfast and read the horse pages or something like that, and I would grab all their leftover newspapers — and sometimes the old-timers would still be in there and see me come in, and this one guy would say, "Hold your papers! Hold your papers!" 'Cause sitting in a cab all day I would read the Trenton Times, the Philadelphia Enquirer, the New York Times. Recently I was flying, and because of HBO I was in the United first-class lounge, and there were all these newspapers, and the old instinct was to grab them all. It was the same thing when I was on a set for the first time — all this free food? And coffee?
So my first experience was good. And then they said no to it becoming a series, and that was disappointing. It didn't seem like my books were getting made into movies, and I kind of gave up on the whole thing. I was going to continue to support myself writing books and teaching, which is how I'd always made a living. And then I wrote this "Bored to Death" short story and sent it to a bunch of people in Hollywood and nobody responded. Even the magazine I wrote it for actually rejected it; I'd been hired by Esquire to write it. It was supposed to be 5,000 words but I went nuts and wrote 11,000. And I sent it to McSweeney's, Dave Eggers' magazine. I was just going to wait and hope that somebody out here might spot it, like Sauron in "The Lord of the Rings," that the eye, the Hollywood eye, might drift on my short story. But before it was published, someone at HBO wanted to meet me — I had kind of given up on meetings too, because I would come out here, get a little rental car and drive all over, and I would go to these meetings and talk about books and nothing would happen. I didn't know why I was being sent on all these meetings; it seemed it was just to keep people busy.
But then I got a call: "There's a meeting in New York." I'm, like, "In New York? I thought this was a meeting-free city." But the producer, who is now an executive producer on my show, Sarah Condon, had just moved to New York and was looking to meet writers. She said, "What have you been working on lately?" And I said, "Well I wrote this short story that I think would make a good movie," and she was intrigued by the premise. I sent her the story and she said, "Let's try to work on this. Can you come up with friends for him? And a world?" And I think her inclination and my inclination immediately was let's move this toward comedy.
There's a sense of goodness that pervades the show. This season even John Hodgman's character — Jonathan's literary competitor and nemesis Louis Green — is getting to show a little bit of the sad heart within the imperious villain he played before.
JA: Well I guess most imperious villains have a sad heart, it's what drives them to imperious villainy. I mean, John Hodgman is so brilliant in this role. He and I were friends in the literary world before this; we used to do readings together and it was great that I could bring him into this. He's just a really funny comedic actor, sharp and confident, not nervous, take after take, knows his lines — just a natural.
I've always been inspired by Don Quixote as a role model of sorts, of the power of books to sort of make you insane in maybe a beautiful way. And so the Jonathan character is very much a Don Quixote: He reads too many Raymond Chandler novels and thinks he should be a private detective in the same way that Don Quixote read too many books of chivalry and thought he should be a knight. In my novel "Wake Up, Sir!" the main character reads too much Wodehouse and thinks that he should have a valet. It's an ongoing theme for me.
I love how earnest his character is, and kind and good-hearted. He's the leader. I even wrote it down: "The dreamer leads them." And I've often complimented Jason, saying he's like a point guard, he passes the ball to Zach, he passes the ball to Ted, he carries the ball. I mean, they're all doing beautiful work but the Jonathan character is the mermaid at the front of the ship. And he doesn't understand necessarily when someone slights him — there's always a double take — because he's such the personification of a theme I've been working with the whole time, which is if you believe your illusions your illusions come true. In fact, it was a line I'd written for George in Season 1: "All of life is an illusion but we might as well make it a good one." But that line got cut — just to tell you a line that got cut that maybe will make it into your article. In this season's opening episode they're at dinner and Jonathan's father asks, "So how's this restaurant doing?" And George says, "We're not in the black yet, but we have a lot of celebrities. Salman Rushdie's here almost every night." If you live in New York you do see Salman Rushdie at lots of things. And then Leah [Ray's girlfriend] says, "I really love Salman Rushdie, he has such beautiful eyelashes." Because I saw Salman Rushdie and I had noticed he has very long eyelashes. Leah says, "He's really here every night?" and George says, "When you've had a fatwa lifted, you like to get out." But that got cut, unfortunately, that fatwa run, maybe saving me a fatwa. The only fatwa I've ever had out for me was from the Wodehouse Society in Connecticut; they were outraged that I had put Jeeves in a novel.
Jason Schwartzman really catches the sound of your prose, its formal, kind of upright quality.
JA: I think in the same way that one's unaware of the sound of one's own voice until — you know, how back in the day when we had answering machines you'd hear, "Hi, this is Jonathan, please" — oh no! — I'm somewhat unaware of the sound of my own dialogue, except as I hear it in my mind. But when I do watch other things, I'm like, "Whoa, the people in my show do speak in a much more formal way." I don't watch a lot of TV but suddenly I was done working and had more time to channel surf and decompress and I did realize that on my show the characters do speak in a somewhat different rhythm. It's not quite David Mamet, by any means, with everyone speaking in these halting sentences that end oddly, you know, almost like a question mark when there's no question mark.
Ted Danson is particularly good this year; he seems more youthful than ever.
JA: It's like Dorian Gray. He just keeps getting looser and looser. There was a reason he mesmerized people for all those years on "Cheers." He has great timing, and he thinks this stuff out, where the emphasis is and where to find the humor or the pathos, and he's very much a leader for our set. He shows up and everyone's like, "Ted!" He loves what he does and he has fun and inspires everyone around him. The other thing about him that's really amazing, from all his years in the business, he's a great dance partner for all these other actors. You put him with Mary Kay Place or Oliver Platt or especially the people who come in just for a day or two and might not be as comfortable with the set and the crew or maybe don't know their lines as well as they should or they're nervous — you know, the first day in a new environment — and Ted just kind of takes everybody and works beautifully with them. And he's naturally graceful with his long body, so it makes for nice lines; it's fun to watch him move. And he can also be a little bit clumsy, he's great at slapstick.
Has the show changed your profile in Brooklyn? How are you regarded there?
JA: I don't know. I'm a somewhat isolated person in my own way, or I move along a little trail, I go this place, I go that place. It's not like I"m varying my exposure. They recognize me in Brooklyn, but not too much, a little bit. Nobody seems annoyed with me for doing anything bad to Brooklyn.
Any reaction from the literary world?
JA:I don't know that I've gotten much feedback directly from the literary world; sometimes I doubt even the notion that there is a literary world, though I guess there is or was. That's where I used to meet John Hodgman. But I must circulate in it less. I did so much of it for so many years I must have given like a thousand readings. But I think for the most part people in the book world have been happy that Paul Auster's name gets mentioned in Season 1, Gore Vidal gets mentioned this year, Joan Didion last year, that references to books are made.
Does your television audience seem different from the audience you have as a writer?
JA: I had a website where people would write to me their questions about the books or what they meant to them; it was very heartfelt. I don't get that with the show; I think maybe people feel they can open up more to a writer than someone who created a TV show. If I meet a fan of my books, there's, like, a deep personal connection that they want to share with me.With fans of the show, it's like, "I love your show." But there are probably obviously many more fans of the show now than of the books. I went out to dinner with Ted and Jason the other night and on my way to the bathroom the waitress pulled me aside; I guess she hadn't wanted to say anything in front of Ted and Jason. She was like, "I'm a fan of the your show, if you need a writer's assistant," you know, and gave me her number. And then we were outside and a bunch of girls came by, and one of them said, "I read your book" and another said, "I read your book," and Ted noted that there was this additional.... There's something intimate to holding a book in your hands, there's a connection you make sometimes to an author — I'm not sure there's the same history of connecting to somebody who writes a TV show. But I get very nice response to the show from people in the outside world.
That collaborative life of a television show would seem to be the opposite of the writer's solitary one.
JA: I think I was able to transition because I had put on these cabaret shows. I would gather performers and be like, "You go first, you go second, I'll follow up." And then, also, from years of teaching, that's performance and it's also communicating with people what you want and need in a coherent fashion. I had led an isolated writer's life. but then I had all these other experiences I was able to draw upon.
I work with each director very closely -- though, not having grown up in television, I didn't quite realize how much I overstep my bounds with them. I mean, I was just a novelist, used to being hands-on with everything. But I have wonderful directors and I'm very respectful of what they need also. I mean, a big part of TV is getting along with people — it's like summer stock theater for me — and you can come together as this community.
What did you want to be as a child? Did you ever imagine yourself as a person in show business?
JA:As a child, I wanted to be an athlete, a professional tennis player or something like that. An early showbiz thing, though, was when I went to summer camp in the seventh grade and all the kids teased me 'cause they said I looked like Marty Feldman, who'd been in "Young Frankenstein" and seemed to be considered the world's ugliest man to 13-year-olds at that time. And I was so crushed by this. I looked in the mirror and I'm, like, "I really do look like Marty Feldman." So I went to the theater director — we had this big theater — and I said to him quite earnestly, I guess a little bit like the Jonathan character, I said, "Um, well, since I look like Marty Feldman, should I go to California, can you contact someone because maybe I could play his son?" I felt I had been doomed, but maybe there was a way I could make a living out of it. So I thought I'll have to go join the circus as a freak if I look like so much his child. And the guy was, like, "Are you crazy? You don't look like Marty Feldman."
So that was an early showbiz desire that faded away. And then I was really into tennis and wanted to be a tennis pro; I took tennis lessons at some club and it seemed like the most romantic life — you know, the guy had a sports car and was giving lessons to all these women. But in high school I met an English teacher who pushed me toward writing.
— Robert Lloyd
Photo credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times