Jonathan Ames Talks HBO's "Bored To Death," Life In Brooklyn, And Wanting To Be Like Matt Damon
Jonathan Ames, noted writer, boxer, and, um, masturbator, recently took some time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions about his new HBO show "Bored to Death", life in Brooklyn, and wanting to be like Matt Damon.
Whose idea was "Bored to Death"? Did you wake up one day and say, "Hey, I think my stuff could make a great HBO show," or did someone come to you about it?
I first wrote a short story of the same title, which can be read in my new book, The Double Life is Twice As Good. A few months after writing it, I had a meeting with a producer, Sarah Condon, a former HBO executive. It was a general meeting, as Hollywood refers to them, and she asked me what I had been working on lately. I told her that I had this short story which I thought could make a good noir film, but then because it was a TV meeting, I quickly added, "Or a TV show."
Well, Ms. Condon read the story, thought there was something there and asked me to expand on the character's world, the character being the narrator "Jonathan Ames". So I gave him some friends, which wasn't easy for me since I'm something of a loner, but I persevered nevertheless.
Anyway, I made an imaginary world for "Jonathan Ames" to go with his imaginary friends, and we went to HBO and pitched the idea (in a nutshell -- it's about a nutty writer, "Jonathan Ames," who becomes a Private Detective in much the same way that Don Quixote became a knight) and the rest is recent history.
How close to home does the show hit? Is most of it a tweaked version of your life as so much of your work is or did you find yourself dipping into other wells?
It's really not my life in the show. There are certain moments, though, from my life that to me are very beautiful or sad or funny, and then I try to concoct a fictional story to go with those moments.
For example, in the first episode, "Jonathan" looks at an empty closet that had just been filled with his girlfriend's beautiful dresses. She has just moved out, broken up with him, and the empty closet, bereft of its flower-like dresses, really lets him know that she's gone. I had such a moment after a break up -- I waved my hand through the closet and the reality of the loss hit me and I began to cry. I gave such a moment to the fictional "Jonathan" but the other details of the break-up are completely different.
Another example would be what a colon-hygienist said to me before administering my colonic -- "I'm going to find all your treasures." So I gave that line to a colon-hygienist in the show and he says it to Zach Galifianakis' character, Ray Hueston. But he doesn't say it to the "Jonathan Ames" character. So you see how I expertly change the details of my life. Well, not too expertly I guess.
How have you found the transition from writing to TV? Writing is a very solitary existence, yet making a show you had to deal with dozens, if not hundreds, of people. Was it challenging having to rely on others?
It wasn't too much of a challenge because I really liked everyone I worked with. I don't know if they liked me, but I liked them. So I guess it was easy for me, but maybe it was hard for them. Anyway, a film or TV crew is like this benign military unit -- everyone has a certain skill or responsibility, and so you let each division of your unit do its thing, whether it be lighting or costumes or set-design. I do wish all military units across the world were actually making movies or TV shows. They could even stage fake wars if they felt like it, just not real wars. Well, that's about as politically savvy as I get, but I thought I'd give it a shot since this is the Huffington Post.
Did you have any say in the casting of the show?
Yes. I asked for certain actors, like Jason Schwartzman, who is absolutely brilliant, and for the smaller roles I would attend auditions with the directors and producers and try to choose the actors who fit the roles the best. For a moment, before meeting Jason Schwartzman, I thought maybe I should play "Jonathan Ames", but that wouldn't have been good casting. I'm just not right for the role. I haven't been right for it going on forty-five years now. I'm always flubbing my lines, making ill-timed entrances, and sometimes missing the curtain altogether.
Like it or not, you're considered by many to be one of those "Brooklyn writers" (and a "Jonathan writer" to boot). "Bored to Death" mainly takes place in Brooklyn, with side trips to the city. Do you think the show is intrinsically a Brooklyn one? What draws you to write about and live in the borough?
Well, for years, I had no money to travel. If I could have gone somewhere else, I might have written about it. For example, I would love to go to Tel Aviv. I think that's where the action is and, also, it's on the water, which I love, but it's expensive to go there, and also my parents, being overprotective and Jewish would be worried the whole time, which is a kind of paradox -- Jewish parents not wanting their child (albeit their middle-aged, bald child) to go to Israel. It has been calmer there lately, though, and I hope it stays that way.
I could probably afford to go there now, but with the show happening I don't think I can go there and live. To write about a place you have to live there. So, in the past, I was stuck here because I had no money and now I have a little money, though not too much, but enough to go to Israel, but now, because of the show, I can't. I have to stay here and stare at the computer and read reviews and write emails and feel nervous and close to the non-action. I guess I could do that in Israel, but it seems like I should do it here. Therefore my new-found freedom is an illusion, which I'm perfectly at peace with since everything is an illusion, anyway.
What I'm trying to say is this -- I still can't leave Brooklyn. Does that make sense? And so, like a landscape painter, who paints the world around him, or rather paints pictures of the world around him, this is the landscape around me, so this is what I write about. Something like that. Though I am intrigued by the idea of an Israeli version of "Bored to Death". I don't think Tel Aviv or Jerusalem has had an iconic Private Detective, though maybe those cities do, since I haven't read a lot of Israeli crime fiction, but it could be a great setting -- lots of trouble for a dick to get into over there. Anyway, I hope some Israeli TV person somehow creates an Israeli version of "Bored to Death," in the same way that we created an American version of the Israeli show "In Treatment."
How much TV do you watch? What are your favorite shows?
At the moment, my TV doesn't work, and during my adult life in the city, I've never had television because I couldn't afford cable. But then I could afford it and got cable to follow the election in 2008, which I enjoyed watching -- that was an excellent series and ended really well.
Then in 2009, my TV stopped working and I'm too disorganized to get it fixed, and what's worse I'm still paying for the cable going on nine months now! But it's somehow linked to my internet and I can't stand calling 800 numbers to get this sorted out. What I need to do, which I probably won't, is buy a new TV and get the whole thing up and running, but I struggle with such things. I don't have ADD, but I only like to pay attention to the things I like to pay attention to, and things like getting a TV and getting the cable working are beyond me, and so I let such things lapse, sometimes for years. This applies to keeping my apartment clean. My place was getting like Grey Gardens and I was losing my mind, so a dear friend took me in hand and got the place in shape and it's so nice to see the floors again and to discover that my tub is actually white. I rationalized bathing in my tub -- I prefer baths to showers -- because it was like a lake and I grew up swimming in lakes.
Your sexual exploits are known far and wide, and you're famous for being one of the more uninhibited writers out there. Is there anything that you refuse to talk about? Anything too sacred to write about?
Well, as a heterosexual male, who has entered the boxing ring twice as "The Herring Wonder," one thing that I don't like to write about is the pleasure I've received while adopting the passive role (I wish my keyboard would enable me to put an arrow over the 'o' in 'role', which always make the word 'role' so much more sophisticated and old-world and Thomas Mannish) during Greek love-making. Wait a second, I did write about that in my first novel, I Pass Like Night, which just celebrated its twentieth anniversary in print and which was blurbed by Philip Roth, who almost never blurbs, and so I will retype his blurb here:
An authentic voice of youthful suffering. Mr. Ames's antisocial young hero comes through as a cross between Jean Genet and Holden Caulfield in the age of AIDS. The style is the real achievement: strong, clean, and poker-faced.
Then again that novel was fiction, so who knows if I really enjoyed myself, but all of what I've just written in response to this question has been a shameless plug, as it were, for my first novel, which I must confess did actually fall out of print for a few years in the mid-nineties, in much the same way that Michael Jordan, during that same era, took some time off to play baseball.
During the time my novel was out-of-print, I used to sell my extra copies at these variety shows I would put on at the old nightclub in New York, the Fez, where I also worked the door. One time, when I was quite passionate about using psyllium as an anti-depressant -- I felt that regular bowels were the key to mental health -- I had two very pretty girls dressed up as old-fashioned cigarette girls at one of my Fez shows, and they went around selling copies of my book with cannisters of psyllium fiber, the idea being that people could read the book while happily sitting on the toilet. I offered the whole package for about ten dollars, which I think gave me a profit of about one dollar, since I wasn't buying the pysillium wholesale.
Anyway, when I say Greek lovemaking, I'm not talking about my budding friendship with one of the stars of the show, Zach Galifianakis, who is Greek and who recently told Cindy Adams of the NY Post: "Greeks are Jews without money." For years, I was a Jew without money -- and I still am, really -- so maybe I'm Greek, which could explain the first sentence of this rather long-winded answer.
About money -- I just paid almost everything I've made the last year in taxes. I don't know what the hell happened. But I'm resigned to this. I wrote the check and thought of it as a gift to Obama, whom I really like. Then again, I have no hope that my taxes will make any difference, except to keep me out of trouble with the IRS. Our only hope as a country and a planet -- for peace and the environment and the economy -- is for a Bill Gates-Ray-Kroc-Einstein-Steven-Spielberg-like genius to come along with a really amazing green fuel; something out of Philip K. Dick. This would solve most of the world's tensions. Then again new odd, unforeseen tensions would arise, since man is awfully flawed; then again, there is the Darwinian hope for evolution of our collective worldwide mindset, which could lead to greater harmony, if harmony is indeed the ideal. Anyway, I digress . . .
As a fellow boxing fan, I'm curious who your favorites are. As someone who is quite inclined towards the arts, I surprise myself by being way more into brawlers and heavy hitters and not the real technical/pretty fighters. I've always wondered how other people in the arts came down on this, but the sample is too small to get a good read.
You know, I'm not passionate about certain fighters, the way I'm passionate about certain baseball players, but fighters I've liked over the years, whether for their look or style or persona, are Ernie Shavers, Marv Hagler, Mike Tyson, and Roberto Duran. At the moment, I'm a huge fan of Anderson Silva of the UFC -- I love to watch that guy fight. He's like a dancer and just remarkable to watch. I wish I could live in Anderson's Silva's body for one moment and be able to fight like that. I would also like to be like Matt Damon in the "Bourne" movies. I wish I had many passports and could speak lots of languages and just go around and take out bad guys, but I think I would crumble at the last moment and feel empathy for the bad guys. I don't know, it's so hard to think straight, which is yet another explanation for my answer to question seven.
You've conquered print (both news and books), sports (boxing, fencing), and are now on your way to taking over TV (HBO is a hell of a place to start). What's next?
I don't feel like I've conquered anything, to be perfectly frank. At the moment, actually, I'm exceedingly nervous and just so unsure of everything. I answered the first few questions a few days ago and just answered questions seven and eight just now, and when I'm writing, I'm sort of someone else. Blithe and nutty and what-have-you. I put on this voice in my head and I think I experience some peace, because I'm not me or something. I'm disassociating. I'm role-playing. When I'm me, I feel the fragility and strangeness and mortality of everything and it's like I'm drowning. Wait, I'm not sure that's accurate. What I'm trying to say is that it may seem like I'm doing okay, but I'm already in the future when I won't be doing okay again. I need to stay in the present and use that new-age mantra: "I'm okay right now." But I worry about all the things I'm failing at every moment. I could be a better son, a better parent. I'm a parent and I think all parents feel this way -- I'm always falling short. Anyway, I need to go to the Russian Baths and meditate. I get peace in the Russian Baths, and then midway through my sweating, I have some herring. The main thing, though, if you want to not feel like you're losing your mind is to try to do something for someone else. So as soon I stop typing these answers, which is kind of doing something for someone else in that someone who reads this might be distracted from their own insanity for a moment, I'll try to do something for someone . . . oh, god, I apologize for these long-winded, nutty answers, but I'm so distracted these days that this is my one chance to write and I do like to write . . . and I'm sorry.
And as it's still around the anniversary of 9/11 I have to ask: where were you/what were you doing on that fateful day?
Oh, God, what a last question. Especially after I've rambled like a self-centered dolt. Well, on September 10th, I was giving a reading at Barnes and Noble from my new book at the time, What's Not to Love?, and I read my most popular essay, my 'Freebird,' -- "I Shit My Pants in the South of France." I also read my 'Stairway to Heaven', my second most popular essay, "Bald, Impotent, and Depressed." It was a very frivolous night to say the least. Then the next day was September 11th . . . I was in Brooklyn. I don't want to talk about someone else's story in too much detail, but I went with someone that night -- somehow a subway was still running into Manhattan -- and we went looking for a morgue, where this person's love, who had been in the towers, might be. Of course, the morgues had no bodies yet and, ultimately, would have very few bodies. It was a harrowing night. I fictionalized that evening in my graphic novel, The Alcoholic. Well, I guess that's everything. Thank you for your questions and for your interest in my TV show, "Bored to Death," and I do apologize if my answers are too long and confusing.