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Lila Shapiro

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Jonathan Ames' Trouble (and Hit TV Series) Began When He Was Bored

Posted: 11/12/2010 1:46 pm


Thursday morning I sat down with Jonathan Ames at a table outside of the Brooklyn cafe Building on Bond to discuss his HBO show Bored to Death, and life in Brooklyn -- the dreamscape where he and his characters wander. The show, which wraps up its second season this Sunday, stars Jason Schwartzman, Zach Galifianakis, and the fabulous Ted Danson. It was born out of a short story of the same title Ames wrote in 2007 for McSweeney's. (Tagline: "The trouble happened because I was bored.") The main character, played by Schwartzman, is named Jonathan Ames, and the "trouble" begins when he starts to moonlight as a Craigslist private detective. Think Sex and the City, if the girls were a couple of men living in Brooklyn -- and instead of brunch, mimosas, and shoe shopping we have weed, spas, and spy shops.

Ames, 46, pale and softly handsome, has written several novels but is now focusing exclusively on the show, which has just been approved for a third season. (He declined to provide details, but did mention that by next year, significant time will have passed and his three heroes will be in significantly different points in their lives.) He knew the crowd in Building on Bond, which is a nice place filled with artist types near where the writers work. He asked if we could sit outside ("vitamin D") and we proceeded to chat. Ames the writer, like his character, gives off a vibe of quiet melancholia with a mischievous undertone, a wandering Odin. Where does he end and his character begin? Read our Q and A to move towards some sort of answer to this not insignificant question.

Let's talk about the Russian & Turkish Baths.

The Russian Baths, at this point in time in my life, is my only hobby. I almost always go alone, but I'm known there, so it's not lonely, per se.

But I don't go to socialize. I go to meditate, feel sad, sweat, and then leave.

What other favorite Brooklyn spots do you hang out at?

Well, the Russian Baths is a Manhattan spot. My only Brooklyn hang-out is a nice place called Sample on Smith Street, which is owned by a friend and quite a welcoming and delicious little spot.

You write men so wonderfully, but there aren't a lot of fully fleshed out women in your universe.  How come?  Have you thought about adding in a strong female character?

Well, I think Heather Burns, who plays Ray's girlfriend Leah, is a strong character, and I think all of Jonathan's girlfriends over two seasons, Olivia Thirlby, Jenny Slate, and Zoe Kazan, have been strong characters. And this season we had Olympia Dukakis, Jessica Hecht, Laila Robbins, Mary Kay Place and Kristen Wiig, all of whom gave strong performances and, to my biased eyes, were lively, strong characters. That said, our show has three male leads and so all other characters, male or female, don't get as much screen time and so can't feel as fully fleshed out as the characters played by Jason Schwartzman, Ted Danson, and Zach Galifianakis.

At the beginning of the show, it seems like the characters' vices are split between drinking and smoking, and the show has become increasingly weed-centric -- why?

From the beginning, all three characters smoked pot, but if the show has listed towards greater marijuana consumption, it's probably because being stoned is a more dreamy, less sloppy experience than being drunk, and so the characters can be funnier and more coherent, while indulging.

Your show is filled with characters obsessed with literature -- you've compared them to a bunch of Don Quixotes, attempting to live out the stories they've read in books. What literature are you obsessed with now?  What is the closest you've come to the state Jonathan lives in -- actually attempting to live out a Raymond Chandler fantasy?

At the moment, I'm not in the grip of anything, unfortunately. Though the last series of books that really grabbed me were these Richard Stark novels (a pseudonym for Donald Westlake) about a criminal named Parker.

As for me being like Philip Marlowe, I tried to find a lost purse once, did help out a friend uncover illegal behavior in a lawsuit, and was asked to find a missing colon hygienist, who had irrigated my bowels, but for some reason, I turned that one down. I think it was during the holidays. But I regret this. I would have called it "The Case of the Missing Colon Hygienist!"

You mentioned that you didn't think you'd be able to do detective work, so, what are the characteristics of a good detective, and if Jonathan the character is a good one what does he have that you lack?

I didn't think I could be a detective because some of it involves computer mastery and I have the opposite of computer mastery. But Jonathan the character is wonderfully more brave and delusional than I am, which enables him to take on things that he shouldn't.

What's your favorite article of clothing?

I don't have one. But a comfortable pair of shoes can feel like a blessing.

Photo courtesy of Seth Kushner

 

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