Creator Jonathan Ames explains why he named Bored to Death’s fictional protagonist after himself, the reason he likes writing about writers, and why he used to be called “perverted.”
Written by Rob Feld
Jonathan Ames sits at Building on Bond, the Brooklyn café that serves as a repeated location for the HBO series he created, Bored to Death. After completing work on the show’s second season, Ames is waiting nervously to see if it gets picked up for a third. Ames has been a professional writer and essayist since an expanded version of his Princeton thesis novella I Pass Like Night was published in 1989, two years after he graduated. Like the character of the same name in his show, Ames struggled for years to write his second book. He went back to school so he could teach but eventually wrote his second novel in 1998 and took on a newspaper column. He has published a book every two years since.
Bored to Death, a comedy about a young Brooklyn writer whose girlfriend breaks up with him because of his chronic drinking and marijuana use, was based on a short story Ames published in McSweeney’s. It follows the fictitious Jonathan Ames, played by Jason Schwartzman, as he moonlights as a detective through an ad he posts on craigslist. His needy boss at the magazine for which he writes, George (Ted Danson), and pothead cartoonist best friend, Ray (Zach Galifianakis), join him on his cases and get pulled into the ensuing maelstrom.
I was going to ask you about using your own name, if not yourself, in a piece. I wonder what you feel that adds to the story. What experience does that give you of what you are writing?
I was known as a nonfiction writer and as a fiction writer at the time of the short story. When I would write nonfiction, people would say, “Come on, you made that up! Stop exaggerating.” When I wrote fiction people would say, “Dude, why didn’t you just call that nonfiction or memoir? That’s the truth, right?” I couldn’t win, so I figured I would write a real piece of fiction, something that has not happened to me at all, and yet use my name, and then what are people going to say? That was the initial aesthetic choice.
So part of it was wanting to be truthful to the source material and part of it was a similar aesthetic – and it’s always dangerous when you use a French word to explain something – of adding the frisson of Did this really happen to the writer Jonathan Ames? when they see “Created By.” People always wonder, Is that true? Even with fiction, What’s the truth behind it? It’s part of their enjoyment of the art because people want to connect to the artist. When you listen to a song [you might ask], “Did that really happen to Morrissey? I’m less alone.” It doesn’t really affect the way I write because I sort of divorce myself from my name. I register it, but I sort of don’t.
It’s just a character now?
Zach Galifianakis and Jason Schwartzman in Bored to Death.
It’s a character now. If anything in one’s ongoing performance of one’s life – like the Shakespeare thing, we are all actors on the stage – I’ve added this odd wrinkle to my existence where a lot of times I’m described as “the real Jonathan Ames came to be interviewed today.” It used to be “the perverted Jonathan Ames” because one of my books was subtitled The Adventures of a Mildly Perverted Young Writer. Maybe it’s a step up. Next it’ll be “the forgotten Jonathan Ames.”
Television is a particular form of narrative because the story keeps going; it’s not a closed narrative like most films or novels. How have you seen the characters and story develop, the whole world develop, from the pilot through the second season?
There’s been an evolution in my knowledge of the medium and how to tell stories a little more effectively; what’s possible production-wise, what do the actors best handle, length of scene. In terms of the characters, when you write the pilot, you have notions of where it could go, but until you get picked up, how far can you push your brain? So the first year becomes very improvisatory but with certain basic principles intact, which is that the characters care for each other. They’re not unkind to each other, and Jonathan wants to help people. Then other things come in like they’re all trying to figure out who they are in different ways, and find their place in the world. So much of it is about Jonathan trying to come up with an identity so that he’s comfortable in his own skin. If I get a third season that’s something that’s emerged out of these first two years, and then coming up with metaphorical representations of trying to figure out who you are.
Have you developed a more formal infrastructure over time? Did you make a series bible for the second season?
What I did for the second season – as I’m starting to do now for the third season even though I haven’t been picked up yet – is write up a big document of all my ideas for the arcs, images, themes, funny moments, bits of dialogue. I don’t know if it’s so much of a bible as bits of clay. Then I meet with the writers and say, “Alright, here’s all the clay. Help me shape these into discrete stories. Each episode will have three storylines for the three characters, but here are the stories I want to do for this season and how can we do that?” That’s how the group process comes in.
You’ve created a particular hyper reality or—
An unreality or fun house mirror reality—
It has boundaries, obviously, but I wonder if you’ve defined those in any way or pulled back from moments that were too goofy?
It’s a real fine line. I have a number of things I have to accomplish in 27 minutes. I’ve got three guys with storylines I have to pay attention to, and I possibly have a case for Jonathan. I have to make sure the case is not preposterous, is somehow believable that he might get it on the Internet; or he’s helping his friends in a way that’s like a case. I don’t know that there are specific guidelines – it’s kind of intuitive, like this is getting too silly. It is an interesting balancing act; Okay, we’ve got bad guys but how bad are they? Somehow they fit within the world of they’re bad but inept and not terrible people, sort of. In the third season, if I get one, maybe I’ll try and push the danger stakes a little bit. It’s interesting with the comedy, though, because people do want to laugh, and it can be jarring to go to dangerous. I guess it’s an aesthetic, like Danny Kaye dangerous. It’s Woody Allen Sleeper dangerous.
Can you tell me about alcohol, which plays a large part in the story? The use of substance to alter perception or experience of characters has played such a part in literary tradition. It’s a part of human experience but also a tool for you.
Kind of like using my name, part of the original premise of the short story was that the character was trying to sober up, and was a little bit bored being sober so he put the ad on craigslist. I guess the booze and the pot, like being the private detective, are means of escape. Being the private detective is hopefully the most positive because he’s helping other people. As it went on, Jonathan’s issues with substances became less important to me. I sort of covered that by putting the “issue” onto his girlfriend, that maybe she was projecting onto him the issues with her father; Jonathan found the balance – he drinks a little white wine, probably not more than two, and smokes a little bit of pot. George abuses pot the most and begins to try and deal with that in the second season, but because this is like a fantasy picture of life the consequences of their use are more comedic and deeply serious, like screwing up on a case or becoming distracted. George is starting to have some consequences in season two in the workplace.
All three guys use stuff, but they’re not out of control, they’re still trying to do things with her life; Ray is still drawing, Jonathan is still trying to write stories, teach, be a detective, George is still fighting for the magazine. But it does lend itself to humor. If California legalizes pot I could see it spreading throughout the country, so in some sense, it is addressing what’s going on with people. The booze thing becomes a way to distinguish the three guys; Ray is very much beer and whiskey, Jonathan is purely fey white wine, George is the martini. It’s a way to define them all.
Many of your characters, like in The Extra Man, have been writers. Is that a write-what-you-know thing?
Part of that is drawing on my life experience, which is someone who tries to make little myths or stories out of the confusion of life. Where it can be effective, though, and not just self-centered, is when the artist is engaged in trying to interpret what’s going on. In a sense, for the audience, whether they call themselves writers are not, everyone’s trying to figure out what’s going on, trying to make sense of things and tell their own stories. The writer in that sense can be representative of the viewer or reader. But it’s also partly the world that I know and can speak to; but hopefully in speaking to it, speak to the universal experience of trying to do something that’s meaningful. Jonathan tries to write because that’s meaningful to him. Other people have other meaningful things. Is it family? Is it their job? Is it the artwork they do but never hope to be paid for but they do anyway?
Is this a world you’d like to stay in? When the show is over, do you see yourself going back to prose or coming up with a new show?
I really don’t know. I’m so in the middle of it right now, I don’t know what’s on the other side. I feel like I change so much. After the rigors of this, which is so intense – the writing process is intense because you want to please HBO, shooting is very hardcore physically, 12 to 14 hour days for months. I imagine when it ends, it would be nice to take a year or two off and just try and write a book again. Or there’s something very addicting about the community of a set, so I might want to get that going again, if I’m lucky enough. I don’t know what doors will be open and closed for me. I’m now just on pins and needles waiting to find out if we get a third season.