Issue 22, Magazine

Jonathan Ames: In Vino Veritas

Stephen Blackwell :: Tuesday, November 3rd, 2009 5:30 pm

This feature is interactive. Take a picture of the image after the jump (Ames on the red bike) with your cell phone and MMS text to 66268 or e-mail to [email protected]. Jonathan Ames has a message for you about life, love, and literature, and it will begin downloading to your phone immediately.

By Max Goldblatt

Photos By Bryan Sheffield

They’d given me his number so I called him. I was getting coffee and did he want any?  He was set with caffeine, he said, but he could use some food. Could I get him a bagel or an English muffin? I pictured a rail-thin Jonathan Ames, starving and alone. How I wanted to help him!

Jonathan Ames has created Bored To Death for HBO, which stars Jason Schwartzman as Jonathan Ames, a writer by day, and well-intentioned yet hapless pseudo-detective by night. The show follows in the grand tradition of such untraditional Raymond Chandler interpretations as Elliot Gould’s Marlowe in Altman’s The Long Goodbye and the Coen brothers’ surrogate-Marlowe, The Dude.  Zach Galifianakis and Ted Danson also star and, as you can imagine, this is an extremely funny show.

Ames also has a new book of short pieces out, entitled The Double Life Is Twice As Good (which features the source material for the show) wherein his “too ridiculous to be true” non-fiction and his “too personal to be made-up” fiction solidify his place as the Werner Herzog of contemporary literature.

Ames is the guy I tell my friends to read and then I judge them based on their response to his work. I identify with his words: anxiety about hair loss, awkward sexual escapades, scatological follies. He writes like your best friend, confiding in you. But with Ames these neurotic confessions pose subtle and poignant questions about identity, self-acceptance and the human condition. All this from a guy with a story called “I Shit My Pants In The South Of France.”

English muffins in hand, I entered the tiny fourth-floor walkup he was renting in Venice, CA. Ames is a longtime New Yorker and this was almost a New York apartment, save for the perfect view of the Pacific. We noshed and we talked as the waves crashed in the distance.

JA: You know what you could use? There’s this goat cheese butter over there.

You recommend it? Yeah, it’s good. And the butter that they gave you may have melted.

So the story on which the pilot of Bored to Death is based is in the new book, but it’s very dark, much darker than the show. How did you get from that story to this show? There was this producer and there still is this producer—it’s not past tense—named Sarah Condon. She was meeting writers in New York, just seeing who might have something: like a fishing expedition. I didn’t have high hopes for my connection to Hollywood, but I went on the meeting and she says, “What have you been working on lately?” and I said, “You know, I wrote this short story that I think would make a great Noir film, maybe it could also make a TV show.” And I told her the premise and she was intrigued so we started talking about it and it was like Let’s turn this into a comedy, because my stuff is mostly comedic. She was like, Come up with a world for the guy. So I was just like, all right, gotta make a world, gotta make some friends, that’s the usual, I dunno… Friends! You know what I mean? All TV shows are about human connection and relationships.  So I created these two friends and, you know, I took the premise [of the story] and then I went somewhere else. A few months later we went to HBO, in September of 2007 and I pitched it and they said they wanted to do it, almost immediately.

Great! Then the writer’s strike happened like a week or two weeks later.

Oy. But there was enough of a deal in place, a handshake. When the strike ended I wrote the pilot.

What I like is that the premise of the show serves as a nice jumping off point for extracting things from your universe. As a fan of yours, to be watching an episode and see a transexual prostitute or the characters getting colonics— Or he says the title of one of my books. I sprinkled in a lot of, you know, I stole lines here and there. Cause it’s also—he’s sort of playing me, so it’s an interesting collage.

Was you playing yourself ever an option? I’ve seen that Showtime pilot you starred in as yourself— You actually saw it?

Yeah! That one time it was on I Tivo’d it. Dude! You’re one of the few human beings!

I loved it! Really?

If that had been picked up, that would have been one way of doing a Jonathan Ames TV show. Was the concept of you playing you in Bored To Death talked about? I think it was briefly on the table, but I think early on they wanted to go younger. And I met Jason and he’s incredible, and as soon as I met him I wanted him for this. I just thought he would do a better job playing me than me. But he’s also not me; it’s the character. He brings his own personality into it. You know, all the male characters are a little bit versions of me. That’s probably why I kept the name my name. But I’m really content that it’s not me.

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