Interview date: 11/05/2009
Run date: 11/13/2009
Jonathan Ames is still known first and foremost as an author: he’s served as a columnist for the New York Press, penned several books (I Pass Like Night, The Extra Man, and Wake Up, Sir! among them), and even taken a dip into the world of graphic novels with 2008’s The Alcoholic. In 2009, however, his biggest claim to fame has been as the creator of the HBO series “Bored to Death,” starring Jason Schwartzman, Zach Galifianakis, and Ted Danson. Bullz-Eye chatted with Ames about the origins of the so-called “Noir-otic” comedy, the process of casting it, and the challenges of filming on location in New York. Fair warning: you’ll also learn of the challenges of conducting a phone interview in New York, as Ames details the various sights and sounds going on around him.
Jonathan Ames: Hey, Will? This is Jonathan Ames.
Bullz-Eye: Hey, how are you doing?
JA: Okay. Can I call you in, like, six or seven minutes? I just want to pick up a coffee and then get somewhere quiet.
BE: Not a problem.
JA: Okay, talk to you in a few minutes, then. Thank you.
(Six or seven minutes later)
BE: Got your coffee?
JA: Yep. I’m still on the street, though. There’s actually a long line. But I’m on a quiet street. Is that all right?
BE: Absolutely. Well, I was at the TCA panel that you guys did for the show, so I guess I should ask if you feel the need to start with a Hairy Call, as you did that day.
JA: Well, I don’t want to hurt you over the phone first thing in the morning. (Laughs) Also, I’m in the street. I can do a mini-sound, though, or the original sound. It started because this friend of mine took his headphones off during an SRA reading, and out of the blue, he made this kind of purr-like sound which grew into the Hairy call. So I’ll just do the original purr sound. It’s like this. (Offers a shorter and less abrasive version of this sound)
BE: Nice. So what gave you the idea to do a series that’s being described as “comedy-noir”? I mean, the Hammett and Chandler are obviously there, but what inspired you to add the comedy?
JA: Well, I think that…after my first novel, my mother said to me, “Why don’t you make your writing more funny? You’re so funny in person.” Because my first novel was rather dark. And I don’t know, but something about what she said was true. “Yes, why don’t I?” Maybe I was afraid to be funny in the writing. But since then, seven books later, almost everything I’ve done has a comedic edge to it. The original “Bored to Death” short story wasn’t that comedic. It sort of starts out comedic, but then it turns dark. I think that’s just always what I’ve done – comedy – but I was also drawn to noir and mysteries, and so I guess it was a little bit like that old commercial, where the guy falls down and he’s got a chocolate bar, and the other guy’s got a jar of peanut butter. (Laughs)
BE: At times, the tone of “Bored to Death” reminds me a bit…not a lot, but a bit…of “Nick Danger,” from the Firesign Theater.
JA: I don’t know that reference, sorry. But, obviously, it’s been played around with before many times, having the detective be lampooned or…well, you know. But my goal wasn’t to lampoon it, actually. This is this young man’s fantasy, and he’s acting it out.
BE: So how did the series find its way to HBO? Did they come to you, looking for you to do a series for them, or did you come to them with idea in hand?
JA: They came to me, but it wasn’t so much HBO that came to me. HBO had come to me in the past, but I hadn’t ever really come up with something for them. But, then, a producer who was working at HBO, Sarah Condon, she’d been at HBO for ten years, but now she’s more of an independent producer with an office at HBO. Do you know what I mean? And, so, now she’s to bring them projects, and when she moved to New York from L.A. in 2007 after switching her position, she was meeting writers and wanted to meet me. She’d been aware of my books and whatever else I was doing, and she asked me what I’d been working on lately. And I told her that I had this noir short story that I thought could make a good film or a TV show. She asked to read it, and she read it and liked it, so she asked, “Can you create a world for this character?” ‘Cause, y’know, it was really just one man on a mission in the short story. So I came up with some friends and then went out to L.A. and pitched it. And they went for it almost immediately, but then the Writer’s Strike hit, so I had to wait, like, six months.
BE: Do you know if the person who came up with the tag-line “Noir-otic comedy” got a bonus?
JA: Well, I came up with that tag-line, but I don’t think I got a bonus. (Laughs) In my original pish. Pish? Pitch. Sorry, I’m just waking up. But in my original pitch, I said, “I’m sort of taking Noir and neurotic and making ‘Noir-otic.’”
BE: Jason Schwartzman is playing a facsimile of you, but do you try to write the character so that he matches how you would act in or react to a situation? Or is it a wish list of things that you wish you could do, and now you’re living vicariously through him?
JA: It’s a certain wish list of hero behavior and getting the girl, and how he reacts…certainly, some of my own weak moral code would be in place there. (Laughs) But the character’s not me, you know? It’s Jason’s own creation. These things never happened to me, so it’s not like I can recreate my response. (Hesitates) Well, some of the things happened, or certainly the things he talks about are things I think and feel, but that can be said for all three of the male characters.
BE: How did Donick Cary and Martin Gero come into the mix, and how does the process of co-writing work on the show?
JA: Well, after the show got picked up, I had to hire writers, but before I actually had the writers, HBO was, like, “We need to see what the season would be.” So I came up with all of the stories and had all of that work done, so when they came on, they helped me to flesh out the outlines, to beef up the stories. And then, y’know, I set off writing and they initially wrote one script each, and I would kind of do my pass on their scripts and sort of revise them.
BE: Were you familiar with their work prior to their coming onto the show?
JA: A little bit. I mean, it was very rushed after we were picked up, so I read some scripts, and I liked those scripts, and I met them in person. But I had to put together a staff pretty quickly.
BE: My understanding is that Jason was someone you wanted for the show from the get-go. Is that correct?
JA: Yes. Well, I had met him during the writer’s strike, because I had him looking at a script of mine, for my novel Wake Up, Sir! He wanted to be in that…and then I told him about “Bored to Death,” and he wanted to be in that! I thought he’d be great for “Wake Up, Sir!” and that also applied to “Bored to Death,” so from the beginning, I advocated for him.
BE: Ted Danson’s obviously been around the block a few times in comedies, but was there a particular performance of his that made you think, “This is the guy I want to play George Christopher”?
JA: Well, HBO suggested Ted. I didn’t envision us getting that big a star for the role. I didn’t know that we could, you know? It was just a pilot, and not, like, a super-high budget pilot. So, anyway, they suggested him, and I was just, like, “Wow, Ted Danson?” And they showed me some recent performances of his in “Damages,” and I was very impressed. And I think he’s just talented and a great actor, a great comedic actor, so he was magnificent in the pilot that the role kind of got rejiggered and made larger.
BE: Yeah, I was actually going to ask if it was his performance that led to the role having such prominence.
JA: Yes. I mean, initially, it was just, like, “Okay, he’ll be in there maybe once an episode, maybe for two pages.” And part of the initial thinking was also, “Oh, he probably won’t want to be on the set that often.” But then he was so great and so into it that I was just, like, “Oh, my God, we have to expand this for him.”
BE: Now, if I’ve got my timeline right, Zach Galifianakis’ career had not really taken off in a big way while he was filming the show.
JA: Yes, when Zach filmed the pilot, he actually came from the set of “The Hangover.” (Pauses) I’m on the street, and Donick Cary, who you just asked about, is walking by. Hey, Donick! I’m doing an interview with Bullz-Eye about the show.
Donick Cary: Greetings, Bullz-Eye!
JA: (Laughs) We’re all about to meet. He just ran into the little ground-floor apartment for the writer’s room. So, anyway, yeah, Zach was well known in a cultish way, and I had met him personally, and he had also wanted to be in “Wake Up, Sir!” I really wanted him for this role, and initially he wasn’t going to do it because he just didn’t want to do TV. But he hadn’t read the script, so I got on the phone and said, “Please read the script! Just give it a chance!” (Laughs) And then he read it and wanted to do it, which was great. And then his career subsequently took off. Even when we started shooting the first season, we didn’t know what a phenomenon “The Hangover” would become?
BE: Is he now holding out for more money now that he’s such a big shot?
JA: (Laughs) Not that I’m aware of. He’s a good guy, so he’s coming back. I think he really enjoys the show, really admires Ted and Jason, and…he’s a delightful person.
BE: Have you gotten any feedback from the show’s lesbian viewership about Ray’s sperm-centric storyline?
JA: You know, I haven’t. I always, in my comedy or humor, try not to offend or hurt anyone, and I worried that that storyline might be upsetting in some way, but it was mostly meant to be silly. They just happened to abscond with a lot of this… (Starts to laugh) …sperm, and they’re selling it all over Park Slope. Sorry, it’s just so silly even now when I think about it. God. But, no, I haven’t heard anything one way or the other.
BE: It probably won’t surprise you that someone has already done a screen capture of the list of people to whom they’re selling the sperm, and that they’ve spotted the names of several “Bored to Death” crew members.
JA: Yeah, I think there were…well, I don’t know, I think the names were jumbled together. I think maybe somebody’s sister’s name may have been used, or a version of it. Just the last name, but not the first name. You’ve got to be careful about all of that stuff.
BE: I didn’t know if it was an intentional Easter egg situation.
JA: No, it wasn’t. You’ve really got to be very careful, legal-wise, with people’s names.
BE: It’s a very New York centric show, obviously. Are there any particular challenges with shooting on location?
JA: Well, yeah, but I think at every location something can go wrong, like the weather. Obviously, you have location people who try to find spots that are shootable. Like, for example, that therapy office that they found, it was kind of perfect, but it was also a very cramped space and difficult to shoot in. But we managed.
BE: I don’t want to say that the show has an indie sensibility, but I don’t know how many other series would have a guest appearance by Jim Jarmusch, let alone having him play himself.
JA: Yeah, well, you know, “Entourage” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” certainly have real-world celebrities playing themselves, but I don’t know that Jarmusch has been on those. But he was perfect for this situation, and he was really funny in the episode. Initially, I was thinking, “All right, who’s a real New York director who’s both plausible and would be really cool for Jonathan?” And then someone said, “Jim Jarmusch,” and I said, “Yes! Definitely!” So I kind of amended the script, putting in these references about the hair and then threw in the thing about Frank O’Hara. I don’t know why, I just thought…I was hoping that Jarmusch, after reading the script, would want to do it, and I don’t know why, but I just thought that he might like Frank O’Hara’s sensibility. And, sure enough, he’d thought for many years about maybe doing a documentary about the New York poets, specifically Frank O’Hara. So that bit of kismet, I think, helped us land him.
BE: You’ve said in the past that you’ve had pretty good luck with getting guest stars, either because you knew them or because they were interested in the show, but is there anyone that you tried for but couldn’t score?
JA: You know, I’m trying to remember. I mean, certainly there were people we went to who didn’t want to do it or couldn’t do it, but I don’t really remember…there wasn’t anyone who we madly had our hearts set on. We did really well. But there were just a few big roles: the Oliver Platt role, the Bebe Neuwirth role, and Jarmusch, obviously. (Pauses) I’m already trying to figure out the second season, so I’ve forgotten the victories and defeats of the first season.
BE: Any talk of bringing back Patton Oswalt for an appearance in Season 2?
JA: Yes, I’d definitely love to bring Patton back. His character’s kind of perfect for that, because he’s got this store, and Jason needs things from that store. It’s kind of like Sesame Street: “Let’s go to the store and see our friend Patton!”
BE: I think…
JA: Oh, my God. This woman just walked past, shouting at someone on her cell phone, going, “You are an ugly motherfucker!” God. I can’t believe the person is…I mean, she’s still going! I can’t believe they haven’t hung up on her yet!
BE: (Laughs) Well, I was just going to say that I think my favorite episode of the season has been “The Case of the Beautiful Blackmailer.” It just seemed to hit every mark. Do you have a particular favorite?
JA: That one is very enjoyable to watch. I mean, in a lot of ways, I’m so close to them all that it’s like trying to look in the mirror and find the right angle to accept oneself, because I see all of the little editing flaws or the things that were missed. But they are entertaining, and…I guess all of them, in some ways. Not to sound too clichéd or paternalistic, but they really are all like my children, so each of them do have moments that are very dear to me. I know that some of them may work more coherently. Like, “The Case of the Beautiful Blackmailer,” in some ways, I feel like that one’s going to be held over my head, because that was the case I had followed and figured out after I wrote the short story. It was going to be, like, the next chapter, because originally I was going to write a novel. The hardest challenge is the cases, because we only have about 27 minutes, and I have Ted and Zach, so that case…it was a nice little Rubik’s Cube or something.
BE: Was it always planned to be an eight-episode season?
JA: Well, once we got picked up, yeah, they said, “Do seven more!” I imagine the powers that be may have said, “Can we have ten?” And they said, “No.” But I was fine with that. And the second season, it looks like we’re also doing eight again.
BE: Is that a comfortable number for you?
JA: I feel like it’s manageable, especially because I’m going to be doing so much of the writing, and even the scripts that I co-write, I obviously do a lot of work on. So I hope it’s manageable.
BE: Have you got the second season pretty well mapped out?
JA: We’re doing that right now. In fact, that’s what we’re meeting for. I’d say we’ve figured out half, maybe three-quarters of the episodes.
BE: Can you speak to what the general thrust of it will be?
JA: Well, the general thrust…I sort of can quote my own novel, as I did the other night when people were asking me about the show. In my book The Extra Man, the character says, “Through troubles and into more troubles, that’s my motto.” So the guys are going to have more troubles. (Pauses) I live in a very increasingly gentrified Brooklyn neighborhood, and the actress Keri Russell just walked by.
JA: But, anyway, that would be the general thrust: “Through troubles and into more troubles, that’s my motto.”
BE: Appropriately enough, I was going to ask you how much input you had into the film version of “The Extra Man”?
JA: Well, I co-wrote the screenplay with the directors (Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini), so I had input in that sense, and I was on set. The two productions were sort of filming at the same time…well, they overlapped for a few days, which was pretty incredible. I had two things going on in New York, in two soundstages that were blocks from each other. I went from one to the other, and…I don’t know, it was pretty glorious for me. Also, like with Jason, I had advocated for Kevin Kline from the beginning, and that’s who we got, so that was cool. And I would talk to Kevin a little bit, because he had really studied the book and had listened to my audio book of “The Extra Man.” And then I also talked to Paul Dano about his character. I didn’t want to interfere with the directors’ movie, but they welcomed my presence.
BE: Is the pilot for “What’s Not to Love” lost forever, and if it isn’t, should it be?
JA: Well, it’s not lost forever. I mean, Showtime did air it five or six times during the writer’s strike. They must’ve been needing material and said, “Hey, let’s grab that thing that we once spent some money on,” and they threw it up on the screen. It didn’t seem like anybody… (Pauses, then speaks to someone else) Okay. All right. (Comes back on the line) Now some guy’s told me to not stand in front of his brownstone because he doesn’t want to hear my conversation. Jesus. Only in New York. I’m not talking that loudly. And it’s not like I’m having a bad conversation.
BE: It’s not like you called me a motherfucker or anything.
JA: Yeah! Okay, so, “What’s Not to Love.” I like it. It was a five day shoot, low budget. Some people think that it was very rough around the edges, which it was, and the shoot was rushed, the editing was rushed, but…I don’t know, I think it’s a goofy thing. I screened it a few times at a nightclub where I would put on shows – they’ve since closed this nightclub – and people laughed. It was a hometown audience of people who like to see my shows, but, y’know, I do feel like if people saw it they’d go, “Whoa! This doesn’t compare at all to ‘Bored to Death,’” which is very high quality in its production values. Have you seen it?
BE: No, in fact, I wasn’t even aware of it until you mentioned it during the TCA panel.
JA: Ah. Well, I played myself, and I had a hell of a good time, but when it didn’t get picked up, I kind of gave up on Hollywood. I just felt like I was too weird. In fact, someone at Showtime said to me, “Jonathan, we know you’re great downtown, but we can’t bring you to Broadway.” And I think he meant that as a compliment… (Laughs) …but I was just, like, “Uh, all right. I think I’d be good on Broadway, but I’ll head back to surviving as a teacher.” Because I kind of saw that there were two ways for a prose writer to survive: either academia or doing some Hollywood work. It’s almost impossible to making a living just off of books.
BE: If “Bored to Death” proves to be a gateway drug to your writing for some viewers, which of your books would you recommend as a starting point?
JA: Oh, I think Wake Up, Sir! people seem to cotton to, and…I mean, it might be different from “Bored to Death,” obviously, but people seem to like that book all right. Some people have said my non-fiction, my more personal essays…my first book of essays, What’s Not to Love, people are often positive in their response to that.
BE: And, lastly, given how many versions of yourself we’ve seen in essays, novels, and TV, is there a real Jonathan Ames?
JA: I wish! (Laughs) I wish I could meet him. I guess there’ s a real one. He’s the one who was just scolded by a man on the street and is holding a phone in his hand and is a little cold. I guess that’s as real as I get. Who was it who said, “I think therefore I am”? Some philosopher. Anyway, somebody’s here talking to you. But even that version…as soon as you open your mouth, is it really me? Because of the way language distorts everything, it’s kind of hard to...I’m doing the best I can to be…well, I’m not trying to be… (Starts to laugh) I’m sorry, I’m going down a rabbit hole here trying to answer the question of if I’m real or not. So, uh, I’m real.
BE: (Laughs) Thanks for the confirmation. Well, it’s been a pleasure talking to you, Jonathan.JA: Likewise. And thank you for your interest in the show!