Bored To Death creator Jonathan Ames began writing novels more than two decades ago, publishing his first, I Pass Like Night, in his mid-20s. He’s also written several books of personal essays about his neuroses and sexual adventures living in New York, essays culled from his New York Press column. In his novels, essays, and now on HBO’s Bored To Death, which stars Jason Schwartzman as “Jonathan Ames,” Ames combines an endless curiosity about the many manifestations of human coupling with a treasure trove of literary references. He and his characters often analyze their lives through books. In a particularly memorable episode last season, Edition magazine editor George Christopher (Ted Danson) looks to Klaus Kinski’s autobiography for guidance when his wacky therapist advises him to experiment with homosexuality. Naturally, chaos ensues. The A.V. Club caught up with Ames in Bryant Park outside HBO’s New York office to talk about the new season of the show (which returns on September 26), the transition from novelist to television writer, and the pleasures of being smothered by a group of women.
The A.V. Club: I first saw you years back when you hosted shows at the Moth.
Jonathan Ames: Supposedly—I don’t know if it’s still the case—I’ve hosted and performed at the Moth more than any other person. I was there from the beginning, and used to host it quite a lot. Oh, look at that. They have a ping-pong table over here. Damn, I’d love to play.
AVC: On Bored To Death, your alter ego’s favorite form of procrastination is backgammon. Did he get that from you?
JA: For a number of years, I played it obsessively. He does it more in the first season than the second season, but I stopped because I kept getting viruses on my computer from it, and my computer kept freaking out. Or it would freeze right in the middle of when I was in a heated match with someone from Turkey. I would play for hours. I do miss it, but it’s interesting. I don’t know how to re-download it onto my computer, so I’ve been off it for a year or more. In the second season, I have him a bit more obsessed with crossword puzzles. I switched from backgammon to crossword puzzles, but now I’m off of crossword puzzles.
AVC: Are you more productive now?
JA: No, I’m not very productive at all. I’m probably like an animal. I mean, great animals in the ocean feed all the time. I’m someone who procrastinates, worries, for most of a month, and then I’ll have a flurry of manic productivity with a sense of great urgency and fear for like two days.
AVC: Did you ever have to give back an advance like Jonathan does?
JA: No. I must have lived with that fear, but I don’t know if I ever got an advance before a whole book was done. Maybe I did my first novel, but it was such a small advance. Then, it was $8,000, so if I had to give back $4,000, that might have been difficult, because I was broke anyway, and it would have seemed like a huge amount. I always had that hanging over my head. If you had an advance, you might have to give it back.
AVC: You have a very small writing staff on Bored To Death. Do you prefer to write most of the material yourself?
JA: The writers are very helpful. I did the bulk of the writing, because for a show that’s establishing itself, you need to establish a singular voice. Also, I came from the world of novels, so collaborating as a writer has been a learning process for me.
AVC: Are there any plans to expand the eight-episode season to a longer one?
JA: I don’t know if we’d ever get 13 episodes. Maybe only the HBO dramas get 13. I think Curb Your Enthusiasm always gets 10. I could be wrong. We’ve done two seasons of eight, so if we get a third season, it’d be great to get 10 to give the storylines a little more breathing room.
AVC: It seems like they always end way too soon. The whole first season is about three hours.
JA: I know it goes by fast. Is it three hours? It sort of felt like each season, we’re basically making the equivalent of two feature films. Two not overly long feature films, you know, so if we expanded to 10 episodes, it’d be like two and half films. They’re meant to entertain, amuse, hopefully, like a well-prepared but quick snack, maybe.
AVC: What’s the adjustment process of switching from prose writing to dramatic writing been like for you?
JA: It’s been happening over a few years. Obviously, scripts are dialogue-driven, and I’d intended to write a lot of dialogue in my novels, but the dialogue in these scripts needs to be even terser and more efficient. You just don’t have the time or space that you do in prose, but I’ve always admired efficiency in writing, because I never want to bore the reader. In this case, whoever might be reading the scripts. And I don’t want what we’re doing to bore anyone, although we did call it Bored To Death. There definitely was a transition, but I like the economy of script writing. You know, a scene description, how can I tell it so it’s not longer than two lines? Because you’re also aware that people have to read these scripts, and you want to save space for the dialogue. I’ve always liked police-blotter kind of writing, or the writing of a policeman, right to the point and hardboiled. That’s how I see at least the prose elements of scriptwriting. I try to keep the dialogue lively and moving, try to do this David Mamet notion of getting into a scene late and leaving early, though it’s not necessarily David Mamet’s invention.
AVC: You’ve said before that detective novels, particularly Raymond Chandler’s, have played a big part in your life, and even helped you through bouts of depression. Was it the escapism that—
JA: I think with Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, two of my favorites, it was a combination of the escapism of a thrilling story with a deep love for their prose. As a prose person, it was soothing probably to my mind to read their sentences. For me, books have always been a way to feel less alone while being alone. Perhaps if I was depressed and isolated, just communicating with these authors through their sentences helped me.
AVC: And the idea for Bored To Death came from your fantasy about wanting to be a private eye, right?
JA: Yeah, I wanted to be one. I was like, “What can I do with my life? I need some adventure. I want to be tough. I want to have some excitement! I want to be a private detective!” But I knew in this modern era, it’s probably having to do with computers and just researching people, and I stunk at that. I did have this fantasy of putting an ad up on Craigslist and posing as a private detective. I didn’t do it, but I had a character in a story do it, and then the story became this TV show.
AVC: It seems on the show, the three main characters wrestle with balancing their macho impulses with introspective and sensitive sides.
JA: Well, I don’t know about macho, but I think they all have—maybe less so with the Ray [Zach Galifianakis] character—they’re willing to put their necks on the line. They’re a bunch of Don Quixotes. They’re all slightly delusional, but I think it stems from my own desire to be a hero. I wouldn’t like someone’s house to burn down, but if it had to burn down, I would like to be there on the spot, so I could race in and carry people out. I guess it’s an ego thing, but I also like sports. I guess I like to be tested. I like danger and thrills. In that sense, the characters like that as well. They’re also very sensitive and vulnerable, maybe what people might characterize as a more feminine trait.
AVC: In addition to the show, your personal essays and novels deal a lot with the different shades of sexuality.
JA: I’ve always been intrigued about writing about sex or exploring sex, because for me, sex mostly has to do with psychological trauma, and that makes for drama. Most sex for me comes out of a place of disturbed emotion, and so it’s not just sex. You’re getting to talk about feelings and troubles, and put it in this area of human experience that people always find interesting.
AVC: You wrote a striking personal essay a while back about spending Christmas with a transsexual prostitute, and a central part of your novel The Extra Man focuses on the protagonist’s fascination with transsexuals. Is there something about existing between male and female that particularly intrigues you?
JA: Yeah, I’ve written a lot about the subject. I do think there’s something, a mythos that we’re all part male and part female. We’re all in a state of transition. Metaphorically, I think I’ve always been intrigued by transgendered people for being outer manifestations of what I struggle with internally. Maybe less so now that I’m older and have given up or something. [Laughs.]
AVC: About those two sides of your personality?
JA: Or just not even personality, but two sides of one’s soul. I’m also just intrigued that people can so change themselves, you know, and walk in two worlds. I don’t know. It’s always been very intriguing to me on a number of levels. You know, Tiresias was both sexes. This is something that artists and writers and poets and cultures have always been dealing with. I’ve also been intrigued by it. It may have been because I had a late puberty and thought maybe I’m never going to evolve one way or the other. I thought my nipples were overly large, which they weren’t, but, you know, I was a typical nutty 15-year-old.
AVC: Do you find it cathartic to write about these very personal experiences or is it difficult?
JA: I’m not really an essay writer anymore, so that’s very much in the past. I don’t really remember writing these things. I sort of vaguely do. What’s written in an essay in 2000 doesn’t really apply to me now, because I feel like I’ve changed so much. I’m kind of like a plant. I’m different every season. Nonetheless, I’ve put these things down, and they’re in books, but I don’t feel connected to it anymore. John Steinbeck had some sort of quote about how when he finished a book, he put it on a shelf and just moved forward. I used to enjoy writing essays, but I like to make things, and that’s what I was making at the time. Now, I’m making a TV show.
AVC: Do you miss writing novels?
JA: Yeah, I think I miss writing novels. I’m still very intrigued by the novel as a form, but what I’m doing with this TV show feels very novelistic in its expansiveness—the number of characters you can have and ground you can cover—but I do love novels, so I hope someday to write another one.
AVC: There are so many great cameos in the show. Did you write those parts specifically for Samantha Bee, John Hodgman, Patton Oswalt, etc?
JA: I specifically wrote for John Hodgman. I specifically wrote for Jim Norton in episode three of this new season. I really wanted Jim Norton, and I wrote it directly for him. Other than that, it’s sort of been “Write the role and then try to find an actor to fit it.” It was really great to get F. Murray Abraham. We have Olympia Dukakis, and brought back Kristen Wiig this season.
AVC: Is there any chance that Olivia Thirlby will be coming back as Jonathan’s ex-girlfriend?
JA: She’s not in the second season, but she could come back in the future.
AVC: So there’s the possibility that Jonathan–
JA: Yeah, he could reunite.
AVC: You’ve famously not owned a TV for many years. Now that you do, what shows do you watch?
JA: The only show I really watch is True Blood, which I really like. Then I watch sports, and I channel-surf compulsively and neurotically once in a while late at night. Primarily, I still like to read at night.
AVC: Why do you think so many people have become obsessed with vampires lately?
JA: I don’t know. There must be some witty one-line answer. I guess immortality is always appealing. They’re usually very good-looking and given all sorts of powers, and they’re sexy. I don’t know. It’s a combination of being immortal and sexy. I’d like to be immortal and sexy, so I’m into vampires. In True Blood, I also like the characters that turn into dogs. I would like to turn into a dog.
AVC: What do you see your life being like as a dog? You probably wouldn’t be writing an HBO show.
JA: Well, I wouldn’t be a dog all the time. I’d be a part-time dog. I’d go to a dog run and wrestle with other dogs, and I’d like to be caressed by humans, but mostly I’d want to wrestle with other dogs and run really fast.
AVC: In your writing, you’ve flirted a lot with having different alter egos, whether it was Louis Ives from The Extra Man or Jonathan A. in The Alcoholic. Now you’ve gone full-blown with Jonathan Ames in Bored To Death. Is it ever hard to separate your life from your alter egos?
JA: The Jonathan Ames character represents a younger version of me, so I have to remember some of my issues from that age. In some ways, I speak most directly through the George Christopher character. He’s the one that’s most like me. I guess when you’re this narcissistic—I’m narcissistic with a multiple personality disorder, so that’s why I keep coming up with these characters based on myself.
AVC: And he’s a combination of George Plimpton and Christopher Hitchens?
JA: Yeah, initially that was part of the early inspiration. That’s why I named him George Christopher, but then he’s just become Ted Danson’s invention, with me collaborating with Ted to create this guy.
AVC: You have a pretty colorful cameo coming up this season.
JA: I don’t know what I’m supposed to give away or not give away. We can put it this way: I ran up a street naked in Brooklyn, and someone was supposed to be waiting for me with a robe, but I guess I ran to the wrong tree. They had to keep shooting the rest of the scene, and I’m like hiding by this tree, naked. People are looking out their windows. I thought I might get arrested on my own set. It was cold, and I was shivering there, cupping my tiny schmekel in my hands in the shadows by a tree, just kind of like what eventually does happen to the character. So many funny moments occur in the season. I really wanted in episode three to have the guys run in this serpentine fashion when they’re on a paramilitary mission, because I always loved that movement in the film, The In-Laws, and then in Animal House, so I had them very specifically do that.
AVC: Did you do that in your days in the army?
JA: I didn’t. My biggest military moment was when I buried myself under a fallen tree on some maneuvers in the woods of West Point, and I wasn’t discovered. I was the only sophomore ROTC guy that wasn’t discovered, and I just lay there and meditated for hours while we were trying to evade capture.
AVC: Spirituality plays a role in the show. The characters search for something greater than themselves while being pretty rooted in agnosticism. Are you conflicted yourself?
JA: Well, I try to convey my own convoluted notions of spirituality, much of which I got from little sayings on Yogi Tea bags. I’m an agnostic that prays for help. I also really like the notion that everything is completely unreal, so a lot of confused, watered-down Buddhism finds its way into the scripts. I believe in meditation and trying to be loving and kind. I guess that’s my spiritual life.
AVC: Have you read about string theory?
JA: I don’t know about it very much.
AVC: It’s probably also a confused, watered-down idea, but I love the idea that time could be a man-made construct, just something we’ve invented to understand our existence.
JA: Does that mean the past is still alive? Because a lot of times I like the past to go away.
AVC: Speaking of the past, you’ve written about a lot of adventures you’ve had over the years, from attempting to participate in an orgy to fighting in amateur boxing matches as “The Herring Wonder.” Is there one that’s particularly memorable, or that you really regret doing?
JA: One time, I caught a football onstage and had pasted money all over my body so people would be induced to tackle me. I wanted to get over my fear of smothering, and I thought I would have to tape money all over my body. I told the audience I had issues with smothering. When I used to get tackled playing pickup football games as a kid, I would panic when I’d be under the bottom of the group. This may have come from too much cuddling as a child. I had a friend stand in the back of the audience and throw a football at me, and I told the audience, “When I catch the football, you guys can charge me and get this money, and maybe help me get over this smothering.” I thought maybe no one would charge me. That’s why I put like $40 on my body, with probably a $10 bill right on my crotch. Sure enough, as soon as I caught the football, the audience charged. It was all women. About 15 girls. I was like a Beatle. Not the bug—though I was like a bug, also spiritually and mentally—but I was like Paul McCartney or something. These girls charged and tackled me right to the ground and smothered me and were grabbing money all over me. Now that was cathartic. It was much more cathartic than writing an essay. I’d rather do that than write an essay. I recall that pleasurably. I also have fond memories of my two boxing matches.
AVC: So many great writers like Norman Mailer have been boxers. Do you think there’s a connection between writers and boxing?
JA: A lot of writers, probably because they’re sensitive, which makes them want to be writers, have fears about their masculinity, so they overcompensate by having an interest in boxing and tough-guy things. Also, writers are drawn to drama, and putting yourself on the line, and risk, and bravery. Boxing is just a metaphor for bravery. The square circle. It’s a place where drama is contained. It’s a true sporting event. It’s mano-a-mano, but again, it means nothing. It’s not like war or fighting someone who’s attacking someone you care about, but it can be thrilling, and I enjoyed the challenge of it.