(Photo: Jake Chessum)
These details are provided freely by Ames, so you can be sure they are true, more or less. He’s written about them, used them in plays (such as his one-man show, Oedipussy), and built monologues around them to perform at the Moth, the downtown storytelling showcase where he’s been a frequent guest. Once, during an event at the now-defunct Fez, he told the story of how, after the first time he masturbated, he was so proud that he ran into his parents’ room to demonstrate for his mother. After he told this story, his mother followed him onstage to read a poem based on the event. His father sold books in the back.
Ames grew up in New Jersey, with the young writer’s usual idols. Hunter S. Thompson. Jack Kerouac. Ernest Hemingway. He dreamed of a literary life but also wanted an adventurous life. After a first novel, I Pass Like Night, published in 1989 (and blurbed by Philip Roth), he dropped the fictional veil and started exposing his adventures directly: his sexual anxieties, his problematic drinking, his narcissism, his fascination with transsexuals. He had many lean years, supporting himself through teaching and taxi driving, and he moved back in with his parents. Then came his follow-up novel, The Extra Man, and City Slicker, his column that ran from 1997 to 2000. These swashbuckling tales of ribaldry were both anxious and adventurous, as though Woody Allen had stolen Charles Bukowski’s date book. They were kind of a mini-sensation, recalls Thomas Beller, a writer and Ames’s longtime friend. They were lewd but never sensational just to be provocative. And there was this outrageous level of candor. It was all like a high-wire act. Yet very grounded too.
Before I sat down recently to read Ames’s collected columns, I knew him mostly by reputation as That Funny Brooklyn Guy Who Writes About Sex. Characteristically, Ames has written about being thought of this way, a self-advanced designation he now claims to regret: Geniuses and Great American Novelists sell a hell of a lot more books than Perverts, he writes. I should sue myself for libel. I assumed his essays would make for a pleasant afternoon of breezy titillation, reading like (to borrow one of his most durable blurbs) an edgier David Sedaris. What I found was that the columns were surprisingly sweet and surprisingly sad, and that the waves of comical oversharing came with a powerful, tugging undertow of earnest pain. In among the rollicking essays about pant-shitting, for example, you’ll also find one in which an ex-girlfriend aborts a baby that Ames believes is his; afterward, dopey on Valium, she tells him blankly that, as he writes, the dead baby was too old to have been mine. Beller describes Ames’s writing as tender, and I think that’s true, though perhaps less in the sense of an all-encompassing human empathy and more in the sense of the vulnerability of a flinch; tender to the touch.
I write a lot of stuff so I can keep my secrets. It’s hiding by not hiding!
Granted, it’s also shtick, of course: the public confession of private shames. (How shamed can you be if you’re declaring it to the world?) Good writing requires a large dose of fearlessness, but also a large dose of exhibitionism, and Ames has both. And if he’s not the world’s first rabidly confessional writer, his columns did anticipate the cultural compulsion to reveal a little (or a lot) too much. But the emotional punch of his earliest writing still lands with genuine impact. It’s as though he saw the whole culture of TMI coming and preemptively yawped from the top of Mount Overshare: Damn you all, I will not be out-confessed.
As a result, Ames seems, on the page at least, like the last lone man who truly does not give a shit. He’s armored by his nakedness. What can you reveal about him that he hasn’t already revealed? The cartoonist Dean Haspiel, Ames’s friend and collaborator (the character of Ray is loosely based on him), has found that he and Ames share a tactical belief in self-revelation as self-defense. It’s like that last scene in 8 Mile, says Haspiel, when Eminem goes up onstage and decides, I’m just going to show it allall the bad with the good. That way, you can’t diss me. You can’t diss me better than I can diss me.’
This is beautiful.
So this is what Brooklyn literary stardom looks like. A hundred adoring peopletwo hundred?crammed in elbow-to-elbow, hunched protectively over plastic wine cups, smiling in the sunlit backroom of Book Court in Cobble Hill. There are long-limbed young women of the publishing breed: bespectacled, tastefully averse to makeup, bare-shouldered but not showing too much skin. Scoping them out: reed-thin males, intellectually disheveled, conversating seriously while scanning the room. And they’re all here to see Jonathan Ames. But which Ames?
Jonathan Ames is curious. Not in the sense that he's strange - though he surmises he may have some sort of personality disorder - but rather, his unending study of human nature, a study into which he often injects himself as the subject. His unending itch has helped him build a resume that reads boxer, evening companion to the elderly, cab driver, award winning author, and now, acclaimed television show creator.
That curiosity is also why, right in the middle of giving a thoughtful answer during our interview, Ames suddenly stops, intrigued by a front page photo in the New York Times that sits on a table between us.
"I keep looking at this - it looks like a painting, from my angle. But it's a... photo," he says, voice trailing off as he moves his nose closer to the ink.
We examine the page; what at first looks like a lush ocean scene is actually a rebel soldier in Libya, face down on pockmarked concrete beneath a single palm tree.
If the moment is a metaphor for not everything being what it seems - discount, for a moment, the possibility that it's a cheap over-analysis of a newspaper viewed from an awkward angle - it applies nicely to Ames. Known for tales of adventure, perversion and legendary monologue performances, the man himself is lanky, soft spoken and thoughtful; in the same breath he can dismiss his considerable talent and quote French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre. His tweed jacket fits a mid-20th century college professor more than it does TV hit maker. Perhaps that's fitting.
Symbolism aside, the moment with the newspaper provides a brief, yet telling, look into the mind of a New York literary institution, one who is now preparing to share his thoughts with the world. The third season of his hit HBO show, "Bored To Death," begins shooting on Monday.
Starring Jason Schwartzman as author/amateur private eye Jonathan Ames - a character loosely inspired by, but not factually based on the man who writes his lines - along with Zach Galifianakis as curmudgeonly cartoonist Ray and Ted Danson as magazine bigwig George Christopher, "Bored to Death" is a quirky, sincere half hour comedy that offers both a look at the real and existential difficulties of life, as well as the rich fantasy worlds we should all be so lucky to inhabit.
In season three, the characters will start in very different places in their lives a year later, Ames says, though they're still friends -- and on-screen Ames is still a detective. The rest, while not state secrets, is hush hush for now (though he confirms that he won't be making a nude guest appearance, as he did in season two).
Ames' hyperkinetic mind has been preparing for this season since the last one debuted. It's in part a function of the television production schedule, but the process is distinctly a product of his wide-eyed curiosity. And his penchant for carrying around a notebook.
"I just start writing things down as they come to me. A funny image will come to mind, it just seems like almost chance or luck, at least during that time," Ames explains. "I'll read something, I'll say oh, that would make a good case, or this would make a funny snippet of dialogue, or an observation... The mind is subconsciously is going, alright, what will be the big stories for the new season?"
Unlike his novelist days, Ames does have a writing staff to help him fill out his ideas. After culling his notes down to 40 pages, he'll present them to his staff, and from there, they create eight short films, as he likes to call them.
The fictional Ames for whom they're brainstorming is a struggling writer, who, at the outset of the second season, had to give back the advance on his rejected second novel. To make some money, and to fulfill his fantasy - and the actual Ames' fantasy - of being a Raymond Chandler-like noir hero, the on-screen Ames doubles as a detective soliciting cases on craigslist.
The writer has said in the past that the character represents a sort of younger version of himself, a statement he only lukewarmly confirms to me.
"The Jonathan character, since he is younger... he's a character who very much expresses his own thoughts about life, but to inform that, I have to think, where was I at 30 or 31 and how did I feel, and try to write to that," Ames admits.
Mostly, he wants to emphasize that the show, character names aside, allows him to speak through the characters, but in situations that, by and large, come from his imagination, not his memory. The show mixes the absurd with the sincere, as each character battles issues and confusions that, even if they begin to take on preposterous proportions, never forget their kernel of universal angst. The stories, simply put, are relatable, giving the slapstick adventures meaning.
"Not too much of the stuff is autobiographical," he says. "Little snippets," he acknowledge, come from experience, "but it's also fictionalized, so it's not recreating too many real moments from my life. "But every now and then, like in the pilot, the very first episode when Jonathan runs his hand through an empty closet where his girlfriend's dresses had been, that was something I had done, so it was sort of interesting to see a little moment like that recreated."
"Bored to Death" features more moments and plot lines based on Ames' life than he perhaps he is willing to admit. The first season features TV Jonathan taking part in a boxing match; real life Ames fought in two amateur bouts, featured on the card both times as The Herring Wonder. Though he's not as much an Ames-inspired character, Ray finds success with a semi-autobiographic graphic novel in the second season, another page ripped from Ames' life, as he released his own well-received graphic novel, "The Alcoholic," a few years ago.
Then there are the episodes dealing with colonics and bath houses, two topics Ames covered - quite extensively -- in his essays years ago.
But the point is more that the show's characters are distinctly their own beings, works of fiction on their own paths, fate not determined by real life history. It's more that he speaks through each character, Ames explains. Amongst the pure fiction is the double life as an unlicensed detective that Schwartzman's Ames lives.
"The noir aspect of the show is his fantasy. It's his kind of Walter Mitty dream of being tough and trying to help someone and being tough and having adventures. It's very much a fantasy."
That marks the biggest departure in Ames' literary life. The television show is a second or even third act in his career, a new outlet for his mix of literary reverence, introspection and shamelessness.
"For most of my career, it never occurred to me to be in television. I wanted to write books, and I did write books," Ames tells me. Before "Bored to Death" came together, he had had one brush with television before, a 2003 pilot with Showtime titled "What's Not To Love?"
"I had pitched it as a poor man's 'Curb Your Enthusiasm,' not in that it would be poor in quality, but literally, it was about a poor man, me," Ames remembers. "But a similar concept of 'Curb,' of just following this nutty, balding Jewish individual, but that didn't happen."
That was it, Ames thought - "it always seemed that I was always a little too strange, or not talented enough for Hollywood." But despite those self doubts, he wasn't without a significant audience and fan base.
Ames published his first novel at age 25, and then, struggling to find inspiration for his second, went on a sojourn through seedier parts of New York City (sound familiar?), seeking rent money and answers to the unending questions his curiosity fed him.
His time living with an eccentric older roommate and working as a party companion for senior citizen women led to his novel "The Extra Man," and a trip to an artists' colony in Saratoga Springs became the basis for his Wodehouse homage, "Wake Up, Sir!"
Then there were the monologues and the columns, the first person stories that came without the heavy translation and reimagining that made his novels true works of fiction. First, he began performing Spalding Grey-like monologues at microphones throughout New York, telling the stories to small audiences; then a New York Press column allowed him to open up to the city's hipper crowd.
To his readers' delight, Ames he spared little when it came to spilling his soul, from sexual encounters and underground curiosities to crippling self doubt and neurosis. The monologues, detailing past adventures, fueled his first columns; then, Ames' opened up his day-to-day life to his readers.
"Life kind of came to me... The one time I went out of my way was, I attended a voodoo ritual, [sacrificing] a chicken," Ames remembers. "And I did that specifically so that I could write about it, because I don't like violence or killing, but I thought okay, this seems like a column."
The end result of that adventure was a bit disturbing, and the column offered an uncomfortable rehashing of the event. From week to week, readers might find Ames meditating on his childhood or a past girlfriend. Or, trying to get into an orgy and shitting his pants in the south of France.
"I might have some sort of personality disorder," Ames said of his propensity for unsparing disclosure. "I might not have proper filters; it might be some kind of version of asperger's meets tourettes meets prose."
The human mind has a tendency to highlight the sensational and perverse, while ignoring the important and subtle. As such, despite his critically acclaimed novels and Emmy-nominated show, it's the raunchy half of his essays that continue to give him his reputation. He's pervert Jonathan Ames, the narrative goes. But as someone who has always written his own stories, Ames is largely unconcerned with the greater perception.
"It doesn't really matter; everything is very ephemeral," he reasons, calmly and thoughtfully. "And I've said this before, I see myself as a frivolous clown, so it doesn't really matter. I just don't want to hurt anyone else with anything I might write. I don't mind being ridiculed - well, I guess I would mind a little, but it would only last a few minutes - it's all very ephemeral, it doesn't really matter what people think of me."
And, as he notes, it's not as if he's fought the consensus.
"I've been the biggest proponent of labeling myself perverted. I must be an odd mix of self-hating and self-promoting. I promote my own self-hatred."
Thoughtful, perverted, working class, self-hating clown: it's a curious combination, but one that works: by making us laugh, think and empathize, "Bored to Death" is filled with the vitality of Ames himself.