TV Junkie: The interview with author and 'Bored to Death' showrunner Jonathan Ames
This was the interview that almost never was and might never be again. After lucking out last year and speaking with Ted Danson, Jason Schwartzman, and Jonathan Ames in New York at the Paley Center for Media on their "Bored to Death" featured evening, I somehow secured an actual interview slot with Jonathan Ames near his summer residence in Venice Beach in late August. We were to speak with Mr. Ames about the film adaptation of his novel, The Extra Man, starring Kevin Kline and Paul Dano as well as inspirations behind his HBO series "Bored to Death".
Although The Extra Man is out of theaters now it's available on-demand and will be released on DVD on November 16th and while the filmmakers may not have stuck to the script Mr. Ames prepared, the film should be seen for the incredible dialogue of Henry Harrison as played by Kevin Kline, as this beloved feature of the novel remains intact. Mr. Ames articulated the surrealism of appearing in a couple scenes of the pseudo-autobiographical film in cameo roles a la Alfred Hitchcock: to be "in a fiction of a fiction, the real moment of my life, there was how I fictionalized it in the novel, and then there's how the filmmakers took it, was a lot of fun".
Mr. Ames will also have a cameo in "Bored to Death" as Irwin, named after his father, because "there aren't enough Irwins on TV". I'm a huge supporter of "Bored to Death" - I nominated it for Television Critics Association awards in 2 categories this summer, not that it made the ballot, but it was important for this innovative show with its killer cast and writing to get some kind of recognition in its first season. While it got nothing from the TCA, a Creative Arts Emmy was awarded to the show on August 21st for its opening sequence designed by the very talented Dean Haspiel. Speaking of cameos, there will be many guest stars in this season of "Bored to Death", including Kevin Bacon, Kristin Wiig, and Jim Norton, with parts specifically written for them by Mr. Ames.
Those are the basics: definitely check out The Extra Man and get your viewing parties together for the "Bored to Death" premiere on September 26 - this is going to be a great season. Every episode should be the Monday topic of discussion.
Finally, here's the backstory on the video:
The morning of the 27th I went for an interview with Thesy Surface who plays the freakishly funny Margaret McPoyle on FX's "It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia" (more on this tomorrow). Thesy is iridescently beautiful in person, why the gang at "Sunny" decided to pick a gorgeous girl for the part of Margaret is beyond me as Thesy is forced to go through a couple hours of "uglifying" makeup in order to look like Margaret. Before meeting her at Common Grounds in Hollywood I noticed a spot on my face - great, a whitehead. In an effort to address the blemish we squeezed and scratched away in the tiny rearview mirror of the crummy rented Kia we had before realizing it wasn't a whitehead, but was instead an actual white hair in our facial stubble - what does this mean?! This complicated our Thesy interview as we attempted to always keep her to our right, away from our now swollen and reddened left cheek.
After an illuminating walk-and-chat with Thesy around the Crossroads of the World complex on Sunset we jumped in our car to head out to Venice to meet with Jonathan Ames (note to self: tell Mr. Ames to visit Crossroads of the World as he's a fan of the film, L.A. Confidential and the complex is featured many times in the flick). His publicist had set our meetup time at 12:15pm which gave us an hour and a quarter to get there. No problem, right? The traffic gods conspired against us as the I-10 was locked up and as time was running out we got off at the La Brea exit to get onto Adams, then Washington, then Venice. If you were in the area that Friday morning, I was "that asshole" careening across lanes in order to make it to Venice by 12:20pm. As we hit Abbot Kinney we feverishly called Mr. Ames' publicist to tell them that we would be there momentarily but no one answered. Seeing a Hispanic fellow waving a flag for off-street parking we pulled behind a Land Rover who had also taken the bait and watched in amazement as pro snowboarder Shaun White jumped out with a group of friends and ran over to Abbot's Habit for lunch.
With little time for rubbernecking we grabbed our cameras and monopod and ran down to the site of our interview, Jin Patisserie, at the corner of Aragon Court. Upon entering the nearly empty courtyard it became obvious that Mr. Ames wasn't there. Another call to the publicist went unanswered by why would that be a surprise? After all, it was after 12:20pm, why should the lauded and prolific author, and now TV showrunner be hanging around waiting for anybody? This gave me a moment to assess myself - I was a frickin' mess, the panic of being late and running down the street laden with equipment had resulted in a prolific sweat, soaking our t-shirt on even this overcast day near the beach. I had wanted to at least wear a button shirt but those had been left along with our suit, neatly bundled on the bed at home before departing on our trip to LA. We'd be making yet another trip to Tuxedos by Mike on Sunset before covering the Emmys on the 29th. There we were, sweat rings and a face that looked like it had been slapped in a Tennessee Williams play.
I shouldered my bag and pointlessly clicked through my iPhone as I set my path back towards my car when I saw Mr. Ames approaching on his beach cruiser bike. "Hello!" he cheerily called out, somehow recognizing me from our brief meeting last year. "We were meeting at 12:30 weren't we?" he said as he locked up. I hurriedly agreed, not conceding what we thought was a stroke of luck and we went back to the courtyard at Jin Patisserie to set up.
Since I had first walked into the cafe, the stereo system, which had hitherto been hushed, was now blasting some kind of pseudo-ethnic electronica a la Six Degrees Records - this seemed somewhat overbearing for the nearly empty establishment. Mr. Ames ordered a coffee and I a (large) pot of tea - was I really thinking I'd be able to drink six cups of green tea? I must be insane. We asked the waitress if the music could be turned down a bit and the moon-faced girl dismissively said "not really". Mr. Ames offered to relocate to another place nearby but said that there would most likely be a lot more people there so the Hobson's Choice was to remain. [In listening to the soundtrack of the raw video I shot, the music actually became noticeably louder during the interview - we must've been an unwelcome presence].
There are times when I'm proud of my low-fi, just-do-it approach to my interview set up. I do everything myself: I hold the camera, I hold my mic, I shoot the photos, and I conduct the interview - a one-man band that my interview subjects sometimes marvel at, particularly in press lines at events. This time it was a complete debacle. When we interviewed film critic and show host Elvis Mitchell last year, he gave us the advice to abandon notepads and pre-written questions. He said the best thing to do was to look at who we were talking with, engage, and have a completely natural discussion. Do your research ahead of time but let the conversation evolve based on the rapport you establish.
This is a great idea and we've tried to stick with it but we forget that people like Mitchell have a producer and a team of technicians taking care of a myriad of details in order to create the necessary environment for this "natural" interaction to occur. Kind of like the way Marlin Perkins and Jim Fowler set up the allegedly natural interactions between animals on "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom". What bit us in the ass was that about 2 minutes into the interview, Mr. Ames' wireless microphone went dead but we continued on for about 8 minutes before I noticed. Because of the background noise and music I wouldn't have known this even if I had been wearing headphones plugged into the camera.
Things had been going very well in the interview - or, at least as well as they could have gone with someone as fiercely intelligent and intense as Jonathan Ames. Sure, "Bored to Death" is a comedy, and there are many incredibly funny moments in most of Mr. Ames writings, but these are balanced with at least as many moments of introspection, sadness, and violence intense enough for you to hold your breath. Mr. Ames has a confessed love for Charles Bukowski whose writings I've been reading since high school. While there are similarities in their prose Mr. Ames' work is in no way derivative as the approach to excess and violent fantasy are spoken in very different voices by the authors. I'd even venture to say that the humor of Mr. Ames illustrates what is lacking in a lot of Bukowski's work.
Forgive the literary criticism tangent as it's just been my way of avoiding the uncomfortable disclosure I had to make to Mr. Ames. "I'm sorry to interrupt, but it appears we're having a technical problem?" I said, reaching over to him. "What? Oh really, am I doing something to your microphone?" "No, it appears that the mic went dead at some point." Mr. Ames' face fell and he even appeared irritated. Dear god, what I loser I am, I thought. I wanted to smash my head in on the cheeseball Zen burbling fountain in the courtyard next to us. It would be easy to rinse the mess down the floor drain at least.
I fumbled with new batteries - that was my only proposed solution, although, looking online later I found references to this and other wireless mics suddenly and unexpectedly shorting out all power. Mr. Ames said "How much did we lose?" I had no idea, it could have been the entire interview which was a shame as things were going well - I was looking at him, having a real conversation, and drawing upon the re-reading of The Extra Man that I had done as well as the viewing of the "Bored to Death" teaser clips that HBO had afforded me. Shit, for a second I thought he was going to get up and leave! But he rallied - why, I have no idea. Who needs to do yet another interview with yet another website? I can't imagine what these creative people must go through and how they get any work done what with every pseudo-journalist, including myself, wanting a piece of them.
Mr. Ames: "I just need a second to reset myself, to get going again".
"Whatever you need" I said. We went forward with the interview, only rehashing some bits about the movie version of The Extra Man.
What did we lose: We lost almost the entirety of Mr. Ames experience co-winning a Creative Arts Emmy the weekend before for the opening sequence of "Bored to Death" which was a shame as he enjoyed reliving the excitement of the unexpected award. I remember a lot of points pretty well but not enough to repeat here for fear of missing out on people Mr. Ames credited for the achievement. What's also missing is an interaction with a girl from a neighboring table who had no problem interrupting our interview because she heard us "talking about TV or something like that". It turns out that she didn't really watch TV, didn't have HBO, and knew nothing about Mr. Ames either as a writer or showrunner, or any of the stars of the show (Ted Danson, Jason Schwartzman, Zach Galifianakis).
Mr. Ames, with incredible patience, explained to her what a showrunner was and some of the processes he went through to get an episode of "Bored to Death" on the air and thanked her for her interest in what we were talking about. For even more on this topic, you should definitely read Mr. Ames insightful essay coincidentally published yesterday on Salon.com.
As we rewarmed to the conversation, the interview wrapped well and we left the cafe - I didn't leave much of a tip I'm afraid, fuck those people. I complimented Mr. Ames on his bike and, feeling playful, he displayed some cycling acrobatics featured in the above video. After he departed down Aragon Court, perhaps heading for one of his rides down the boardwalk, I proceeded to load some equipment into my bag, finding the completely forgotten copy of his The Double Life Is Twice as Good: Essays and Fiction that we had brought along for him to sign as it features the short story, "Bored to Death", that the show is based upon.
Two days later, I got into line at the HBO post-Emmys party to discover Mr. Ames a couple spots ahead of me, clean-shaven and dapper for the evening. He kindly said hello and introduced me to his friend before he headed into the party but we didn't see him again. Later he sent us a message on Facebook suggesting that I intercut some of his cycling footage into the video to break up the answers a bit and apologized for "bothering" me. We took his advice but minimized breaking up the video too much as his insight, particularly on the affect location has on the creative process, is incredibly interesting and stands on its own.
I hope I salvaged something worth watching from that day - something that brings you closer to the work of "this minor Jewish clown" and spurs your interest in what I think is great writing and great television. I can't be anything but thankful for the time and patience of someone as unique as Jonathan Ames, diplomatic and accommodating even under the most frustrating of circumstances.
The season premiere of "Bored to Death" is Sunday, September 26, at 10pm on HBO.
Jonathan Ames has loved his summers in Venice and hopes to someday capture its "odd beauty" in prose or on film. [Photo by Thomas Attila Lewis]