Jonathan Ames says he was "deemed too old" to play the Jonathan… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)
The Brooklyn-based writer Jonathan Ames was in Southern California not long ago, not long before the third-season premiere of "Bored to Death," a lovely and good-hearted detective comedy about a Brooklyn-based writer named Jonathan Ames. Ames, who created and writes or co-writes every episode, had come west to appear on Craig Ferguson's talk show, where the two would discuss hair and masturbation. The writer is not shy about airing what for most people would remain hidden desires: "What's Not to Love?: The Adventures of a Mildly Perverted Young Writer" is the title of a book of his essays, and "Bored to Death," among its varied interests — it boasts a particularly curious hero — is sweetly accepting of the many forms sexual expression may take.
I met Ames, who rather resembles Vincent Van Gogh from the forehead down — but better dressed — in the empty bar of an oceanfront Santa Monica hotel. On his talk show appearances, he can project a kind of soft-edged strangeness. ("Let's talk about your parents," said Ferguson. "Were they human?") Face to face, although he is a more courtly person than most, he is friendly and forthcoming in a normal way. But we did not talk about sex.
"Bored to Death," which airs Mondays on HBO, stars Jason Schwartzman as Jonathan, a struggling novelist who moonlights as a self-declared private investigator. "I was deemed too old to play myself," said Ames, who had played himself in a failed Showtime pilot based on "What's Not to Love?" but finds Schwartzman a "wonderful conduit" for his character and voice. Zach Galifianakis plays Jonathan's friend Ray, a comic book artist with domestic issues, and Ted Danson is his other friend, George, a former magazine editor who this season has opened a restaurant. They share a love of pot and a taste for adventure.
"They're wonderful together," Ames said of the actors. "And what's kind of great is that over the course of these three seasons the three of them have all become friends. I'm sometimes like the fourth wheel. One night it was me, Ted and Jason going out and I kind of felt like I was getting to be Ray for a moment."
Recently, said Ames, he had "started thinking of their essential qualities in this Joseph Campbell kind of way. The Jonathan character, even more so in this third season, he's the idealist, he's a dreamer, he's like this knight in training. He's always trying to do good. The George character I realized was almost the fallen dreamer, or what happens to the dreamer later in life — he had moved into a kind of wizard realm, but the wizard that doesn't fully know his powers. And Ray — I know this sounds very highfalutin, but it was late at night when I wrote it out — Ray is the artisan and the kind of unconscious godhead. He doesn't fully realize that he's like a St. Francis, with birds landing on him."
The third season has Jonathan, who only just learned that he is a sperm-bank baby, searching for his biological father, a story line that has roots in a scene from Season 1 when a therapist told him he was like Oedipus, "the first detective in literature."
"I had heard that in a lecture in college and had always remembered," Ames said. "Then when I was trying to come up with the story lines for Season 3, I thought, 'What did Oedipus have to do? He had to find out who his real father was.'"
A fourth character in the series is New York City itself, particularly Brooklyn. (A real estate agent Ames met on the subway told him, "When I take people around I tell them, 'This is a "Bored to Death" neighborhood.'"). At the start of every season, said Ames, "I write up a document of the story lines, bits of dialogue, cases and also locations, things that look beautiful to me that I want to film. I went to the Brooklyn botanical gardens last September and I was just, like, 'I've got to do a romance scene here.' I wanted to do something in Grand Central Terminal because Chandler's last novel, 'Playback,' begins with Philip Marlowe following a woman in the Los Angeles train station. I love the Red Hook area, so that's why in Season 2 I put Ray and the girl with the elf ears on a bike along there. The last episode this season, it's all Coney Island and the Brooklyn aquarium."
One difference between Ames and his creation is that Jonathan has published another novel, something Ames has not done since his P.G. Wodehouse-inspired "Wake Up, Sir!" in 2004.
"It's hard for me to think of writing a novel," he said, "because it takes so long. I produce so many words for each season, beginning with that initial document, then I write a capsule for every episode and then an outline for every episode. And I tend to overwrite all these things — I burn myself out before I even get to the scripts. It's like I'm producing almost a novel every year.
"But, you know," he concluded happily, "I can get Ted to say 'I've been living like a demented god,' and that one line is almost worth three chapters in a novel."