Creator's Blog

Sep 11, 2009

The Origin Story

This whole wonderfully strange "Bored to Death" escapade began for me in January of 2007. I was coming off a very rough time in December of 2006, involving my one and only pleasurable but devastating wrestling match with the poppy flower, and was just cooling my heels and trying to stay out of trouble.

So I was just sitting in my apartment, night after night, playing internet backgammon against strangers from around the world, primarily Turkey. I have to say I was quite bored. Nothing against Turkey or backgammon, but it all was rather dull and lonely.

When I wasn't playing backgammon, I was rereading David Goodis (Black Friday and other works) and rereading for the umpteenth time my Raymond Chandler novels. The narrator of these books, a private detective named Philip Marlowe, has often been my friend during some periods of depression, so I welcomed his voice back into my head. I had a little bit of money in the bank, not much, but enough to get through a reclusive stretch, until I felt strong enough to land another teaching job or some kind of writing assignment, which is how I had supported myself for years.

In the midst of this self-imprisonment, I got the idea, I don't know why, I guess because of the reimmersion into Chandler, that maybe I should try to be a private detective and help people. The way out of any problem in life is to think of others and so this was my half-crazed solution. I contacted a lawyer friend of mine who had a virtual office in the Empire State Building — a desk he rented a few hours a week where he could meet clients. I thought of getting such a desk and putting an ad on Craigslist. I would just sit there like Marlowe and wait for a case to walk in my virtual door, my hardboiled soul at ease, but ready for action.

I had the Craigslist notion, because in addition to playing internet backgammon, I would often read the personal ads when I was online. There were so many narratives out there; so many complicated and specific wants and desires — were any of these people finding sexual, psychic, and emotional solace?

I felt the whole city to be alive with an incredible loneliness, but I could only know the first part of all these stories — the pleas for companionship, erotic and otherwise. I wanted to write to the people and ask: Did you meet anyone? Are you all right? But I didn't. I also checked out the "Private Detective" ads on Craigslist.

You see, I wanted to be a detective because I've always fantasized about being a hero. When I was a kid, I would wrap a towel around my neck and wear it like a cape and fly around the woods near my house. In college, I was on the fencing team and dubbed myself "El Cid" and would try to vanquish my opponents with gusto and humble swagger. I even joined the Army (ROTC) when I was nineteen, primarily to pay for college, but also because I had this fantasy of being like Steve McQueen in the "Great Escape," someone dashing in a leather jacket, riding a motorcyle. But I discovered rather quickly that I wasn't cut out for the military — I had no stomach for learning how to conduct ambushes and also wasn't very good at marching. The first time I put on a uniform, I nearly fainted. After two years, to get out of the army, I became a conscientious objector.

Anyway, I'm digressing.

I didn't rent the virtual office. Even if my intentions were good, I realized that I couldn't mess with people's lives. What if I actually got a client and bungled things? So, instead, I wrote a story in which I, Jonathan Ames, was a private detective and the story was "Bored to Death." I thought the title was playfully noir — there are some dead bodies in the story and I also described, just as I have here, about being bored playing backgammon all the time.

Why "Jonathan Ames" is "Jonathan Ames"

I should tell you that I named the character after myself for two reasons: (1) it was wish-fulfillment, a playing out of my fantasy to be a detective, and (2) whenever I write non-fiction, people say to me, "You made that up, didn't you?" and when I write fiction, people say to me, "You really did that, right?" So I thought I would confuse everyone, myself included, and write a piece of fiction with Jonathan Ames as the narrator. This was going a step further than what I had done in my then recently completed graphic novel, The Alcoholic, in which I named the character "Jonathan A."

So I wrote the story in January, then adapted it into a television show, and now two-and-a-half years later, Jason Schwartzman is playing "Jonathan Ames." I mean, this is all very strange. I may have created my own version of Being John Malkovich.

I, myself, am starting to lose track of what's real and what's not — what has actually happened in my life and what I've made up. Like all writers, I'm a fabulist, even when I tell the truth, because language distorts everything. Silence seems to be the only real truth.

But what is truth or reality, anyway? In my scant study of Buddhism, mostly conducted by reading pithy but helpful statements attached to bags of Yogi Tea, I have come to see all of life as some kind of mad illusion that we each manufacture. In one of my scripts for "Bored to Death" I had Ted Danson's character, George, say, "All of life is an illusion, so we might as well make it a good one." For some reason, I cut that line, but I restore it here.

About adapting the story into a television show, let me say a few things. To flesh out Jonathan Ames's world, I created two friends for him, George Christopher (Ted Danson) and Ray Hueston (Zach Galifianakis), and I changed the Jonathan character to be more of a younger version of myself, someone who is struggling to write a second novel, just as I struggled for nine years between my first and second books.

The Inspiration for George

Amongst my inspirations for the George Christopher character were two people I admire - the writers George Plimpton and Christopher Hitchens. I was lucky enough to become friends with Plimpton towards the end of his life. One of our connections was that his middle name was Ames, after his mother's side of the family, and when we first met he thought we were related, which we weren't. He was one-hundred per-cent Mayflower Wasp and I'm one-hundred per-cent Brooklyn-Diaspora-Jew, but, nevertheless, we did share the bond of having gotten into the boxing ring and having our noses broken. George's nose was snapped in 1959 in a sparring session with middle-weight champ Archie Moore, recounted in George's great book, Shadowbox, and my nose was shattered by David "Impact Addict" Leslie, whom I fought in an amateur bout, forty years later, in 1999. George loved the fact that another Ames had gotten in the ring and told that side of his family about me.

I have an enduring and profound admiration for George Plimpton - he was ecstatically charming and one of the most important literary figures of the latter-half of the twentieth century. He was very tall and had a beautiful head of white hair, which was like a beacon at his legendary parties for his magazine The Paris Review, and so Ted Danson, who is also tall and in possession of a beautiful white mane, is truly ideal in this role. Like Plimpton, Ted Danson is incredibly charismatic, your eye is simply drawn to him. He shares with Plimpton the quality of being radiant.

In imagining this character, I wanted George Christopher to be an old-fashioned New York City literary lion, especially in this age when the printed word, as we know it, may be going extinct, or certainly evolving in ways that we can't fully anticipate. I also wanted him to be outrageous and the kind of person that hasn't perhaps been seen on a television show and that's where Christopher Hitchens, the outspoken Vanity Fair columnist (website link), who is an acquaintance of mine, comes in.

As I was conceiving the television version of "Bored to Death," I attended a literary festival in Mantova, Italy. My books, for some reason, are popular in Italy - I'm the Jerry Lewis of literary Milan - and Hitchens was in Mantova promoting his book God is Not Great.

We had met twice in New York City, but I had not seen him in years. One night in Mantova, it was just the two of us in a beautiful, ancient square, having a late meal at an outdoor cafe. He revealed that we had a friend in common - a lovely young woman with whom I had an affair ten years before. About the woman, Hitchens said, in his erudite, Oxford-hued, British accent: "We would go to dinner and all I wanted to do was talk about me and all she wanted to do was talk about you." He cast me a sexually world-weary glance and then happily downed his flute of Prosecco. I thought to myself, "I want to have a character who says things like this." So, in my mind, I added a dash of Hitchens to George Christopher, and when we started filming, I was awestruck by Ted Danson's performance and profoundly honored to have him say my words. He is incandescently perfect as George Christopher.

The Inspiration for Ray

The Ray Hueston character, played by Zach Galifianakis, is a loosely drawn - an apt choice of words, I should say - take on my dear friend, the illustrator, Dean Haspiel, who was my collaborator on The Alcoholic. I met Dean in 2001. I was sitting at the Fall Cafe on Smith Street in Brooklyn, after having played some pick-up basketball in Carroll Gardens and was feeling rather low. I must have gotten abused on the basketball court, a veritable petri dish for aggressive male behavior which I tend to find disheartening. Why do fights always have to break out? Can't we just play? I don't mean to sound wimpy; I like to fight in the boxing ring - well, actually, I like the romance of wearing a boxer's costume, being hit and hitting are not that pleasurable - but on the basketball court insecure alpha-male behavior is time-consuming and people get in your face, often with very bad breath.

Anyway, I was sitting there in the cafe, rather depressed, and this brash guy, Dean Haspiel, comes up to me, says he's a fan of my writing and that he's a comic book artist and that I should check out his work. He also said that we should hang out some time. It was kind of a heterosexual pick-up. It's hard to make new friends in life after a certain age, but Dean and I really did hit it off. A few years after meeting, we created our graphic novel, and now Dean contributes all the art that the Ray character produces. He also did the drawings for our opening titles sequence.

Dean was born and raised in Manhattan and moved to Brooklyn in 1997 (I was born in Manhattan, grew up in New Jersey, and moved to Brooklyn in 1995). Dean rides a bike everywhere, struggles to get by as an artist, and is always having problems with women. He's great fodder for the character, and Zach Galifianakis is absolutely brilliant in the role - there's a look in Zach's eyes and bearing that is so deeply funny and strange and intelligent.

Zach, of course, is known for his comedy, but what I really love are the moments in the show when he's vulnerable and emotional. I think one of the things that people will discover with "Bored to Death" is that Zach Galifianakis, in addition to being a fantastic and unique comedian, is a great actor.

Jason & The Archetypes

I haven't said too much about the "Jonathan Ames" role except for the existential confusion it causes me, but let me say this about Jason Schwartzman - he's the magnificent engine of our show. He drives the whole thing with his incredible spirit and talent. He enables the other actors to flourish, and he's called upon to do so many things - he has to be earnest, loopy, sensitive, dim, bright, articulate, heroic, clumsy, romantic, spastic, charming, and funny. And he pulls it all off with grace and sweetness. He's a beautiful human being. I'm tremendously grateful and lucky to have him in my life.

I like to think of these three characters, in my more heady Joseph Campbell moments, as archetypes - Ray is the curmudgeonly artisan with hidden depths and a good heart; George is the confused and noble wizard; and Jonathan is the innocent and nervous quester, a knight-in-training.

I refer to Jonathan this way, because like Don Quixote who read too many books of chivarly and came to think of himself as a valiant knight, Jonathan has read too many detective novels and so has come to think of himself as the modern equivalent of a knight - the private detective.

Playing with the characters as archetypes then enables me to make Brooklyn and Manhattan, the locales of the show, this kind of mythical landscape where classic stories of struggle and redemption can occur, with a comedic twist, of course.

Naturally, the pursuit and love of women is essential to such stories - Don Quixote is a knight to honor his love, la Dulcinea - and we have so many incredible actresses in the show: Heather Burns, Olivia Thirlby, Kristen Wiig, Parker Posey, Bebe Neuwirth, Laila Robbins, Trieste Dunn, Sarah Vowell, and Jenny Slate. All of these women are supremely talented and funny, and looking at this list of names, I have to say that the female side of the "Bored to Death" universe is rather remarkable. On the male side of things, in addition to our three leads, you will see over the course of the season, such wonderful XY chromosome-bearers as Oliver Platt, Jim Jarmusch, John Hodgman, Dennis O'Hare, Peter Hermann and Patton Oswalt.

Well, that's most of what I should say for now about the show. I've probably gone on too long, for which I apologize, but I was glad for this assignment, to talk about how I came to create "Bored to Death," and each week in this blog, I'll write about the episode that has just aired. I'll tell you about the ideas behind certain lines and the inspirations for the stories, as well as amusing moments that may have occured on the set.

The Long Goodbye

One last thing (I'm having trouble shutting up) - I will be ending each blog with this sound I make, if you click on the appropriate clickable spot. I would make this sound after the last shot of each episode; it was a way to clear the air for the crew and the actors, like striking a bell after a Buddhist meditation.

This sound is known as "The Hairy Call" and was invented by a friend of mine, Jonathan "Fat" Eder, in the fourth grade. There were only three of us who could do it or, rather, who wanted to do it - Eder, Francis "Manzi" Manziano, and myself. For some reason, my "Hairy Call" developed somewhat differently than theirs - I don't know why but mine has a throttle - and we would make this sound on the playground while being attacked by more normal children. In essence, it's a cry for help, like all of my creative work, but it's also meant to be a trumpeting of exuberance and madness. Anyway, click here for my rendition of "The Hairy Call."

Well, I thank you very much for reading my blog, especially if you've gotten this far, and I thank you also for your interest in "Bored to Death." I do hope you'll find the show to be amusing and entertaining.

All the best,
Jonathan Ames

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