Uninhibited author Jonathan Ames — creator of HBO’s quirky detective comedy, “Bored to Death” — once followed a pursuit he describes as “religious cross-dressing”: primping his blond hair and donning blazers to “infiltrate WASP society” in his 20s. While at Princeton University, Ames had become smitten by what he calls “the aesthetics of the WASPy young gentleman” as depicted in the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald and W. Somerset Maugham. When this charade put him in hearing distance of an anti-Semitic remark, he often said nothing, hoping to “pass” and to be liked.
“I had my own interior Jewish self-prejudice,” said the 42-year-old writer, whose series was declared this season’s best new comedy by The New York Times and has been picked up for a second season. “Some Jewish males absorb a kind of cultural low self-esteem: that we are weak and nebbishy.”
Ames, who is renowned for his raw self-documentation, has dissected all his neuroses in essays, short stories and novels that are as startlingly self-revelatory as they are heartrending and filthy (one of his most popular essays is titled, “Bald, Impotent and Depressed”). His novel “The Extra Man” (Scribner, 1998), which also explores aspects of his sexuality and Jewish angst, has been made into a movie starring Kevin Kline; and his 2009 compilation “The Double Life Is Twice as Good” (Scribner), documents adventures such as his alcohol-infused encounters with Marilyn Manson and stints as a boxer under the moniker, “The Herring Wonder.”
The story “Bored to Death” spawned the HBO series; as in much of Ames’ work, the protagonist is named Jonathan Ames (Jason Schwartzman), a vulnerable writer struggling with alcoholism and an almost unhealthy addiction to literature. In this case, the preoccupation is with detective fiction, which prompts him to pose as a private dick on Craigslist after being dumped by a lover.
As the character vacates his old apartment post-breakup, he remarks to his Israeli movers that they must be anomalies because Jews don’t usually do such muscular work, whereupon one mover retorts, “What are you, another self-hating New York Jew?” Schwartzman replies in the affirmative without a trace of irony.
“When my own girlfriend left, Israeli movers were involved, and for years I’ve had these ‘Moishe’s’ boxes in my apartment because I haven’t even unpacked from 10 years ago,” the real Ames said from his Brooklyn home. “With that scene I was trying to make a cultural observation about New York — Israelis dominate the moving business here — and also to riff on the American Jewish male sensibility of not feeling rugged or strong, which is a misconception, of course.
“Actually, I inform all my characters with my mishegoss,” he continued. “When Jonathan says ‘I’m living like an animal,’ that was me until recently. My apartment was so messy, in my immature way I wished that a woman would rescue me, a mother figure, like, ‘Can’t you clean up after me?’”
The character was inspired by the self-perceived nebbish’s desire “to be a hero and a private detective” while rereading Raymond Chandler and the pulp author David Goodis some years ago.
Books have inspired many of his personal obsessions and fiction. Ames’ schoolteacher mother and salesman father raised him in a Conservative, lower middle-class home where no financial constraints were placed on the purchase of books. From sports biographies and comics Ames eventually progressed to “Don Quixote,” which he read every night for a year in the early 1990s. “I was mesmerized by the theme of a man literally driven mad by literature, such that you start seeing your life as a story and become delusional,” he explained.
Just as Don Quixote read too many books on chivalry and fancied himself to be a knight, “Bored to Death’s” protagonist has read too much pulp fiction and assumes he knows how to be a private eye. “And of course they’re detective novels from the 1950s, so all he knows how to do is to order a drink and look at a woman’s legs,” the author said. “He’s as insane as Don Quixote, but his heart is in the right place, even though he makes a mess of things.”
The season finale of “Bored to Death” airs Nov. 8 on HBO.