‘Bored to Death’ Creator Jonathan Ames Gets Steamed at the Russian Baths
Russian Bath on 10th St., Friday September 17, 2010, 7:30pm “Don’t lose your key,” the real Jonathan Ames says from outside the women’s locker room of the Russian baths on 10th street in New York’s East Village, where I’m changing out of my clothes. We’ve convened at the baths to talk about his HBO show, Bored to Death, the second season of which premiered last Sunday. “It’s really important that you not lose it.” I hang the wide beige rubber band with the key attached from my wrist. The show is about a Brooklyn writer named Jonathan Ames, who moonlights as an unlicensed private detective. And while the Jonathan Ames of the show explores the underbelly of life in New York—as the real Jonathan Ames does in his essays, so too the fictional characters of his novels—the real Jonathan Ames claims the Jonathan Ames of the show shares his name but isn’t him. “I don’t feel connected to my name. I don’t know who I am,” the real Jonathan Ames said in an interview for Big Think. “I’m so confused as to my own identity.” The Russian baths are a network of saunas and steam rooms. We have two bottles of water. I cough. I say I’m a little sick. He peels the plastic off his water bottle to differentiate between them. “This’ll be good,” he says. “You’ll sweat it out.”
We go into the Turkish sauna first. It’s like a small amphitheater of wood benches rising up four levels. We sit on the top bench and sweat. I’m in yellow plastic slippers and a robe, which is sleeveless with large, loose armholes, belted the waist. The real Jonathan Ames is in black shorts and yellow plastic slippers. He says he’s been a little worn down recently, though production for Bored to Death ended in June. When it is too hot for me in the sauna we break.
I ask him how much control he has over the show and casting. As Creative Director, he says, he has control over every aspect of the show. As a writer, he shares responsibilities with a team, but he gets a “pass” on each draft of an episode. I ask him if working on the second season was more difficult than the first. He says it’s always a challenge to make it better, that it’s almost “animalistic” — the way it never ends, the challenge of improving the show. When he says “animalistic,” it reminds me that he frequently uses Darwinian language in his writing.
On the creator’s blog for the show, I read that the real Jonathan Ames’ great-grandfather came to this same bath, and that nothing makes him happier than coming here. Once, while meditating in the baths, he wrote for his blog, “I felt this overwhelming gratitude for everything in life.” The feeling inspired a scene in Bored to Death where Ted Danson’s character, George Christopher, says he has a moment of unexpected and overwhelming gratitude for everything in life right before he gets a herpes blister.
In the Russian sauna, a monk’s cell of dark concrete walls and tiers of wood-slat benches, half-nude bodies lie prone or mill around in the heat. We go to the top again, where it’s hottest, and sweat sitting side by side.
The real Jonathan Ames rests his elbows on his knees, clasps his hands, and drops his head, bobbing it gently from side to side. His torso is trim and toned. From time to time, he rubs one hand then the other over his head. He is quieter than I had imagined he would be. In interviews I’ve seen of him, he’s histrionic. Here, he is subdued. Then I remember reading that he changes his personality to match the personality of the person he is with. I don’t think I’m being quiet, or at least, I wasn’t when we first entered the baths. But words feel useless here. The real Jonathan Ames looks at the floor, sweating, maybe calling on inner wisdom.
When I watch the show, I look for hints of the real Jonathan Ames that I have observed in his essays and novels. There are some similarities between the real Jonathan Ames and the Jonathan Ames of Bored to Death, who’s played by Jason Schwartzman. The real Jonathan Ames is the author of eight books. His first was the novel I Pass Like Night (1989) and the second—published nine years later—was called The Extra Man. In the interim, the real Jonathan Ames struggled as a writer; his publisher rejected one of his novels. He went back to school to get his MFA at Columbia University and taught night class at the Gotham Writers Workshop. The Jonathan Ames of the show is also a struggling writer who has had his second novel rejected and who teaches night class. The real Jonathan Ames wrote about his childhood neuroses, sexual fetishes, and his unusual adventures for his column at The New York Press—for example, the time he tried to attend an orgy but couldn’t get in. The Jonathan Ames of the show, in his capacity as a private detective, visits S&M dungeons, flop houses, and explores the sexual inclinations of other character’s, like polyamory. (The real Jonathan Ames has never done any detective work, private or otherwise.) Both Jonathan Ameses have engaged in amateur boxing. The last book the real Jonathan Ames published, in 2009, was titled The Double Life is Twice as Good.
“You ready?” Jonathan Ames scoops a bucket of cold water from a stainless steel basin and pours it over me. It is shockingly cold and my blue cotton robe is drenched. He pours freezing water over himself.
We sit off to the side on a bench in the corner, in front of which there is a thin geometric mat. “I sometimes do sit-ups on that,” he says. “It looks very monastic,” I say. He says it’s “austere.” He speaks carefully and his voice is deep and sonorous. I cough. He leans away a little, smiles, and asks, “How sick are you?”
A blond, short-haired woman in a black one-piece and necklace walks in. Her name is Laura and she works at the bath. She and Jonathan greet each other. Laura sits down on the mat and hugs her knees. She looks up and says to Jonathan Ames that they must not have been feeding him in LA—he looks too skinny.
The real Jonathan Ames says he’s brought Jason Schwartzman to the bath twice and that he always tries to turn people on to it. “Jason Schwartzman was my first and only choice,” he says about casting the show. “I considered, briefly, playing myself, but I knew that Jason could do a better job of playing me.” I notice a large man with his head wrapped in a brown towel standing over another man, hitting him repeatedly with branches. The second time we go to the water basin to pour water on ourselves, the real Jonathan Ames says, “You can do it yourself now,” as if he’s taken the training wheels off my bike.
Before it was a show, “Bored to Death” was a short story the real Jonathan Ames published in McSweeney’s about a writer who decides to be a private detective and puts an ad on Craigslist offering his services. When an HBO producer approached the real Jonathan Ames about working on a project, he suggested basing a show on the short story. It wasn’t the first time he’d pitched a show to Hollywood executives. “I had done some Hollywood pitching over the years,” he says. “I wrote and acted in a pilot for Showtime based on my memoir What’s Not to Love?” Pitching, he says, is, “not unlike oral storytelling,” which he’s done a lot of over the years. He had a one-man show called Oedipussy at PS122 in 1999, and has performed with the live storytelling organization The Moth.
We’re taking sips of our bottled water by a pale blue dipping pool, which Jonathan Ames says is too chlorinated for him to use. Four lightly dressed women have covered their faces and bodies in mud, which is cracked and green, and are laughing and lined up in a massage chain next to the pool. “Let’s go up to the roof,” he says. “Do you have your key?”
The roof feels like a country club. It’s warm and quiet. The light is gentle. There are hard wooden chaise lounges with thin mats and neck rolls for good posture. Jonathan Ames sits on one and points to the chaise in front of his. “Why don’t you take that one?” I lie down in my wet robe and open several small towels, placing one over my chest and stomach.
“Yes,” says Jonathan. “Cover yourself up good. Like this.” I look back as he’s putting a towel over his shins. He puts several more over his body, and says, “You can even put one over your head.” He pulls up a brown towel smoothly over his face and drops it. “But then you can’t see the view,” he says from under his towel, “which is also nice.”
I lie back and put a towel over my face. It’s too hot. I pull it down and look up at the sky. It’s deep blue and framed by a dark green fringe of trees behind the white wood walls, beyond which two stars are visible. “Let’s go eat something,” Jonathan Ames says after twenty minutes. “Then we’ll sweat some more.”
The café at the bath house has faux-wood tables, wood-paneled walls, and vinyl covered chairs. Jonathan Ames has a brown towel wrapped around his head and several towels draped around his shoulders. He seems to be accruing towels, and with a head covering—he is almost always wearing some kind of head covering—he seems more comfortable. He has ordered herring and sliced red plum tomatoes. He suggests I get a lemonade. He seems happy and talks about the Omega 3s in herring. I think about how his amateur boxing nickname was “The Herring Wonder.” I cough. He lifts his towel playfully and protectively over his mouth. There are only men in the café area. A couple of them behind us are speaking Russian.
I ask him if he’s ever been to Russia. He says he’s been to St. Petersburg. He taught a workshop there. He roomed with George Saunders. They are friends now. I ask what that was like, being in St. Petersburg. He says it was “raucous.” I ask him what he means. He gets vague. I imagine Jonathan Ames and George Saunders at an outdoor market buying nesting dolls. Later, he tells me he can’t recall any outrageous adventures, but that George Saunders is a “very kind and sweet man, a Buddhist with a sense of humor…. I probably had hang-ups about sharing a toilet with him—I have hang-ups about sharing toilets with all people.”
In the Turkish sauna Jonathan Ames lies down and says I can lie down on the bench beneath his. I open my eyes and Jonathan Ames’s elbow is jutting over the edge. I open them again and Jonathan Ames is doing sit ups. I open them a third time and he has gotten up and is sitting at the far end of the bench. We alternate between the Turkish sauna, the Russian sauna, and taking breaks by the dipping pool.
The next time we enter the Turkish sauna, a young man looks up and asks the real Jonathan Ames how the show is going. “I haven’t seen any billboards,” the young man says. “Are you not doing that this season?”
“I’m not sure about that,” says the real Jonathan Ames. “I’ve seen one in Times Square.”
Premiere of Bored to Death. Skirball Center for the Arts, Tuesday September 21, 7:30pm The real Jonathan Ames is on the red carpet with a tall blonde woman. There’s a large light flashed on him. He is talking into a camera. The Jonathan Ames of the show, Jason Schwartzman, is further down on the red carpet, also with a bright light flashed on him.
At the bottom of the stairs inside the theater is comedian Todd Barry, who’s talking to a group of people. He pulls his hand off a woman’s shoulder and points back to her as he walks away. “We’ll talk later,” he says. I catch him on his way into the theater. He is very friendly with a deep and smoldering voice and long eye lashes. He was on one episode in the first season—“Take a Dive!”—in which he had to wrestle the Jonathan Ames of the show for a bottle of Viagra. “I had never done any stunts before,” he says and smiles. “It’s not like I was jumping off a building…. But they pad you up and stuff.”
Jonathan Ames is on stage in a sharp blue suit giving an introduction. He’s not wearing a hat of any kind, which is unusual, I think. He says to the audience that he’ll probably never get married so this is like a wedding for him. He thanks HBO for giving his parents (Florence and Irwin) naches (which he pronounces “nu-kus”). He says in Yiddish it means “parental joy.” “Now I’m going to do three hairy calls,” he says. He says it’s a sound he and his friends would make on the playground when being attacked by more normal children. He walks downstage and puts one hand by his ear and holds the other one straight out by his side. He makes a sustained one-toned vocal expression for six seconds. It sounds like a siren.
The first two episodes of the second season of Bored to Death are screened. In one, the real Jonathan Ames has a cameo. He is nude but for socks and a yarmulke. He claims his parents did not recognize him in the cameo.
The lights go on and I see a man with curly gray hair and a large digital film camera talking to Jonathan Ames. “That man has been filming Jonathan for like ten years,” says author Stephen Elliott. Sometime during the screening, Jonathan Ames put on a camel colored golfing hat.
Clem, a friend of mine from school, is talking to Ted Danson. He’s holding a recorder up to Ted Danson, who must be six-foot-four, I think. I wonder what Clem is asking him. I spot Jason Schwartzman, who’s standing with friends by the corridor to the bathrooms.
Jason Schwartzman is not much taller than me and is delicate with fine features and longish hair. He’s in a gray suit and has a small toothbrush mustache that, I later discover, he had grown for a film and decided to keep. As I approach him, several expressions appear on and leave his face in quick succession—welcoming, warm, questioning, grateful, patient, possibly fearful. He lifts his eyebrows. I think he might be trying to decipher whether I think I’ve met him before. I say I’m writing a profile for BlackBook and went to the Russian bath with the real Jonathan Ames. He says he heard about it and asks how I liked it. I point out that there seemed to be lots of models at the baths. “That was not my experience when Jonathan took me to the bath,” he says and laughs. His wife, fashion designer Brady Cunningham, comes over. She is a petite, pretty woman with long hair in a ponytail. She’s pregnant. The man with the camera closes in on Jason Schwartzman.
Afterparty. Capitale, 10:00pm There are many comedians at the party—Todd Barry, John Hodgman, Jim Gaffigan, Horatio Sanz, Jack McBrayer. Pool tables and bottles of wine bear the Bored to Death logo at Capitale, a cavernous beaux art former bank in Lower Manhattan with Corinthian columns, pilasters, and vaulted ceilings. I have a Brooklyn Cyclone—a specialty drink with gin and honey. Over us is a glass skylight. I ask Clem what he asked Ted Danson. “I asked him who inspired his character,” he says. “Jonathan Ames says it was based on a combination of George Plimpton and Christopher Hitchens,” I say. Hors d’oeuvres are being passed around. Scallops on puff pastry, grapes stuffed with goat-cheese, and mini pizzas. “Hey,” says another friend. “Those mini pizzas are just Bagel Bites in disguise.”
“My dog has diabetes,” says comedienne Jenny Slate, who plays the girlfriend of the Jonathan Ames of the show. She’s in a small black dress and is accompanied by a man in glasses, her comedy partner Gabe Leidman.
“How do you know?” I say.
“He peed all over me,” She says. “Then all over the apartment.”
We head into the main room, which is outfitted with tables along the walls like something out of Caligula: Rare and smoked meats, pastas, salads, crudités in large silver serving dishes. The real Jonathan Ames, still in his camel-colored hat, is surrounded. The man with the camera is moving slowly around the cluster of people, the camera resting on his shoulder.
I eat roast beef with horseradish sauce at a tall white-clothed table near a portrait-photo booth, outside of which is a small table displaying sado-masochistic paraphernalia. I put on a black fingerless glove with silver studs. “I saw Jonathan’s parents go in the S&M photo booth,” a friend says. Heather Burns, who plays Zach Galifianakis’s girlfriend Leah on the show, is leaning against the bar. She says it was great working with Jonathan Ames. “He’s an open person, and understanding of people’s faults.” I see a bottle of Bored to Death chardonnay next to Heather Burns. I put it in my bag along with my studded glove.
Ted Danson looks like he’s leaving. I stop him and tell him about the Russian bath. Ted Danson leans over a little and says, “Did he take you up to the roof to smoke pot?”
“No. Did he take you up to the roof to smoke pot?”
“No. Absolutely not,” he says loudly.
“You can smoke pot at the Russian bath?”
“You can do anything at the Russian bath.” He smiles, bows slightly, and walks out.