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The Coy Exhibitionist

Jonathan Ames has made a career out of self-exposure. Or so he would like you to believe.


Hey, are you Jonathan Ames?

Jonathan Ames, the novelist, sits perched on a director’s chair in a tiny black tent on a TV production set in Jackson Heights, Queens. He’s wearing cords, a tweed jacket, a newsboy cap, and a green tie embroidered with little blue hummingbirds, with a large pair of headphones horseshoed around his neck. Ames, who was briefly a male model 25 years ago, back in his Princeton days, is handsome and bald, with a long prominent nose that was broken by a childhood bully, then again in a Paris bar fight, then again while training for a boxing match, then again during the boxing match. His chin is fuzzed with red whiskers. He looks quite a bit, as one crew member remarks, “like that crazy painter, you know, the one who cut off his ear.” He’s watching a monitor. His legs bounce.

They stop bouncing.

“As I like to say, I have the crème fraîche of problems,” he says.

The problem: He is fretful. He is worried. He has been run ragged this summer, working on his new TV show on HBO. The crème fraîche: He has a new TV show on HBO. Ames and the crew are filming a scene for his comedy Bored to Death, which stars Jason Schwartzman, of Rushmore fame, as a novelist named Jonathan Ames. Ames, the character, like Ames, the writer, lives in brownstone Brooklyn. Ames (the character) just got dumped by his girlfriend, and so, in a spasm of ennui, he places an ad on Craigslist offering his services as an unlicensed private eye. Adventures follow. Bumbling adventures. Also, colonics, sperm donations, and herpes sores.

In Ames’s novels and essays on life in New York, most of which revolve around self-loathing, loneliness, sexual misadventure, and bodily dysfunction (P.S. they’re comedies), he’s cultivated a style that you might describe, oxymoronically, as uproariously melancholic. Bored to Death reconstitutes this tone for TV; the show is like The Long Goodbye meets The Squid and the Whale. In the tent, Ames says, “I was always drawn to the Philip Marlowe character in Raymond Chandler’s books. He’s so sure of himself! He’s so cool! He drinks black coffee in the morning!” Much of the humor in Bored to Death comes in the juxtaposition of that male archetype—the dapper, tough-talking, hard-boiled Humphrey Bogart type—with the modern-day Brooklyn males of the show, who are in no way cool, or sure, or hard-boiled. They are soft-boiled. Ames (the character); his best friend Ray (Zach Galifianakis); and his mentor, George (Ted Danson), a Graydon Carter–esque magazine editor, are, to varying degrees, infantilized, neurotic, confused, and emotionally inept. When Ray gets upbraided by his girlfriend on the street, he starts crying. When Jonathan is asked by an Israeli mover if he’s “another self-hating New York Jew,” he nods and answers softly, “Yes, I am.”

This makes them classic comedic figures of a type—Woody Allen’s Play It Again, Sam toyed with the same juxtaposition, substituting “overly therapized Upper West Side Jew” for “emotionally retarded Brooklyn white dude.” As a comedy, Bored to Death works as a bemused but affectionate love letter to a modern, neutered New York, specifically Brooklyn, that land of picturesque locavore restaurants, Bugaboo-stroller herds, and wolf-packs of arrested man-boys who pine for that one elusive woman who might appreciate their vintage-comic-book collection.

At its heart is Jonathan Ames (the character), a typical Amesian anti-hero. Ames (the writer) is known for being remarkably, even cringingly, candid, a virtuoso of humiliation, whether he’s describing teenage shame over a tiny penis, or his endless failed love affairs, or his terrifying bout with genital warts. His fictional alter egos are all sweet-natured sickos, lousy lovers, feckless philanderers. And in twenty years Ames has littered the literary landscape with these cockeyed variations on himself: the Jonathan Ames of his popular New York Press column, “City Slicker”; the “Jonathan A.” of his graphic novel The Alcoholic; the autobiographical hero of his novel The Extra Man, now being adapted into a film; and starting this month on HBO, Jonathan Ames, private dick.

“It’s like there’s all these versions of me in me,” Ames says in the tent, while watching yet another version of himself on the monitor. Later, on set, he steps in to whisper some direction to his latest alter ego, then steps back and hovers momentarily in the frame, observing yet another fantastical version of his life unfold.

His life unfolds, and he unfolds his life. Ames, like a flasher, has made a great career of exposing himself. But that doesn’t mean he wants to show you everything.

Look at all this perverted shit over here!

The first time I met Ames, I had not yet read about his genital wart, nor the time he smoked crack with a transsexual on Christmas Day, nor the time he spanked a German tourist outside the Holocaust memorial in Battery Park while she sucked on his thumb, nor the time he shit his pants in the south of France (as chronicled in the essay “I Shit My Pants in the South of France”). The difficulty of interviewing Ames, I soon learn, is that there are few things you can ask him that he hasn’t already answered, in print. His first time? “My first sexual experience with a woman was rather old-fashioned: It was with a prostitute” (“The Playboys of Northern New Jersey”). His sexual prowess as a callow youth? “What I would do back then is string together three or four premature ejaculations and hope that it added up to a satisfying session for the young lady” (“I Called Myself El Cid”). How does he feel about his literary career? “There are so many talented young writers named Jonathan, with whom by comparison I suffer terribly … It’s like we’re the Brothers Karamazov, and I see myself as the sickly, subnormal brother who is always wandering off into the black Russian forest and is found screwing sap holes in trees” (“Self-Sentenced: My Life As a Writer the Last Few Years”).

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