Bored to Death’s novelist and unlicensed detective hero Jonathan Ames (Jason Schwartzman) on a case that’s more Harold Lloyd than Raymond Chandler.
HBO’s Bored to Death isn’t everyone’s bowl of tea. (That’s a pot joke, folks. Pot figures prominently in the lives of the characters and regularly in the plots on Bored to Death.) It puts the blonde on the floor. One of the most discerning, creative, and intelligent people I know feels that the characters are her friends. But I know a man of refinement, wit, sophistication and taste the show leaves as cold as mackerel. (Hello, Jim!) I get a kick out of it, mainly for Ted Danson. It’s his best work since Cheers. I also enjoy the way it makes use of New York City. Not as a backdrop. As a character, which is what it was on Law and Order.
The show’s producers know their way around town and expect us to as well. When Jason Schwartzman’s character makes an escape from an S & M club in the Village and appears to run from there up to and through Times Square it isn’t a case of the director sending viewers post cards: “See, folks at home, our show is set in New York City! Enjoy these lovely, random shots of familiar sites you’ll recognize from movies and other TV shows set here!” It’s a joke. We’re meant to get that Jonathan has run a specific route and that that’s a very long way to run, especially encased head to toe in black leather.
But what I really like about Bored to Death is that it’s one of the last great detective shows on TV.
Schwartzman’s character, Jonathan Ames, is a novelist who has set himself up as private detective. He’s not a cop. He’s a real P.I. “Unlicensed,” as he’s always scrupulous to point out, but still, as an impressed character in this season’s finale calls him, a shamus. Jonathan is a modern knight-errant. Like Marlowe. Like Spenser. Like Travis Magee and Don Quixote.
Although only the TV show’s Jonathan sallies forth into the world to tilt at windmills, Ames says that they both suffer from the same delusive daydreams and the cause of the daydreams is the same as Quixote’s. The old don’s brain melted from incessant and obsessive reading of medieval romances. He was, as Ames puts it, “driven mad by literature.”
Ames and Jonathan were also driven mad by literature. Incessant and obsessive reading of detective novels melted their brains.
Tuesday night at the Paley Center for Media, Ames sat down to talk about wrapping up Season Three of Bored to Death with Dick Cavett, in a nod to Cavett’s cameo as himself in a recent episode. (Ames asked Cavett if he’d had any trouble playing Dick Cavett. Cavett said no, he had lots of prior experience playing the Dick Cavett roles nobody else wants on a number of sitcoms.) In that episode, Cavett has Jonathan on his show and the interview is interrupted by Jonathan’s nemesis, the sneering, effete, literary poseur Louis Greene, played by the incomparable John Hodgman, crashing onto the set while hanging upside down on a rope.
Sad to report, Hodgman was not to be found at the Paley Tuesday, upside down or right-side up. But Ames and Cavett carried on, getting their laughs right-side up and without acrobatics, through wit, charm, bad jokes, and demonstrations of amazing and useless verbal talents---Cavett has a gift for creating anagrams, Ames can repeat any word he hears immediately backwards.
By the way, although much of the material for Bored to Death takes off from incidents and characters from Ames’ real life, he doesn’t have a nemesis like Greene. Greene is the incarnation of voices inside Ames’ own head when he gets down on himself, which he does regularly. The sort of spiteful and insulting things Greene says to Jonathan, unprovoked and apropos of nothing, whenever they meet---“Your most recent publication was unwarranted and undeserved. Did you know that?”---are the sort of things Ames will say to himself of himself.
“I’m my own nemesis.”
Bored to Death started as short story for Esquire Magazine, Ames told Cavett. He was spending the night at the apartment of a “very nice young lady” and, unable to sleep, sketched out the whole story in his head.
I had always wanted to be a private detective and had thought of putting an ad on Craigslist but didn’t because I knew there would be legal ramifications and I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, I just wanted to follow people and get into fights and do heroic things. So I didn’t put the ad up. but then I got the idea that a character with my name could do that and then I could live it out in the story.
Cavett asked if Ames saw himself as a sort of Raymond Chandler figure like Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep? Not exactly, Ames replied. More like that gaunt and ramshackle figure in rusty armor out of Miguel Cervantes’ great novel.
I was intrigued after reading Don Quixote by the notion of being driven mad by literature. And so the same way Don Quixote came to think he should be a knight by reading all these books about chivalry and basically lost his mind…my idea was that I had read so much detective literature that I thought I should be a knight. So I wouldn’t actually be cool like Bogie. I’d be more deluded, like Don Quixote. So that’s what Jonathan is. He’s also a Don Quixote.
Responding to a question from the audience, Ames cheerfully admitted to being a fan of Larry David and Curb Your Enthusiasm. But although there are resemblances---one being the presence of Ted Danson---the two shows have different tones and sensibilities due in part to the way they’re put together.
Curb Your Enthusiasm is entirely improvised. The actors are given nothing more than an index card with a short summary of the character they’re playing, the set-up of the scene and where it’s supposed to head, and that’s it. Ames made a guest appearance on Curb Your Enthusiasm. He was playing an accountant. Somehow, whoever was supposed to give him his index card forgot to give him his index card.
Bored to Death is tightly scripted. Danson and Schwartzman often make suggestions in rehearsals about how to make this or that line sound more natural. Zach Gallifianakis will actually be encouraged to ad lib when it’s felt his character needs to do or say something really crazy. Hodgman will sometimes add a flourish or two at the end of a line to make the line more “Louis Greene.” But for the most part what’s said on screen is what was written in the script.
Wrapping things up, Cavett told Ames that working on Bored to Death was one of the most fun things he’d done on TV in a while. Ames said that Cavett was a delight to work with and invited him back on the show, which prompted Cavett to ask if they’d had any guest stars they didn’t want back, any prima donnas throwing their egos around?
Ames said no, the only trouble he could think of having with a guest star was with an actor who wasn’t a star and didn’t get to be a guest. Ames had cast him, thinking he’d be hilarious in a part, but when they had the first table reading of that week’s script, the actor was terrible.
Afterwards, Ames conferred with the director, the writers, and the stars. Everybody agreed. The actor was terrible.
Even Ted Danson, who is apparently one of the kindest, least critical people in show biz, said, mildly, “I don’t think he’s going to work out.”
The decision was made. Fire the guy. Decisively, Ames took action and pleaded with the director to do the firing.
Some time afterward, Ames was on the Brooklyn ferry and realized that that actor was sitting right in front of him.
The final two episodes of Season 3 air on HBO Monday, November 21 and Monday, November 28 at 9 PM Eastern. Before Ames and Cavett got to talking, Ames screened those two episodes for us. Not going to tell you much about them, but I can’t resist a couple of spoilers. I’ll try to be cryptic, but you might want to stop reading here.
First, it turns out there’s a reason Jonathan is able to turn into a real detective in a pinch, sometimes even displaying a Mike Hammer-esque talent for fisticuffs and gunplay.
Second, fans of Super Ray will be glad to hear there’s a Raymobile!
Special thanks to M.A. Peel.
Related Mannion flashbacks:
Up late at night, holding the talk show host’s hand, my review of Dick Cavett’s book Talk Show.