Bored to Death Creator Jonathan Ames on the Show’s Cancellation

Jonathan Ames. Photo: Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images

Jonathan Ames — the creator, writer, and executive producer of Bored to Death, versus the main character on the show, also named Jonathan Ames but played by Jason Schwartzman (got that?) — is still reeling from the news that his show has been canceled. He's taking consolation in the fact that the original series of Star Trek was also canceled after its third season, and that like what happened with Arrested Development, Firefly, and Damages, cancellation doesn't always mean death. Vulture checked in with Ames to say farewell to the show (for now), find out just what was going on with that ongoing incest story line, and see if he'll buy us a drink. 

How are you holding up?
Okay. Pretty good. I'm kind of in a numb state. I have a cold, just so you don't think I've been weeping. Don't write, "Ames' voice was froggy from weeping!"
How did you first find out that the show was being canceled?
In years past, I'd be told to get to work on the next season by mid-November, so I knew for a while it wasn't looking great. I kind of feel like I've been in the stages of mourning: denial, teeth gnashing, acceptance, confusion — wait, that's not one of the stages, is it? The show was like a Summer Stock theater group to me. We'd all get together for three months and get incredibly close. It was sort of like the circus life. And our friendship was somewhat based on this shared purpose, so it's sad to lose that. When I told Ted Danson the news, he said, "I can't believe we're not going to get together and laugh for three months."
Was it because of the ratings? Or did the network have one too many incest themes on its shows?
The incest didn't have anything to do with it. HBO said they were pleased with the show, creatively, so I always had hope there was room in the budget for us. But Sunday night is their night. They don't have a lot of room for their original programming on the schedule, and being on Monday nights was a problem. That's never a good night for HBO, in the sense of traditional live viewership, since you're going up against Two and a Half Men and Monday Night Football. And I totally understand the whole thing of not wanting to sit down when someone tells you to. But if you count all the DVR, HBO Go, replay viewership, we were in the millions. That's one of the things that's annoyed me a little bit about the coverage of the cancellation — the numbers were not weak. We've done extremely well in nontraditional viewership, and we've had a very generous critical response. Maybe we need to change the model.
Petitions are already springing up online to save the show.
It's very sweet. I don't want to discourage it, but I'm embarrassed. There are so many other important things out there in the world, but perhaps signing a petition is easy enough. I don't know what the future holds.
Would you rather have the show live on in another capacity, or move on to a new project?
Hopefully no matter what happens, they'll live in the audience's minds, like they're still out there, getting stoned and screwing up. Half seeing, half blind. This would be a weird identity thing for me, but maybe I'll write a book from the fourth season from the point of view of Jonathan Ames, the character. That would even confuse me! [Laughs.] I have ideas for a fourth season that could translate nicely into a fun caper/detective movie. One of the things I wanted to explore was that as Jonathan became a more capable detective, we could increase the action and the slapstick and the adventures. A comic book could be fun, because I could write out all these things we wanted to do. You'd miss their inflections, though.
Kevin Bacon once appeared on the show with the idea to turn Super Ray into a movie. Maybe there's something to mine there.
I thought about bringing him back in another capacity. Maybe he reads Jonathan's book and wants to play Jonathan Ames, and Ray gets wind of the meeting. And Jonathan worries, "How can I meet with Kevin Bacon after he rejected Ray?"
You didn't end the season with a cliffhanger per se, unless you count Jonathan and his half-sister kissing. What was up with that?
I want to be clear: Some people thought he was never going to tell her [that he's discovered they're blood-related]. I don't want people to think he wouldn't tell her. He wants to tell her, but he was just weakened in that moment. And the idea that they're siblings is so abstract, because he didn't grow up with her. It's hard for him to conceptualize. So he kisses her in the moment, but I wanted that last shot to mirror his confusion, so it's spinning — almost like the start of the season when he's on the circle with the knives. It's vertigo. But in the next season, I was going to put her in a sanitarium. She was going to have a total breakdown. And in case Isla Fisher wasn't available, I'd just need that one shot of her on a bench or in Switzerland, for her incest cure.
I wasn't trying to go crazy with the incest idea, I was trying to comment that in this modern age, it's more of a mathematical possibility [to have accidental incest]. I wrote this before the article came out, but there was a story about a sperm donor who had 150-plus children, or others who provided most of the sperm at a sperm bank, who claimed to have genius sperm. All these things have happened plenty. And part of where I was going with Jonathan was that he was a 21st-century Oedipus. Part of being Oedipus, the first detective in literature, is finding out who is your real father. And when you're searching for the truth, some unusual things happen, like inadvertently sleeping with your half-sister.
What did you have to cut from the show that you miss?
In Season 2, when Zach Galifianakis was chasing me around the bed, in the confusion he grabs my cock. It was Zach's idea. I asked him, "Do you have a problem chasing me in the nude?" And he said, "Not at all, but I'll only do it if I can grab your cock. I've never done that onscreen." In Season 3, there's the bathtub scene between Zach and Olympia Dukakis, and she's reaching into the tub for the "two large pearls," which are obviously his balls, and the "bar of gold," his penis. Well, there's also a "scary cave." She lifted her hand and plunged it in the water, clearly to anally stimulate him — and that's the moment the girlfriend walks in. So I had all these e-mails going back and forth with the headings like "Cock grab" and "Scary cave," where I was pleading, "Please let me keep this. Come on, it'll be really funny."
You've offered to buy every fan a drink who shows up at the Brooklyn Inn tonight.
I just thought it was a nice way to go out. I just wish I could do firecrackers, girls with hula hoops, knife throwers, and gourmet pygmies. It should be festive. Maybe no one will come. Maybe they'll want to DVR that drink. [Laughs.]