Getting Steamy in the Russian Baths With Jonathan Ames

Jonathan Ames==The 2013 Writer's Guild Awards - Arrivals & After Party==B.B. Kings Blues Club, NYC==February 17, 2013==?Patrick McMullan==Photo-Sylvain Gaboury/PatrickMcMullan.com== ==
Photo: Sylvain Gaboury/?Patrick McMullan

Jonathan Ames is pouring a bucket of ice-cold water over me. He starts by drenching my feet, then my lap, then my head, and as the freezing water runs down my hair and back, I gasp in relief. We’ve been parboiling at the Russian & Turkish Baths on East 10th Street, and the temperature inside the sauna room is 185 degrees, so hydration, Ames says, is important. He refills the bucket and ­sloshes me some more, then himself.

Ames comes to the baths four or five nights a week. “It’s the healthiest thing I do,” he says. “We’re 70 percent water, so I think it’s healthy to change your water, like changing the oil in a car.” The shvitz is also good for his hands, one of which bears a long scar from recent surgery for Dupuytren’s contracture, a disorder that makes his fingers curl inward—a problem for a writer, especially one who still sometimes works in longhand. These sauna steam sessions, he says, convey a message to his afflicted digits: “I need you to come back.”

We move into the steam room, which is where Ames came up with many of his ideas for Bored to Death, his cruelly canceled HBO show. Now he plans to turn Bored to Death into an HBO movie, set a few years after the series finale, in which Jonathan Ames, the ­character—played by Jason Schwartzman—would continue his sleuthing antics with pals Ray (Zach Galifianakis) and George (Ted Danson). The real-life Ames is also hoping to expand his recent novella, You Were Never Really Here, a thriller about a Jack Reacher–type character named Joe fighting to save an underage girl from forced prostitution, into a full-length book. “This is me doing something that’s not comedic,” Ames says. “Something in the third person, that would make for compulsive reading.” He pulls a steam-room chain, and more cold water ­washes over me. “Open your mouth! Drink!” he insists.

After toweling off, we bundle up and set out into the frigid night. We’re headed for the Pyramid Club, three blocks away, to drop in on a weekly free-form “anti-slam” hosted by Ames’s friend Reverend Jen, a self-proclaimed “Patron Saint of the Uncool.” The anti-slam is where Ames discovered Angry Bob, whom he eventually cast in Bored to Death. “Everyone’s id is in full bloom here,” Ames says as we walk into the club, where Blondie is playing, loudly. “I always enjoy the bedlam, the mad humanity.” The format of the anti-slam is very loose. All comers can demonstrate whatever talent they may (or may not) have, secure in the knowledge they will automatically be awarded a score of ten. “I don’t usually perform,” Ames says. “I’m an outsider to the outsiders.”

A few weeks from now, a very possibly inebriated Ames will deliver a much-linked-to speech at the Writers Guild Awards. He will discuss, among other things, a scene during which Galifianakis chases a naked Ames around a bedroom, and the realization that on-camera his penis looks like a “red welt with a slot for a penny.” But tonight, he professes a degree of prudishness. “I’m not comfortable [being nude],” he says. “I was able to do it on Bored to Death because I was a risk-taker and it was a stunt. I’m actually much more shy and self-­conscious than people’s perception of me.”

An elderly man with dyed black hair named Tommy D walks over to us and begins stripping off his clothes. Full frontal is no longer allowed at the anti-slam, so Tommy, whose nom de slam is Naked Man, dutifully wriggles into a leather G-string. “He has the most strange genitalia, but I admire him,” Ames says, taking a sip of his drink.

After sitting through some poetry readings, comedy bits, and parlor games, Ames pipes up: “Can I do a magic trick?” Reverend Jen nods. “Anyone can do whatever the fuck they want.”

He will attempt a feat of levitation, Ames tells us, placing a chair onstage and calling for a volunteer. A man named George takes the seat. Then Ames calls for three assistants—one of whom, he decides, will be me, making my magical debut. At Ames’s direction, we circle George, making levitational gestures, wiggling our fingers above him as if we are feeling his aura. But George remains earthbound. Ames has us try again, this time—as in the slumber-party game Light As a Feather, Stiff As a Board—placing our fingers under his armpits and knees. “Now I need everyone to be quiet and mellow,” Ames whispers. “One … two … three.” We have liftoff—and then we don’t. It’s not much of a trick, but Ames seems pleased. “It worked a little bit, didn’t it?”

*This article originally appeared in the March 4, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.

180 Minutes With Jonathan Ames