How Jonathan Ames Approaches Writing for TV
Jonathan Ames began his career writing novels and performing in small theaters around New York City before landing a job writing and starring in his own pilot for Showtime. As a newcomer to running his own TV show, Ames acclimated himself to the fast-paced position through on-the-job training. After creating and working on three seasons of the HBO cult classic Bored to Death, Ames moved to STARZ to help develop and oversee the Seth MacFarlane-produced Blunt Talk, a comedy centered around popular TV newsman Walter Blunt (Patrick Stewart). Blunt Talk premiered its second season last night and Ames appears to have found his rhythm as a showrunner. He approaches each season of the show by constructing an “idea document” which is later molded into ten scripts. I spoke with Ames about what it’s like writing comedy for Patrick Stewart, the difference between crafting novels and television scripts, and working on a talk show with Moby.
You’ve said previously that Blunt Talk is not a dark comedy. There’s a positivity to the show and it’s uplifting in a lot of ways.
Well I think as I dove into TV with my first show, Bored to Death, I had to learn on the spot how to write for TV. When I had to read the sample scripts of other writers what I noticed was that all of [the characters] were so unkind to each other and so mean and cruel. All the humor seemed to come out of putdowns and it didn’t appeal to me. As I began to write Bored to Death, it sort of became an ethos that I didn’t want that mean-spirited quality. I wanted to root for the characters in that they might be flawed or strange or make bad decisions or give each other a hard time, but that they wouldn’t be hateful to each other. I don’t watch a lot of TV myself, but sometimes when I do watch things I think, “Why am I spending time with these human beings? They’re so rude.”
I do want people to feel good after they watch an episode, that maybe there’s a certain exuberance or joie de vivre or beauty, where you’re not just dragged down or you’re not sitting at home feeling superior to the characters, which I know there’s a certain pleasure in. It’s more where you’re rooting for them or that you might even see yourself in the mirror because we’re all so confused. So it’s love.
In Blunt Talk the characters aren’t just co-workers, they care about each other and it feels like a family.
What’s interesting is that on both shows, Bored to Death and Blunt Talk, the actors really seem to enjoy working on the shows. They come to really care for each other and come to be friends and I think that’s helped somewhat by the fact that their characters are friendly with each other. If you’re playing two people, one of whom is always putting down the other, maybe it’s not conducive for a friendship. I could be wrong. I think that adds to a sense of community that might come through the facade, the fiction.
Prior to Blunt Talk, the main comedy role I’d seen Patrick Stewart in was his cameo on Extras. What was your expectation in him tackling a mostly comedic role?
I had not been exposed very much at all to Patrick’s comedic work, except that one scene in Extras or his voice work for Seth MacFarlane. I didn’t really think about whether or not he could or could not do comedy because he’s such a fine actor. I put him in comedic situations and had him play them as if they were real and [thought] it’d be funny. Which I think is how it turned out. I do think it’s been an interesting experience for Patrick. I’ve heard him say in interviews that his approach to his scenes would be, “How do I make it real?” He came to this with the same approach. Then he became aware of, “How do I make it funny?” For the most part he plays the character real to the situation. If his character is upset then he’s upset, but it might be funny because he’s upset by something he shouldn’t be necessarily. I wrote the character for him and I didn’t have any doubts that he could be effective and funny and compelling.
I noticed a common theme in the show of the characters needing some type of parental figure in their lives. Was that intentional?
I don’t know if there’s a conscious intent with the themes that emerge in one’s writing. Things like that are probably more subconscious. And so you’re picking up on themes that I wasn’t necessarily thinking, “Oh I’m going really shape the fact that they all need parents.” That was probably coming from my own psyche and my own Peter Pan Syndrome of not quite growing up. One comes to love these characters when you see their childlike qualities that we all hold onto. I guess one associates vulnerability with being childlike, perhaps.
In Bored to Death you were able to have an entire city for your characters to explore. In Blunt Talk the characters are often confined to their office. How do you approach writing for a more confined space? Did you ever work an office job before working professionally as a writer?
We’re not able to go outside and shoot exteriors quite as much in L.A. as we’re able to in New York because it’s almost more expensive to move a whole crew to a place. So you have to justify it that you have enough pages. I’m allowed to have two days of exterior shooting so we really try to show L.A. as much as possible. We really try to, when we can, showcase Los Angeles in much the same way that I tried to show Brooklyn with Bored to Death.
Earlier in my own life I worked for the Bloomberg company writing up financial things. This would have been 1989 I believe, right around the time that my first novel was coming out. I had a job for six months writing weird copy for Bloomberg. Later I worked for an environmental magazine called Orion.
Were you able to use those jobs as inspiration for writing?
Those were jobs to survive, but I don’t know that they inspired me in any way. When I worked for Orion I kind of gave a character of mine in The Extra Man, he works at an environmental magazine. In that sense, it was kind of an inspiration.
Season one introduced the characters and built the world. What was the approach to writing season two?
Season one was very much: establish the world, establish Walter, establish everybody. And also since we didn’t have a pilot, we went right to series, it was for me and the writers to figure out the whole world. Season two we were able to do more serialized story where basically the whole season is one big long story about Walter and this lost love and the whole Chinatown scene of water and corruption in Los Angeles. Season one laid the foundation and season two we could kind of tell our version of a cliffhanger story.
So Moby has been a recurring character in the show, playing himself. You’ve spoken previously of your friendship with him. Is it true you were going to write a talk show with him?
I met Moby years ago in New York. I used to perform quite a lot as a monologist. And then I was putting on these cabaret variety shows in a small theatre at a bar. I did that for years. Moby so enjoyed it that he was like, “Hey, let’s do it together.” And so we did it together and it was a lot of fun. We thought at the time maybe we could turn this into a TV show, but it ended up just being two live performances and that was it. But it was very exuberant and had nutty performers. So we’ve been friends for over ten years now. He wrote the theme song for Blunt Talk as well as the news music that you hear whenever Blunt Talk comes on. He composed that. And he’s very funny.
What’s the writing process like going into each season?
My process before meeting with the writers is a little bit like, just kind of filling up the notebook. I think at some point towards the end of season one I had the Chinatown water idea. So that was a good leaping off point. I knew that could be the structure for the season. After that it was me playing in the notebook and typing up things. Just sort of spending a month in a leisurely way, being free and creative and imagining on my own what storylines might be fun and so putting it in a great mess of a [document] and then the writers read it and we meet and we start cutting it up. We talk it out. I stand in front of them, a little bit like a teacher, and on the grease board I write down ideas and themes and arcs and talk it into shape. It’s kind of a cool, fun process.
When you’re preparing the document prior to each new season what are you putting in it?
All sorts of things, snippets of dialogue, images from a film. Once I start sitting down to write that, sometimes other thoughts come to mind. I bring out all my little notebooks because it’s helpful not to start with a blank page and then one idea will lead to the next, or one image. I do have an overall idea for a third season of Blunt Talk, but I don’t know if we’re going to get a third season. When I hear that we are getting one I’ll sit down and I’ll just start kind of, playing. I often begin by writing by hand because I think that’s how we learned how to be creative as children was drawing and writing. And then l move to the computer.
Was Bored to Death your first experience as a showrunner?
Yes, I had written and starred in a pilot for Showtime in which I had played myself in 2004, which was also the first script I ever wrote. We shot it, but it didn’t go to series. I didn’t think I’d ever get a shot again in TV, but four years later I got a shot with Bored to Death. I had to learn on the spot how to be a showrunner, how to write script after script. So it was on-the-job training.
That must have been an intense process.
With Bored to Death I wrote the pilot so I was on my own for that. Then I worked with the director and I got hired to write two more scripts. So by the time I met with the writers for the first season I think three scripts had been written and I had an outline for the whole season which I needed to present to HBO. At first, it was stressful for me to work with other writers. I had always been a novelist and working with directors and in the editing room, it was all so new. But I just dove in and did the best I could and now I really love working with other writers. I really need them for feedback and ideas. They’re just incredibly helpful. I wouldn’t be able to do it without a writing staff.
Has running a television show changed your approach to how you would write novels?
No, I don’t think so. I miss writing novels. I miss the solitary nature of it, of not having to get feedback from so many people. I hope someday if I’m lucky enough, if I have a good enough story to tell, that I could try to write novels again.
Is your first instinct when you have an idea for a story to make it a novel?
It depends on the work. Right now my focus is TV, not really having too much free space to create other ideas. I have one idea for a continuation of a novella I wrote which is called You Were Never Really Here. They just finished filming it as a movie in New York. Lynne Ramsay’s the director and Joaquin Phoenix is the lead.
What drew you into working for TV? Especially being from the world of novels and not being an avid TV viewer.
I gave a reading at a Los Angeles bookstore and this producer saw me. I was reading from my essay collection, My Less Than Secret Life. And he said, “I think there’s a TV show in your essays.” So with him I developed my first TV pilot called What’s Not to Love? It just was a kind of a natural outgrowth of the fact that I was also a bit of a performer. I would read my essays in a comedic fashion or a lot of times I would just do storytelling monologues. I was open to it and always looking to try new things as well as the potential to make money. So I gave it a shot and even though that failed and it took years to get a second shot, it did open the door for me into the world of TV, which is more lucrative than writing novels and you can actually support yourself.
You’re currently working on another show for TBS called World’s End? What can you disclose about that?
That’s an adaption of an Icelandic TV show of the same title that I was hired to write and so it just took few years of development and we just finished shooting it as a pilot for TBS up in Canada a few weeks ago. It has a great cast, Hamish Linklater, Wanda Sykes, Aasif Mandvi.
How do you discipline yourself to write?
At the moment I haven’t written anything for a while. I was in pre-production for World’s End. I’m revising the script as I go along. Right now I’m in the editing process so I’m not writing. If I have an idea for something I carry around a little notebook. With Blunt Talk I spent a few months writing the script, but then I’m on set every day from the first shot to the last shot then I have the final cut so I’m in the editing room, post production. Actual writing time over the course of the year is somewhat small because of all the other aspects of TV production.