Life & Culture

The strange case of the Jewish private eye

Writer Jonathan Ames has created one of the few kosher sleuths to make it on to TV


Fictional Jewish detectives are a rare breed. There is Harry Kemelman's 1960s creation, Rabbi David Small, who solves crimes using the Talmud, while on TV there is Sergeant John Munch (Richard Belzer), the Yiddisher cop who has appeared for 17 years on everything from Law and Order to The Wire.

The homicide detective in a kippah may be a pitch too far, but an amateur sleuth of the faith seems to have mileage; hence the second series of Bored to Death on Sky Atlantic.

Those who missed Series One will have no trouble acquainting themselves with the protagonist, Jonathan Ames (played by Jason Schwartzman), a romantically challenged, nebbish writer who, in a fit of pique after breaking up with his live-in girlfriend, advertises his services as a private eye.

Be under no illusion - Ames is not up there with Philip Marlowe, what with having to fit clients around his other job as a diarist on a Vanity Fair-like magazine. We are left in no doubt about his ethnicity; as in so many US-based comedies, the dialogue is unapologetically peppered with Jewish references. Take the first episode in which Ames looks on as a team of macho Israeli removal men pack up his girlfriend's belongings. "What are you?" asks one, "another self-hating New York Jew?"

If there is a confusing element to the much-acclaimed Bored to Death, it is the fact that the show's creator and writer is also called Jonathan Ames. But though they share a name, the real Ames has little in common physically with the on-screen Ames as portrayed by Schwartzman, although the actor has picked up his languid vocals and several other tics.

"Jason has a lot of my gestures," admits the 47-year-old writer. "Recently I've been having a problem with my hand - rubbing it continually - and I noticed that he adopted the affectation." And Ames rubs his hand.

Though the author maintains that the TV Ames is not quite an alter ego - "more of a cousin"- he did toy with the idea of becoming a detective. "I thought about putting up an ad just to have some adventures and be heroic, but I didn't do it and wrote a story about a guy who did it instead," he says, sounding regretful.

Not that the real Jonathan Ames has wanted for adventure. He may have spent his life in Brooklyn, where the series is set, but there is not much this guy has not done or drunk, and his exotic experiences as a performance artist, battling alcoholic and amateur boxer have been documented in essays and in his New York Press column, City Slicker.

Ames was a cult figure for New York's hip literati. But he was not always unconventional, for the young Jonathan was born into a sensible, middle-class family in Oakland, New Jersey, where he went to cheder and learned his barmitzvah.

"I had an old-fashioned rabbi who would hit me on the arm if I made a mistake. It was a bit 19th-century, but they say that kind of thing makes you focus."

And focus he did, sufficiently well for him to go Princeton and publish his first novel, I Pass Like Night, by the time he was 25. After that, he struggled for almost 20 years, juggling appearances on the performance circuit with driving a cab. But there were other well-received novels and one almost became a film starring Schwartzman. "We hit it off from that first encounter and over the years we have gotten very close," says Ames.

In the second series, real Ames guest stars as a character called Irwin and, true to his unorthodox self, appears naked. "Yes, that was a bit of a brainstorm of mine - a self-destructive thing. The episode is all about males feeling inadequate about themselves and I felt I would be a good representative of that. I may have overdone it though, because somebody put the air-conditioning way up on the set that day and I didn't represent myself very well."

The episode did not win him any new female admirers as far as he is aware, which is probably just as well given that he is in a long-distance relationship with LA-based singer Fiona Apple. They have no plans to marry but he hopes he quelled his parents' expectations when he took them to the Bored to Death premiere. "We all have many selves, and one of my selves is to be a good Jewish boy," he says. "It made me so happy to see my parents so happy on the red carpet. It was kind of like the wedding I probably will never have."

After a life as a lone writer, Ames has adjusted to working with a team at HBO. "It was rocky at first because I leapfrogged the system, so the people working for me knew a lot more about TV than I did, but as the years have gone by I've got more comfortable. I do the bulk of the writing but the other writers have helped me figure out stories. I love the collaborative aspect."

Despite the success of the show and the resulting bigger bank balance, Ames is not leaving Brooklyn any time soon. "To write about a place, you have to live there," says the author, who has hinted that a stay in Tel Aviv would be nice. "I think that's where the action is. But my parents would be worried the whole time, which is a kind of a paradox - Jewish parents not wanting their child to go to Israel." So until the Israeli version of Bored to Death gets the green light it is Brooklyn for Ames, where he has always been a local character, but now gets recognised by more people.

"It's nice when they stop you and say they love your writing but it's an odd interaction. I always think I am going to be a disappointment to people."

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