For nearly three decades, Jonathan Ames has been writing about New York City. His novels and essay collections — books like I Pass Like Night, The Extra Man, and I Love You More Than You Know — remain wild, self-deprecating tales of sexual misadventure in and around the five boroughs. Bored to Death, the HBO series starring Jason Schwartzman, which Ames created in 2009, was perhaps the first television show to chronicle the mounting hipster-ization of Brooklyn.
But now, despite having spent nearly his entire adult life in New York, Ames has finally decided to leave the city in search of greener, less humid pastures. His new comedy series, Blunt Talk, which debuted on Starz last month and stars Patrick Stewart as an eccentric, rabble-rousing cable news host, was not filmed on the familiar side streets of Manhattan or Brooklyn. Rather, the show is set amid the cloudless backdrop of sunny Los Angeles.
Blunt Talk’s location has little to do with the show’s story line, however. The vast majority of national news networks are headquartered in Manhattan, after all. The setting was primarily an excuse for Ames to escape New York — a city that had become increasingly unrecognizable to him with each passing year.
“There’s a time in one’s life where it seems like New York is limitless,” says Ames, who has been living in California for just over a year. He rationalized the show’s West Coast setting based on the L.A. broadcasts of CNN’s now-defunct Larry King Live. “Now it seems like almost all of Manhattan has been conquered. I couldn’t keep up with all the changes and all the shifting.”
Over the course of his career, Ames has built his reputation as a humor writer on being unflinchingly candid in his books. His deeply personal stories of neurotic breakdowns and sexual humiliation often led readers to the seedier sections of pre-Giuliani New York City — neighborhoods like Times Square and the Lower East Side, where peepshows and prostitution reigned throughout the latter decades of the twentieth century.
Raised in New Jersey and educated at Princeton, Ames first moved to New York in the early Nineties, bouncing between various parts of Brooklyn and the East Village before landing in Boerum Hill in 1999. As a writer and performer, his life quickly became enmeshed with the city’s arts community. But as New York began to clean up its act in the early Aughts, he watched his artist friends get squeezed farther and farther out of Manhattan. It’s a familiar narrative he sees repeating itself today across the bridge in areas like DUMBO and Williamsburg.
“The city is a little bit like a colon,” explains Ames, who, despite the move, has chosen to keep his apartment in Boerum Hill intact. “You need some bacteria in there to keep it lively. You need the artists and you need the peepshows to keep things a little bit dirty, to keep it healthy.
“I mean, I’m sounding anti–New York,” he adds, “but I’m sad about it all.”
For now, Ames says he misses just three aspects of life in New York City: the Russian & Turkish Baths on East 10th Street in Manhattan, reading on the subway, and seeing a few familiar faces while strolling through his old neighborhood. On the other hand, he believes climate change has made the seasons in New York unbearably harsh, and is content having a more spacious home in Los Angeles, complete with a small swimming pool.
But more than an exile from the city, the move proved to be an escape from himself and his apartment, which had become overrun with clutter in recent years as the writer developed a problem with hoarding.
“I basically left a diorama of clutter in Brooklyn, and all I came to L.A. with was two bags,” Ames remembers. “I had become very stuck in my routines in the city. I hardly varied my course. I was like a ball in a pinball machine that always took the same route.”
Still, Ames’s intimate knowledge of every nook and cranny of New York City is largely what made Bored to Death so enthralling. Playing a fictionalized private-detective version of Ames, Jason Schwartzman’s character discovered the underbelly of Brooklyn bit by bit over the course of the series’ 24 episodes, and the audience went along with him. While Stewart’s boisterous Walter Blunt is an Ames-ian character through and through — facing arrest for solicitation, drinking and drugging to the point of embarrassment, and always on the verge of social ruin — Blunt Talk is far less geographically referential than Bored to Death and could take place in almost any major American metropolis.
Ultimately, what continues to make Blunt Talk work, even some 3,000 miles away from home, is not the scenery, but the baggage Ames seems to bring with him no matter where he goes.
“I brought two physical bags and then I brought basically a whole luggage store metaphorically,” Ames says of the move. “Some famous writer said, ‘Wherever you go, that’s where you are,’ so probably the worst part about L.A. is that I brought me. The biggest negative about this place is that this guy who has been driving me crazy for 50 years came with me.”