Jonathan Ames does not watch TV. He does not go to the movies. He no longer reads literature other than genre fiction. He does not cook or get out often in Los Angeles. He moved here from New York two years ago to work on Blunt Talk, the Starz show he created at the behest of its producer, Seth MacFarlane, as a comedic vehicle for Star Trek: The Next Generation actor Patrick Stewart.
Ames no longer writes nonfiction. As a columnist for The New York Press and as a freelance writer in the mid ‘90s he penned hundreds of sexually daring, ridiculously tender autobiographical essays that have since been anthologized into four critically acclaimed books (What’s Not to Love—The Adventures of a Mildly Perverted Young Writer, My Less Than Secret Life, I Love You More than You Know and The Double Life is Twice as Good), but he says he has “a total anathema to writing from the first person.” By the looks of his desk in East Los Angeles, he does not open his mail. By his own admission, he does not throw away, basically, anything. But he does not like the word hoarding.
Ames explained all of this to me as context for why he left New York City, in and around which he, 52 years old, had lived for 50 years, the city that had provided the idiosyncratic backdrop for his madcap noir HBO show Bored to Death (which ended its run in 2011). We stood in the kitchen of a split-level house he’d been renting high in Los Feliz. Blue-eyed and lanky, he spoke in a Princetonian drawl that veered British, always game to describe the origins of a painting on the wall or an inflatable turkey someone had given him.
“There’s this Philip K. Dick theory in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, which was the basis for Bladerunner,” Ames explained, boiling water on the stove for drip coffee. “In that universe there is a concept of kipple. Now, let’s say, these figs I picked,” he continued, pointing towards a bowl of withered fruit on the counter. “They’re not edible anymore but for some reason I haven’t thrown them out. Or a lighter that doesn’t work anymore would be the best example,” he said, picking up a lighter, flicking it flamelessly. “In this universe, if you don’t throw these things away, overnight they will double, moving towards a total and absolute state of kipple-ization in which the inessential was replacing the essential. That’s what happened to my apartment in Brooklyn. I was squeezed out of it like something in nature. You saw that office back there?” he asked, nodding towards the aforementioned desk. It overflowed with envelopes, dusty scripts and a bag of miniature soaps from a hotel that his mother asked him to collect to give to charity. “That’s two years. That isn’t too bad, but I lost control of it. Well, in New York, I lost control of my entire apartment. It’s a form of hoarding. I like kipple better though, because kipple is a fun word.”
It wasn’t just the kipple; it was also climate change. As Ames and I moved from the kitchen to a sunlit sitting room that overlooked his backyard pool and afforded sweeping city views, he explained that Manhattan’s extreme weather swings, like the decades of collected detritus that had subsumed his cramped apartment, had made East Coast living increasingly difficult. Though constantly faced with the drought in Los Angeles, he self-deprecatingly admitted that “being part of the one-percent” on the West Coast he can, for his “own selfish existence, be in slightly more denial about the planet.” Both the kipple conundrum and the Los Angeles water crisis Ames mined for Blunt Talk, a delightfully escapist workplace comedy set in Los Angeles that follows the behind-the-scenes indulgences and improprieties of cable newscaster Walter Blunt (Stewart).
Blunt Talk’s hidden agenda might be to construct a model of what a healthier, kinder, less repressed workplace could look like.
In the first episode, Blunt hits bottom outside a swank Sunset Strip cocktail bar (inspired by the bar at the Sunset Tower hotel). Having picked up a transgender prostitute (Trace Lysette), he’s engaged her for some professional nuzzling inside his vintage Jaguar when LAPD cops arrive. Blunt is high, confused and relentlessly chivalrous. The cops draw their guns. Paparazzi appear. By the following morning, Blunt is in jeopardy of losing his show. The episode is as absurd, raucous and as laugh-out-loud funny as Curb Your Enthusiasm’s “Carpool Lane” episode, only far more touching. It also sets up a first season in which Blunt, a Falklands War veteran and absentee father of two, must redeem himself with the help of his manservant—a nod to P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves character—and loveably nutty staff. In moments of crisis, staff members spoon each other on the Blunt’s inflatable mattress. To their in-house cocaine-snorting psychiatrist (Richard Lewis), they confess sexual hangups ranging from Freudian dreams to longing for a long-dead ex. They are so refreshingly open about their vices, so earnestly apologetic to each other for their failings, that despite copious boozing, inter-staff canoodling and a blatant lack of professional boundaries, Blunt Talk’s hidden agenda might be to construct a model of what a healthier, kinder, less repressed workplace could look like.
Season 2, which premiers October 2, is Ames’ homage to Chinatown. This time around, Blunt embarks on a mission to raise awareness about the Los Angeles megadrought, a global warming caper that, according to Ames, ultimately lands Blunt in the web of an anti-eco propaganda campaign. At the outset of Season 1, shortly after his Sunset Boulevard fall from grace, Blunt boldly pronounces that he wants to be a better father to the American people—and to his own children. In Season 2, he is no less grandiose or well-intentioned. “Blunt doesn’t see the flaws of the people around him. He loves them no matter what,” Ames said, sipping his coffee. “My characters tend to be deluded heroes. But deluded in a good way, because they want to be heroes. They want to do the right thing. They would like to make a difference for the better.”
Ames may claim to have given up writing autobiographically, but his selfhood threads through Blunt Talk. Like the inessentials that have begun to overtake his house in Los Angeles—a little button someone gave him, a bag of soaps, a pistachio shell he carries in his pocket—bits of the essentials of him are strewn throughout the show, collected in odd corners, amassed in surprising settings and left on display in an endearingly open fashion.
From hoarding to nightcrawling, his foibles are tucked into the show’s characters. “When I was more self-destructive,” he mused, as we walked down from the sitting room to his backyard, “I’d be out late at night in New York. It’d be three o’clock in the morning and I’d be in dangerous places. A voice would come into my head: Home, Jeeves. It worked maybe 50 percent of the time.” Facets from his New York Press columns provide plot twists—he wrote copiously, for instance, on hanging out at polygendered bars of ill repute. Visually, the show plunders Ames’ cinematic sensibilities. In one episode, Blunt and a staffer wander into the open desert, like a pair from Beckett. In a direct nod to the Laurel and Hardy classic The Music Box, another episode hinges upon a piano and a secret Silver Lake staircase. Ames lifts from The Fugitive’s final crowd scene and from the general vibe of Peter Sellars’ The Party. He also references as inspiration the work of his real life sibling, Dr. Donna Ames—a psychiatrist who’s helped pioneer a holistic therapy program that incorporates dance, yoga and horticultural therapy at the Los Angeles Veteran’s Hospital—work Ames described as “quite good and interesting and humane.” In one episode, Blunt confronts his residual Falklands War PTSD by enrolling in a dancing course with his manservant, a fellow veteran. Every episode, Ames says that he asks himself and his stable of writers, as a starting point, “Where’s the fun image, the beautiful image?”
But beyond all of that, beyond the cinematic inventiveness, the outrageous substance-fueled shenanigans, the veneer of challenged masculinity and droll self-consciousness, beyond any obvious shock-value, it has always been Ames’ empathetic ethos that has set his work apart, from his novels I Pass Like Night, The Extra Man and Wake Up Sir! to Bored to Death and Blunt Talk. At heart, Ames may be as optimistic as his newscaster hero. Just before we left the house to step out into poolside splendor, he picked up the bowl from the kitchen counter. “Let me throw these figs out,” he said, suggesting we pick a few new ones from a tree that overhung his back fence. “L.A. was a fresh start.”
Blunt Talk Season 1 arrives on DVD this week via Anchor Bay Entertainment.