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02/26/06 Page G8


An Interview with Jonathan Ames

Humor writer set to lead seminar, read at UAlbany

Jonathan Ames admits that he doesn’t always try to write humorous stories. They just sort of end up that way. “In high school I tried to write funny, satirical stuff for our school paper,” he said recently in a phone call from Los Angeles. “That probably came about because I read so much from Mad Magazine.”

He has written three novels, but his first book “I Pass Like Night” (1989) wasn’t very humorous at all. “That first book was serious and dark,” he said. “My mother read it and said, ‘Why don’t you write something funny. You always say funny things.’”

Ames realized he had a knack for humor when he was in a self-help group in his early twenties and he began talking about his problems and everyone in the room started laughing. “I think it had to do with my delivery and inflection,” he said.

As an essayist he has made a career of writing about his failures, bodily idiosyncrasies, embarrassing adventures and humiliating escapades. His third and most recent essay collection “I Love You More Than You Know” (266 pages, Black Cat, $14) has just been published as a paperback original.


His newest book is a laugh out loud collection of many of his misadventures like the time he went to cover a Mike Tyson championship fight, took a wrong turn out of the sports arena and found himself locked outside. He ended up stuck perilously on the top of a fence he was attempting to scale to try and get back inside. I also loved his adventures on his first book tour in Europe and the pimple that suddenly seemed to grow out of his nose.

“Most of those essays came from my columns at the New York Press,” said Ames, “but I’m not writing columns anymore. I got sick of constantly writing about myself.”

What he liked about his columns was that he didn’t have to be funny. “If I was in a low mood I could write about that,” he said, “like my essay ‘Our Selves Between Us’ which describes how sad I was when my girlfriend and I broke up.”

He also found out a long time ago that he loved shocking his readers, and he never wants to be bore them. “I tried to write my essays the way Charles Bukowski would write his poetry,” said Ames. “I tried to be as honest as I could. Sometimes it was hard. Sometimes I knew I’d offend someone that meant a lot to me, and I would think don’t put that down.”

He’s never had a problem writing about his own humiliations though. “I find that most embarrassing events have an expiration date, and after that date they’re usually funny.”

On Thursday Ames will conduct a public reading at 8 pm in the Ballroom of the Campus Center at the University at Albany’s uptown campus. He will also lead an informal afternoon seminar at 4:15 in the Assembly Hall of the Campus Center.

Now that he is no longer writing his column he expects to focus primarily on his fiction. “Writing fiction gives me more latitude,” said Ames. “I can take more risks, and because I’m making up some things I can actually be even more honest because I won’t be offending people I care about.”

PERFORMING WRITING<P> He also enjoys his readings, which he thinks of as a way to perform his writing. “I usually do a reading a few times a month,” said Ames. “They provide me an opportunity to get out and socialize at night.”

He feels his readings help him as a writer. “They make my writing more precise,” he said. “They let me know first hand what’s working in my writing..”

As a recurring guest on the David Letterman Show he is sometimes referred to as a comedian. “But my humor doesn’t really work as stand-up,” he said. “I’m kind of a monologist, like Spaulding Gray was.”

Ames said that writers have a long history of performing their work. ‘Twain loved to do readings of his work and so did Dickens.”

Showtime approached him about doing a situation comedy which was very exciting. “I wrote the script and they gave the go ahead to film it,” he said. “I even got to play myself in the show. It was incredible. We filmed it for five days. People treated me like I was really important. They’d bring me coffee. It was thrilling.”

But after getting his hopes up Showtime decided not to proceed with the project. “That’s what it’s often like as a writer,” he said. “You have to deal with so many disappointments. But there are more positives than negatives.”

As a writer he enjoys being his own boss. “I work for myself,” he said. “I’m kind of a lazy boss and a lazy employee at the same time, but it’s an interesting life. I get to go on book tours, like right now I’m staying at a hotel in Los Angeles. I like staying in hotels.”


Being a writer can often create some financial struggles. “But I’m surviving,” he said, “and as a writer of humor I get to amuse people. That’s nice.”

Jonathan Ames feels that people throughout history have always wanted to laugh. “People always have problems,” he said. “Mankind is so confused. There’s so much violence and there are so many environmental concerns going on today, but still we need a good laugh.”

He’s looking forward to his visit to Albany. “As a kid I used to visit my uncle in Saratoga,” he said, “and I’ve spent a few summers at Yaddo. They’ve always been very generous to me there. I’ll probably read a variety of things when I come up, some of my essays and some of my fiction.”

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