One of the most remarkable things about Jason Schwartzman is that audiences don’t hate him yet. Which isn’t to suggest that he deserves to be hated. Far from it. But Michael Cera doesn’t deserve to be hated either, and his backlash is still going strong. Schwartzman has thus far managed to elude a backlash, which is kind of amazing for a guy who got his start as the Macaulay Culkin of cult indie movies. Everybody in Hollywood loses their coolness cred eventually. It happened to Jack Black, it happened to Seth Rogen, and it happened for both Owen and Luke Wilson. If you’ve followed Schwartzman’s career lately, it’s like he’s been double-dog daring his fanbase to reconsider their adoration. He’s hawked iPad Apps for the New Yorker. He’s been in two indie-pop bands, one of which provided the theme song to a Mischa Barton TV show. He co-starred in movies like Funny People and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, both of which bombed with extreme prejudice. He has (or had) an ironic mustache. When he walks into Brooklyn bars, people cheer. And then there’s Bored To Death, his HBO series already well into its second season (it airs Sundays at 10pm). Created and written by quirky novelist Jonathan Ames, Schwartzman plays a quirky novelist named… wait for it…. Jonathan Ames. The Onion’s A.V. Club recently described the show as “The Long Goodbye for the McSweeney’s generation,” which is the literary equivalent of passing out torches and pitchforks to villagers and pointing towards the old mill. But somehow Schwartzman remains beloved, or at least non-loathed. He’s either very, very lucky, or he’s got the career durability of a grown-up Max Fischer.
I called Schwartzman to talk about the new season of Bored To Death. He began the conversation by calling me “sir” and ended it by saying “Rock on!” And that pretty much tells you everything you need to know about his personality.
Eric Spitznagel: Thus far, the second season of Bored To Death has been one big, grim reminder that the publishing industry is dying.
Jason Schwartzman: That’s true, yes. (Pause.) Sorry.
It’s okay, we kind of knew already. But it’s still depressing to be reminded. Ted Danson, who plays a New York magazine editor on the show, summed it up rather bleakly in the season premiere when he said “Nobody’s reading anymore.” Do you agree?
Well, I guess statistically people are reading less and less, and they’re buying less and less and it’s all changing. But that’s natural. Everything goes up and down, or down and down, but that’s not a reason to be pessimistic.
It’s not? You’re making me reconsider grad school.
You have to look for the positive in the negative. People aren’t buying magazines as much as they used to. But that means less waste. Something like 90% of magazines get read once and then thrown away, and they’re not even recycled. So to me, I’m like, “Hey, that’s kind of a great thing.”
Maybe for you, Richie Rich. This is my livelihood.
No, no, people are still reading magazines, but they’re reading them electronically. They’re reading websites. And that’s good, because it doesn’t cause as much trash. I try not to be foolishly optimistic, but at the same time I try to never be fatalistic or hopeless. I think it’s healthy to consider both the pluses and minuses, the positives and the negatives, in any situation.
So you think people who don’t normally buy print magazines are reading websites instead?
I do, yeah. Why not?
Like maybe this one?
I would think so.
What are the odds that anybody visiting the Vanity Fair website will actually read this interview rather than, say, just look at the pictures?
Um… (Long pause.) 60/40?
60 in favor of reading? I guess that’s not bad.
Well, I mean out of 200 people. [Laughs.] I’m only kidding.
No you’re not. Fuck you.
I think somebody will read it!
Let’s assume this interview is destined for Internet limbo. Nobody will read it, so you’re free to say whatever you want. Tell me something you’d never normally admit in an interview.
I don’t think I should.
Aw come on. Tell me about Ted Danson’s rug. Make up something about Wes Anderson having a fetish for blumpkins.
[Laughs.] No, no, I can’t do that. The interesting thing that’s happening right now, with music and everything else on the Internet , is that on one level, it’s all changing and will probably never be the same again, and that’s scary and sad. But it’s also healthy, because it cuts away the excess and fat. And it forces the audience to become more proactive. Whoever reads this want to read it.
We’re not getting any pity reads?
Right, exactly. Most of the websites I look at, I have to hunt them down. That’s exciting to me, to have the ritual of being a hunter and gatherer on the Internet.
Bored To Death has gotten mostly positive reviews. The only real criticism seems to be that it’s a show about hipsters.
That’s so funny to me, because Jonathan (Ames) is not a hipster at all. Nor am I, nor is Ted (Danson).
What about your co-star, Zach Galifianakis?
I don’t think he is. I don’t even know what a hipster is supposed to be.
I think it has something to do with being self-consciously cool and ironic.
If there’s one thing I can say with absolute assertion — and some people might disagree with me, but I know it’s true because I was there — it’s that Jonathan Ames is not ironic. Nor does he even register sarcasm. I’ve been around him when he’s been talking to extremely sarcastic people, and he usually believes them. They eventually have to say, “No, I was just kidding.”
And you think that’s reflected in the show?
I do, yeah. None of the characters are judgmental or mean. They’re just people who are deeply flawed, and they’re trying to get better but they keep fucking up. They’re not making fun of people, and they’re not ironic. The humor comes from how they mess up their lives, not from our ironic commentary on how they mess up their lives.
Let’s talk about Jonathan Ames’ penis.
[Laughs.] Okay, sure.
That’s not nearly as random as it sounds. A few weeks ago, he did a nude cameo on the show. Were you surprised that he went full-frontal?
Not at all. When we finished the first season, Jonathan and I were walking together one day and he said, “I don’t know if we’re going to get picked up for a second season, but if we do, one thing I’ve been thinking about is that maybe I would be in it naked.” And from that moment on, I said a little prayer every night, “Please, please let us get a second season.”
You’re playing a character in Bored to Death that’s based on Jonathan, so you’ve been living inside his brain for awhile. Ostensibly you understand the way he thinks.
Why did he think it was a good idea to show the world his pecker?
I don’t know. But I do know that it was an incredibly brave choice. Because not only is he a writer for the show, and he’s writing these sentences and having actors say it, but he’s responsible for the livelihood of all these people. There are lots of crew members and people who have jobs because of this show. So then he gets naked, and it’s not only for the world at large, but everybody in his crew, and the people he has to look in the eyes the next day and give instruction to. He has to go to work the next day and be a boss.
Is it more difficult to be an authority figure when your employees have seen your balls?
Well, it depends. I would say he had as much respect after his nude scene as he did before it did it. Everybody on the set was like, “That guy is… the man.” It’s a pretty brave move. There are only four other things you could do that are more brave and powerful. It just shows a sense of fun about yourself and your body and that you’re not taking yourself too seriously.
Wait, hold on. There are four things that are braver than being naked on television? Like what?
I want to leave that to each individual reader to decide. We all have different levels of embarrassment and sexual prowess. One man’s fourth is another man’s second. I think it’s up to the individual to define his or her limits. I could easily say the four things that apply for me, and somebody would be like, “What? That’s nothing.” And then I’ve gone on record for being sexually weak. So I don’t want to do that. I leave it to each man and to each woman, and in some cases to each dominatrix, to define their own ideas of pain and power and madness.
Just tell us this: are any of the four things on your list illegal in the South?
I haven’t checked the laws recently. But yeah, at least one of them could be.
Thus far this season, we’ve seen you wear a zippered S&M mask and ask Zach Galifianakis to evaluate your penis. So obviously it’s not one of those two.
Nope. Give it time, you’ll find out. You know what’s really funny about that nude scene with Jonathan? Everybody talked about him being naked, but nobody mentioned that he was wearing socks and a yarmulke. That’s what was really interesting to me. Everyone sees the stuff in the middle, but I’m seeing the bookends.
Why was he wearing a yarmulke anyway?
I couldn’t begin to tell you.
I know the Talmud says something about covering your head because God is always watching, but it doesn’t mention anything about covering your wiener.
I don’t know. And I really like not knowing. I really enjoy that about our show. More often that not, it’s about what happens in the space between moments. You know what I mean? We don’t explain everything. We’re usually on the tail end of something that just happened or something that’s about to happen.
Like walking in on a naked man wearing a yarmulke.
Yeah, exactly! Why is he in bed? Why is he naked except for a yarmulke and some socks? What was his night like? What happened before Zach walked in? You have to use your own imagination to fill in the blanks. With a lot of shows, they spell everything out for you. They let you know exactly what’s happening, and what happened just before and what’s probably going to happen next. Because there are so many shows with that type of structure, we have the freedom to do a plot in lower case letters. It’s about the moments that would be edited out of any another show or movie.
Isn’t that a risky gamble? TV audiences find comfort in the formulaic.
Well yeah, but there are plenty of shows that are formulaic. I think there’s room for what they do and what we do. That always bums me out when I read reviews, whether it’s something I’m involved or not. I understand the purpose of criticism, but to me, I don’t understand why something can’t just be what it is. If you don’t like it, there’s probably something out there that’s designed for you. Isn’t there room for everything? Can’t they all coexist?
And you like a narrative where the dots aren’t necessarily connected?
I do, yeah. That’s exactly it. A lot of shows take you from A to B to C. I like stories that happen between those letters. I don’t want to see something that’s so directly on point or has themes that you can follow, where it’s like “Oh yeah, I understand what’s happening.” It’s like with my tastes in music — and this is so personal — I tend to like demo versions of songs, or things that are still in progress or not quite complete. I think people who make music or movies or whatever, they try to force their ideas into a box, to make it look or feel like something that’s complete. But I think each movie and each TV show and each song can be more interesting if it’s just a part of a puzzle. It lets an audience put the pieces together themselves and give it their own meaning.
Is it okay if I just assume that everything you just said, that entire little speech, was really a thinly-veiled argument for why Yo Teach was the greatest fictional sitcom in the history of television?
[Laughs.] It was, it was. You read me like an open book that nobody’s reading anymore.
I’m surprised you’re not constantly being asked Yo Teach questions. You did spawn a cultural revolution.
I did? How’d I do that?
Look at all the imitators. You’ve got the Tony Danza reality show Teach, which is obviously a Yo Teach homage.
Oh yeah, obviously.
And then there’s the documentary Waiting For “Superman”, which is a blatant Yo Teach rip-off.
That’s true. I know that for a fact. (Waiting For “Superman” director) Davis Guggenheim wrote me an email saying so. He couldn’t decide what his next documentary should be, but then he watched Funny People. He was like, “I saw Yo Teach and I knew where to go.” [Laughs.] No, that’s not true at all. I don’t want to make light of such a great movie.
When is some network going to come to their senses and finally make Yo Teach into a real sitcom?
I don’t know. I never say never. (Pause.) Except I just said never, didn’t I? I said, “I never say never,” and in saying that, I did in fact say never. Shit!
Are you telling us in code that Yo Teach is going to be a mid-season replacement?
Yes. But not really, no. It’s as if you just asked me to marry you, and I’m not ready to get married but I don’t want to end the relationship. Do you know what I mean?
I think so. You’re saying there’s no Yo Teach sitcom in the works, and you’re not ready to settle down in a gay marriage with me right now.
Yes, thank you. That’s absolutely what I was trying to convey.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com.)