Among other things, John Lurie is a reality-television pioneer.
A musician who founded jazz group the Lounge Lizards and who moonlighted as an actor in films such as Jim Jarmusch’s “Down By Law,” Lurie’s a polymath. His first television series, “Fishing With John,” premiered on Bravo in 1991 and riffed on the fishing shows found across the local-television landscape in the late 20th century — TV that made fun of itself when that was still weird. The show was born out of Lurie filming a fishing trip he took with Tom Waits in New Zealand. Its hallmark was over-the-top narration contrasted with mundane footage of white guys fishing. In one episode, the narrator insisted that Lurie was feuding with Dennis Hopper in Thailand. In another, he claimed that Lurie and Willem Dafoe died in Maine. (They did not.)
Lurie’s new show, “Painting With John,” is more earnest, but no less weird. Lurie mostly retired from music after contracting Lyme disease in the early aughts (though he released a new album of work from his Marvin Pontiac project in 2017). For the past decade, he has lived on an island in the Caribbean that he refuses to name. “Painting With John” finds Lurie there, painting and telling stories, sometimes just talking in a soft, meandering way. He describes coke binges and the supportive environment in which his parents raised him. He pokes fun at himself and Bob Ross. He crashes a drone. He rolls a tire down a hill. The effect is something quiet and funny, as unique to the TV landscape as “Fishing With John” was 30 years ago.
Here, Lurie talks with Variety about his new show, which debuts Jan. 22 on HBO and counts among its creative team executive producer Adam McKay and co-exec producer Mat Dwyer.
It’s been almost 30 years since you did “Fishing With John.” Why did you want to do another TV show?
It happened by accident. I was doing this [painting] technique, but I had to visit New York. And I was going to forget the technique, so we filmed me doing it. And I thought we would just put it on Instagram, or on my website, these one- and two-minute things. It was kind of funny and delightful. People seem so depressed these days, and I just thought it would be a nice thing to give people. We had Erik Mockus come to film it, and he turned out to be so good that it just kept developing. Then I did this podcast with Mat Dwyer, and he said, “Do you mind if I send this to Adam McKay?” And I said, “Sure.” Then [McKay] says, “I’m going to get this seen.” And he sent it to HBO. And then I had a show on HBO, by accident. Whenever you try to do something, it never works. But this just sort of happened.
Once you started thinking about it not as short videos, but as a TV show, what did you want it to be?
I didn’t have that. What was nice about it for me was I really liked working with Erik, and we liked working on it. He stayed for a month, and we would film things like rolling the tire down a hill. And there were some stories I wanted to tell. But there wasn’t a plan for it, which I think is kind of what’s nice about it because — you see that movie “Kajillionaire”?
I love how that’s just like “Uh, what? Wow. Really?” I saw that after I finished “Painting With John,” but it’s a similar kind of thing. I think it’s so much better to just approach things like that — use what you’re given, use what unfolds for you rather than cramming an idea into the camera
But when you look at the episodes now, what do you think the effect of them is?
I have no idea. I’m really curious about what that’s going to be like. People are going to be like, “What the fuck is this shit? Why am I watching this?” When I paint, I kind of go into a trance, a self-hypnosis thing, and that’s when the best stuff comes out. And I didn’t think I was going to be comfortable painting on camera. But Erik filmed the painting for a while and then put it with music, and I was like, “Holy shit, this really works.” I didn’t expect it was going to work so well. But there’s some real connection between my music and the painting, they seem to come from the same source.
What was it like to have someone film you while painting?
I didn’t think I was going to be able to do it.
But it sounds like you surprised yourself and you were able to.
No, I just made shitty paintings. To be completely candid, the next batch of paintings that I made after those six or seven that are in the show were better.
Because filming interrupted your normal way of painting?
No, it’s because that creative part of your mind, your soul, is going towards the show. I wake up and go look at what I did last night and start working immediately. And I go to bed thinking about it. But now I’m working on the show. So the painting became sort of secondary, you know?
How long have you been painting like this?
Since I was two. But, you know, I got Lyme disease, and I couldn’t play music anymore around 2001. And my life for a long time was just go to the doctors and watch “Law & Order” and paint for myself. And then somebody saw [my paintings] and said, “Oh, you have to have a show.” And I was like, “Really? I don’t know. The art world is so creepy.” But then I had a show, but the paintings weren’t so good. And then there was this moment, where it was like, “Oh, this could be what music was.” And that was around 2004, 2005. And now I paint all day long. I paint 10, 12 hours a day. And I would rather be doing that than anything else.
That’s your music on the show. Is it new, or old music from your library?
I stole from my old library. It was all stuff I own. We couldn’t use the Marvin Pontiac stuff because I’m singing on there. We couldn’t have me singing. So we found some Lounge Lizards stuff and we took the vocal off some Marvin Pontiac stuff. Some of it’s from a movie I scored. I got smart at the end there when I was doing film scores, and I’d say anything that I do that you don’t use in the movie comes back to me.
There are a lot of products right now that are designed just to get people to calm down. The show feels like a more authentic version of those things.
There’s that TV commercial for something and they just have rain, right? What’s it for, “Calm” or something like that? I look up and I see that and go, “Oh, what’s this? I need this.” I think I did something similar to whatever those people were doing.
Do you feel like the timing is fortuitous? The world is a lot more difficult to be in than it was even when you started making the show.
I did make it to cheer people up a little bit, to just show that, look, you can have fun. Because the pandemic was starting when we started. But you know, you go to look for a movie and it’s all “zombie apocalypse, zombie apocalypse.” It’s like who needs the zombie apocalypse? We have a real one. I wanted to go the other way from that stuff. I wanted to make something funny and beautiful. I also wanted to do an end run around the art world. More people are going to see my paintings than any living painter, and I didn’t have to deal with the art world at all.