Talking to John Lurie About the Cult Classic ‘Fishing with John’

John Lurie is hard to define. From playing saxophone as the leader of the Lounge Lizards, to hanging out with Jean-Michel Basquiat, to starring in the Jim Jarmusch movies Down By Law and Stranger Than Paradise, Lurie has placed himself all over the cultural map. Including TV. In addition to being a cast member on HBO’s Oz and co-writing the theme to Late Night with Conan O’Brien, Lurie also created the short-lived and influential TV series Fishing With John.

My first introduction to John Lurie was through a guy named Chili Palmer. I’m not referring to an upright bass player, but rather the main character of Get Shorty - more specifically the amazing soundtrack (a mainstay in the sun visor CD holder in my old car) that helped give the movie its vibe. That’s how John Lurie got on my radar. But after a while, like with many things when you’re a teenager, he faded. And since I didn’t know anything about Fishing With John at the time (ah, life before the Internet), I had no idea that Lurie was also really funny.

If you’re not familiar with the show at all, the basic premise is this: jazz musician and actor John Lurie goes fishing with his friends. Sounds simple enough. However, the six episodes that resulted from that simple premise turned out to be bizarre and wonderful, fitting right in with other surreal works from the early 1990s like Twin Peaks and Edward Scissorhands.

If you want to watch the episodes, which are all available on Netfilx right now (though I would recommend somehow getting your hands on the Criterion Edition, as they have a thorough commentary that’s just as entertaining as the shows themselves) get ready for sights and sounds like Tom Waits putting a live fish into his pants, Dennis Hopper and his search for “the search for the mythical and elusive giant squid,” Willem Dafoe starving to death, Jim Jarmusch fishing for sharks with cheese and many other delightful absurdities.

Not only is the show quite funny, it’s also deceptively pretty. At first glance, you might think that it just resembled some elaborate home movie. However, it’s actually quite beautiful and composed. There’s an artistry to much of the images in the show, in large part because of collaborations with guys like Michael Spiller, who has worked a lot with Hal Hartley, a director well-known for his mastery of low-fi cinematography. I mean hey, it’s a part of the Criterion Collection for a reason.

Tonight at the Nitehawk Cinema in Brooklyn, Lurie will resurface from several years of exile for a screening of a few episodes. After the screening, there will be a Q&A — it will mark the first time in many years that the reclusive renaissance man will appear in front of a large audience.

For the past decade or so, Lurie has suffered from advanced Lyme Disease and has had to retreat from public life. If you’re looking for more information on Lurie’s struggles with that debilitating illness, there’s been plenty since a controversial New Yorker profile by Tad Friend was published in 2010. However, I will leave that investigating you and Google (Lurie’s friends and several people interviewed for that article responded with an open letter to the New Yorker here).

Instead, I will let the man speak for himself. He was kind enough to conduct an interview with me via email and talk about Fishing With John, David Blaine’s magic tricks, and voice-over work, among other things.

Given that you made the show at a time when music mattered most to you, what inspired you to make Fishing With John?

We were touring four or five times a year, but it wasn’t like the band was constantly busy. Then the opportunity to do this kind of fell into my lap. So I had to do it. I had wanted to direct this movie that I had written - You Stink, Mister.

That’s a funny title. Was it a comedy?

It was the story of an Italian cowboy - played by [Roberto] Benigni, who beats Buffalo Bill in a cowboy contest. That part is actually true. He wins a ranch in America. I wanted to shoot it in Africa where he travels across this surreal landscape with a Native American. Yes it was mostly a comedy.

Sounds crazy, like David Lynch should be involved somehow. Was there anything that brought about the jump from surreal spaghetti western to Fishing With John?

No, not really. But I was getting geared up to make the movie and then something not so good happened. So when the easy opportunity to make the fishing show happened, I took it.

It seems like a lot of the inclination toward comedy remained though. Do you think that the spontaneity of everything - the opportunity falling into your lap, the improvisational nature of the conversations - is where a lot of the humor comes from?

A lot of the humor just comes from who those people are. But then the situation is funny. And I think what put it over the top was the narration. But the question isn’t where does humor come from, is it?

Haha… “so tell me Professor Lurie, what is humor?” I guess I was trying to see how much of it was pre-planned and how much of it was improvisational, given your background with music. That narration was pretty incredible though.

Stuff that happened in the filming was 90% improvised. The narration took a while to write while we were editing. And when you are working on something twelve hours a day, days on end, it is really hard to tell what is funny any more. Like I do voiceover work and after a couple of hours as I am reading the stuff, my brain is going - those are words? So you have to have people come in and watch it and you don’t just judge by their reactions - in fact you don’t do that at all. But when you watch with people you immediately know what works. David Blaine came by the editing room once and we showed him and there wasn’t a peep. So I sawed him in half.

So that’s how David Blaine got his start in magic!

I was in a restaurant and David Blaine came over to my table and said  - John can I show you a few things. The tricks he did were shocking. I have never seen anything like it. This was before anyone knew who he was.

As far as the narration, were you coming up with the copy for a specific voice? Like - “Get me the guy from 60 Minutes to read this.”

I knew what I wanted: a voice that could do a nature show but someone with enough gravity in his voice that it would sound believable no matter how ridiculous what I wrote was. [Ed note: The narrator was Robb Webb, the actual 60 Minutes announcer.]

There’s definitely gravity to spare… the guy sounds like the brother of Don LaFontaine - the “In a world” movie announcer guy. I read that you’ve been gradually feeling better and better. If things continue to improve, what do you see for yourself down the road?

I don’t know, I have a bunch of ideas. But really need to recover from what has happened - the illness, the stalker and then that New Yorker article really devastated me. This is a humor website isn’t it? Oh well. Here is something funny:

Speaking of your artwork, do you usually go for humor?

No, I never start out with something humorous in mind. I start out with a series of colors. And as it goes along I see what I have. Humor comes much later.

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I should note that while this piece was mainly about Fishing With John, Lurie’s focus now is mainly on painting. If you are looking for more information and want to learn about his art and music, here are a few links you should check out:

“Panther Outside House As Photographed By Abraham Zapruder”

Ben Worcester is a writer living in Brooklyn who is going to start listening to the Get Shorty soundtrack again.

Talking to John Lurie About the Cult Classic ‘Fishing […]