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“It’s Not Like You’re Going to Be a Great Painter. It’s Just a Great Thing to Do.”

The patron saint of outsider art, John Lurie, has returned to TV with the HBO show ‘Painting With John.’ In conversation, he explores the aims and methods of his life-affirming series, explains why the Knicks are dead to him, and accuses Zach Galifianakis of stealing his socks.

HBO/Ringer illustration

John Lurie is not easily summed up by a single word. Lurie is a musician, a saxophonist, and the longtime leader of avant-garde jazz outfit the Lounge Lizards. He’s an actor, the star of such Jim Jarmusch films as Stranger Than Paradise and Down by Law. He’s a TV presenter, the opaque centerpiece of early-’90s cult classic Fishing With John. And he’s a painter, a pastime that became his primary vocation after he developed an illness that Lurie has subsequently identified as chronic Lyme disease, which left him unable to play instruments. It’s this final descriptor that forms the basis of the series Painting With John, currently in the middle of a six-episode run on HBO.

Really, though, the 68-year-old is best understood as a kind of Zelig of downtown cool. Andy Warhol counted himself among the Lounge Lizards’ prominent fans; as a young artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat slept on Lurie’s East Village floor. Lurie even became the last on-screen dining partner of the late Anthony Bourdain, sharing a humble plate of hard-boiled eggs in the artist’s New York apartment. The two shows are nothing alike, but it’s fitting Painting With John arrives so closely on the heels of Martin Scorsese’s Pretend It’s a City, which immortalizes writer Fran Lebowitz as the living ambassador of a New York long gone. Lurie shares the distinction, though unlike Lebowitz and her “writer’s blockade,” he remains artistically vital.

“Bob Ross was wrong,” Lurie intones at the start of Painting With John. “Not everyone can paint.” Watching him at work for long, meditative stretches, you can see what he means; Lurie’s compositions are a rare match of technical precision with wild ingenuity, a combination carried over from his music. (Lurie has lamented how expertise was devalued by the punk and no wave movements that influenced the Lounge Lizards, leading him to downplay his own skill.) Lurie’s mix of natural imagery, surrealism, and humor has earned him a place in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art. Perhaps more importantly, his “Bear Surprise,” which shows the titular animal confronting a couple having sex, became a Russian meme.

Painting is Lurie’s occupation, but Fishing With John, which is now streaming on the Criterion Channel, remains his most visible calling card. Financed by Japanese producers and aired on a pre-Housewives Bravo before moving to IFC, Fishing with John was a parody of a travel show. The destinations were real, ranging from Maine to Jamaica, and so were the guests, who included Jarmusch, Down by Law costar Tom Waits, and Willem Dafoe. The fishing was, at best, a tertiary concern. When Lurie hunts for sharks with Jarmusch off the coast of Montauk, they try the unconventional technique of pointing a handgun at a dangled piece of cheese; while ice fishing with Dafoe, Robb Webb’s voice-over solemnly announces the two have died of exposure. Not all the hardship was made up, though: The Jamaica expedition was so arduous Waits reportedly didn’t speak to Lurie for more than a year.

Painting With John is a more intimate, less arch kind of show. There are no guests. Lurie is occasionally joined by his longtime assistant Nesrin Wolf and another employee Ann Mary Gludd James; editor and cameraman Erik Mockus traveled to Lurie’s home in the Caribbean to document his efforts, but never appears himself. Instead, Lurie turns to the viewers themselves, offering his thoughts on creativity (he’s for it) and fame (he’s against it), telling stories about doing coke in a closet or swinging a machete buck naked, and sometimes giving directives: Here’s a beautiful sunset, now compose a poem; pick up a brush and give painting a try, even if you’re no good to start; stop watching this show and don’t tell your friends about it (a wish this article defies with permission).

Lurie is active on social media and remains prolific across formats. Painting With John nonetheless marks Lurie’s most high-profile project since his last TV venture, making it an apt occasion to look back on a career that provides a textbook definition of outsider art. Last month, The Ringer spoke with Lurie by phone to discuss sports, collaboration, and his ambivalence about returning to the spotlight. As will soon become obvious, the interview was conducted before last Sunday’s Super Bowl.

Hi.

Why is the magazine called The Ringer?

It’s a sports reference, I believe—like, the boxing bell.

OK. Could I say something right off the bat?

Of course.

Did you ever see the Sugar Ray Leonard–Durán fight, the second one?

I’m not actually a boxing fan myself.

Okay, but boxing people will appreciate this. So, the second Durán-Leonard fight, I think it was when he had the detached retina and people were really scared for him. And Durán was such a brute and had insulted Leonard’s wife. But Leonard gets into the ring and he looks nervous. And people thought, “He might get killed.”

Then Ray Charles comes out, and nobody had done this before: Everybody sings the regular “Star-Spangled Banner,” but Ray Charles comes out and does “America the Beautiful.” And then this smile comes over Leonard’s face. And by the end, Leonard is bouncing around, filled with life and joy. And they cut to Durán and he knows he’s going to lose. Ray Charles is what won that fight for Sugar Ray Leonard. I just wanted to say that. Boxing fans will appreciate that, even if you have no idea what I’m talking about.

You’ve talked both in the show and in interviews about how ambivalent you are about being a public figure. There’s a moment where you tell the viewer to turn the show off and not to tell anyone about it. I apologize for violating that instruction.

Well, that is a joke and I was kind of proud of that. It’s like I crossed a ... What’s it called? The fourth wall? But I was kind of proud of really jumping all the barriers between audience and TV—coming right through the TV to talk to people, but tell them to turn it off. I kind of thought that was different.

I am clearly joking because I start singing and dancing right afterward. But it was funny, people’s reaction to that particular scene. My brother said, “No, you have to cut it out.” But my brother has actually seen me angry like that and so it’s hit some kind of nerve with him. Other people loved it and thought it was brilliant.

I was nervous about that whole thing about fame. It sounds like I’m name-dropping. With Zach Galifianakis, it’s like, “Is he going to be pissed that I did this?” And then Andy Richter played him in the show, I guess, and he thought it was great. I don’t think this is true, but he told Andy that when he was my housekeeper I called him and accused him of stealing my socks. But I don’t remember this. And I think that because Zach remembers it and I don’t, I think he actually did steal my socks. Why would he remember that otherwise?

Zach Galifianakis aside, I was curious about what the reaction has been to the show, and how you feel about that reaction now that this is out in the world.

It seems like from what I’m seeing, just random stuff on social media, that it moved people and inspired people; that it did some good, which is great. But it’s so far removed. If you hear it from somebody you know, that’s way different than getting an ocean of compliments from people you don’t know—it’s a little strange. It’s kind of lonely, during the pandemic, to be set off from everybody and then to get all this love from people you don’t know.

How has the pandemic affected your day-to-day?

Well, my life was not so different from this [before]. I was living in isolation to protect myself from a malevolent force for years. So me and Nesrin are veterans of living like this. Tony Garnier, my old bass player, called and said, “People know finally what you’ve been living with for all these years!”

That was actually why I wanted to ask about it. Watching the show, it seems like this experience that a lot of people are having for the first time—an illness rapidly shifting the parameters of what your life looks like and what it’s possible to do—is not new to you.

Yeah, NPR said the show was about illness. But it’s not about illness. I just was honest about my illness, which people should be more honest about—what’s going on with them. You don’t hide it.

There’s a painting in the finale whose title references the pandemic. Has the pandemic affected your work as an artist?

Well, the only thing that was a drag was editing the show with Erik Mockus in two different cities where we were emailing shit back and forth. If we were in the same room, it would’ve taken 10 seconds to do something that sometimes took four hours. To explain in an email, “No, you should overlap the sound from the following scene into the new one, but keep three frames of the image … “ Explaining that over an email is so complicated, but we developed a language as it went.

But other than that, I paint. It’s what I do—I paint all day long, and [the pandemic] didn’t change anything that much. But a lot of people I care about are struggling, so there’s a lot of trying to look out for people. There’s been some deaths. It’s been hard like that.

How did you initially connect with Erik?

I’ve stopped now, but on Twitter or on Facebook or through my website, I would try to respond to everybody. More and more and more and more people were asking me, “I think I have Lyme disease. What do I do?” And I would try to answer. But if you send me your music, I’m not going to listen. And I would explain, “Look, I lost it. I can’t play music anymore. It’s a painful subject. I’m not going to listen.”

I would try to respond to everybody, but it was getting to be more and more and more and people seemed to know no boundaries. So this kid—I think it was on Facebook, I don’t remember where it was—he said, “I made something. Do you mind having a look?” It was just, like, the tenth one in an hour. And I was just like ... I was rude. I don’t remember what I said, but I said, “I’m sick of this. No, I don’t want to watch your video.”

Then about 10 minutes later I felt terrible about it. So I wrote him back and said, “I’m sorry. I lost my temper there. You didn’t deserve that. It was a cumulative effect of people parasite-ing on me.” He said, “Well, what I did was I put the titles of Fishing With John together in a one-hour loop. And I just thought you might find that interesting.” And so I watched it and it was, it was kind of really soothing. I felt so bad that I’d been an asshole.

Then the next thing that happened was I put out Marvin Pontiac: The Asylum Tapes, and he just put it together on his own, the “I Don’t Have a Cow” video. You should link that in your thing; he did a nice job. Then we kind of became friends, and then I said, “We might do this thing with me and Nesrin doing one-minute clips. Do you want to come down to where we are and film us?” And Nesrin said, “No, you have to meet him first. You might hate him.” So he came to New York and then we met him. We liked him. Then he came down to the island and he was so good at everything that it just started to develop into this other thing. This show is 40 percent him. It’s 40 percent Erik Mockus, honestly.

Your assistant Nesrin is such a delightful presence in the show. You’ve mentioned that, at first, she didn’t want to be in it. How did you convince her to be on camera?

I didn’t convince her. We had to shoot around her and it was okay—“Fair enough. You don’t want to be in it.” And Ann Mary [Gludd James] was 50/50, either way. So we were shooting around [them]: “Nes, I want to use the whole house. So if you don’t want to be in it, just give me an hour to shoot and you stay out of the way.” And then, of course, as it was going on, after a couple of weeks, they kind of both wanted to be in it. They wanted to be in it, but then they didn’t want to be in it—you know what it’s like. Imagine somebody shooting something in your house and you say, “Oh, I think I might be good in that.” And then you go, “No, I feel shy.” She went back and forth on it.

I’m glad you worked her in.

I hope I captured them because they’re stars, in my book. I can be more objective about myself than about her because I care about them so much. And I love them so much.

In the sixth episode, where they’re laughing and laughing, it was [originally] five minutes longer. And I thought it was the funniest thing I’d ever seen and you can’t help but start laughing along with them. But Nesrin kept saying, “No, no, no, people are going to be annoyed by it.” So we cut it down. Me and Erik, we followed my Nesrin’s wishes where we cut it down shorter and shorter and shorter. But I thought it was better longer.

I think they’re amazing. I’m glad you see it. Put that in the article, shove it in her face.

The finale felt the most reminiscent of the structure of Fishing With John, because you go outside the house on this adventure. I was curious if that was intentional, or if you even revisited Fishing With John at all before you put this together.

No, we didn’t. Erik was a fan of it, but I didn’t think about it very much and didn’t actually expect how people would connect to the two things.

But that whole thing with the drone, it’s actually really hard to fly it right into the house and say, “Hello, welcome to Painting With John.” We’d done it right several times. It was the last day, Erik had to go. And then the drone crashed and the memory chip came out. So we had to go out into the jungle backyard and find that chip in the rain. We had machetes and were cutting down all the ... I wish we’d filmed that, me and Erik out in the rain, cutting down all the branches to try to find our chip. And we finally found it.

It’s funny because you look at your drone footage and go, “Oh my God, that’s beautiful.” And then you turn on the TV and there’s drone footage on every show and every commercial. It’s like, “Oh, everybody has that.” I had a similar thing with alligators when we were shooting Fishing With John in Costa Rica: “Oh my God, we’ve got to film the alligator.” And we get this sort of crappy shot of the corner of an alligator. You can barely even see what it is. While you’re filming it, it feels like gold. And then you come back and you turn on National Geographic and there’s 40 alligators in every shot. It’s not that uncommon.

Did you have any reservations or reticence around filming your painting process?

When I’m really painting painting, I go into kind of a self-hypnosis trance kind of thing. I don’t want somebody filming me while I’m doing that. I don’t want anybody looking at me when I’m doing that. I don’t want everybody talking to me when I’m doing that. I kind of disappear into the world I’m creating. And to get that on camera, I couldn’t do it.

So what we would do was, I started all those paintings before Erik got there and then would fill in—like on that first one, in Episode 1, I left those little squares, adding watercolor to each square because it does a nice thing when it’s wet and the paint explodes. It’s always nice to see. But that’s not difficult to do. You paint the square in blue, then you load up the brush with yellow paint and you do a little speck in the middle and it blossoms out. The real inspired stuff I don’t think would happen on camera. I know I couldn’t do it.

You go through this arc in the show where you start up front and are like, “Bob Ross was wrong.” And then by the end you’re encouraging the audience to paint and just improvise and see what they can do. Do you see those ideas as a contradiction or an evolution?

Well, I do now that it’s a show and it’s been pointed out to me by the press—“He says ‘Everybody can’t paint’ and then he says ‘You should try this’!” It wasn’t intentional, but I kind of liked that. Because you should try it! It’s not like you’re going to be a great painter; it’s just a great thing to do.

There’s something to be said for accepting you’re not going to be good at something, but doing it anyway.

Yeah, it’s like you go out and you shoot baskets. It doesn’t mean you’re going to be in the NBA. It’s just like, it’s fun to shoot baskets.

That’s a good metaphor for The Ringer.

I could talk about sports all day long.

Are you a fan of anything in particular, besides boxing?

More basketball than anything else. If I did more Fishing With John, I would want to take Gregg Popovich. He would be my dream guest. You don’t even know who he is, do you? God, they’re going to fire you.

I do! I’ve learned that one.

I was a fan of the Knicks, but they’re terrible. But I didn’t abandon them because they were terrible. What they did to Charles Oakley, who was a real warrior for that team, was so repulsive. They threw him out of the Garden because he said something bad about the owner. And actually, they accused him of trespassing and he was arrested. So until the Knicks apologize to Charles Oakley, I won’t root for them. They’re dead to me. I usually just root for the underdog. I’m not going to root for the Bucs because Tom Brady gives me the willies.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.