Sounding Board

Falling Hook, Line, And Sinker For John Lurie’s Fishing With John

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In the pilot episode of the short-lived TV show Fishing With John, John Lurie drives with this former boss, the film director Jim Jarmusch, from New York City to Montauk with the intention of catching a shark. Neither of the men are trained to wrangle sharks (“We’ll come back with one arm each!” Jarmusch quips on the way there), but they make the attempt anyhow. The two lack a fisherman’s patience, and get antsy after waiting for their prey. So, they try a new approach that involves Jarmusch holding a piece of cheese as bait, while Lurie leans over the side of the boat, handgun at the ready. As Jarmusch dangles the cheese over the edge, Lurie leads them in a rendition of the Jaws theme song. The shark never arrives.

Fishing With John — the greatest television show about fishing that is not really about fishing — lasted all of a year. It was hosted by Lurie, the ringleader and saxophonist of the playful jazz group the Lounge Lizards, and star of many a formidable arthouse flick, including Down By Law and Stranger Than Paradise (both of which he also scored). And while on the surface the series appears to showcase Lurie engaging in surrealistic hijinks with his famous friends, the prescient Fishing With John brilliantly parodies traditional nature documentary shows, immortalizes the delight in droll conversation, and may have unwittingly developed a template for reality television as we now know it.

The facts and fictions of Lurie’s life, much like reality TV, have been the subject of much debate. For one thing, he’s a mythic figure, one who prowled around late ’70s and early ’80s New York and created vivid paintings alongside his friend Jean-Michel Basquiat. There’s the fact that Lurie is said to have coined the pejorative term “fake jazz” himself to describe the skittering ’80s punk jazz group the Lounge Lizards, which he started with Arto Lindsay and his brother Evan. The band, which was conceived in downtown New York during the time No Wave was cresting, went on to become a critical force in the avant-garde. Then there’s that contentious New Yorker profile, which probed his ongoing struggles with Lyme Disease in recent years, and then prompted disavowal and a subsequent petition signed by many friends and family members interviewed for it.

But whether or not Lurie’s a decent fisherman is anyone’s guess. “I gotta ask you something, John. Have you ever caught a fish before?” Tom Waits asks him in earnest in the Fishing With John episode where the two go fishing in Jamaica. “I’ve never actually seen you catch a fish.”

Lurie laughs. “You know I’ve caught a fish before,” he responds cryptically.

In an essay for the show’s Criterion Collection release, the journalist Michael Azzerrad asserted that Lurie went to the trouble of creating, directing, writing, and starring in Fishing With John as a way to write vacations with friends off his taxes. The truth is, Lurie says he got reeled into television after a comedy film he had written and planned to direct (called You Stink, Mister) failed to get off the ground. He told Splitsider in 2012 that the film would have starred his Down By Law co-star Roberto Benigni as an Italian cowboy who defeats Buffalo Bill in a “cowboy contest.” When that didn’t pan out, Lurie traded his spurs for fishing rods.

Each of Fishing With John’s six episodes features Lurie fishing with a different friend in a divergent part of the globe, from Jamaica to Thailand. While Lurie’s banter (and occasional disagreements) with his friends out on the open water form the show’s nucleus, the journey they take to actually reach the fishing boat is an integral part of the show, too. In the episode where he ventures to Jamaica with Waits, for instance, the show’s omniscient narrator, Robb Webb, informs us that “having destroyed their car, John Lurie and Tom Waits must now travel across the island by canoe” (we never know how or why said car was destroyed). In the episode with Matt Dillon, the two arrive in a bumpy small plane to Costa Rica, then proceed to ride on horseback for a full day through the jungle before reaching the water, where they perform a pre-fishing ritual dance for good luck. Then, they wait for the fish to bite.

Azzerrad also notes in his essay that Lurie was initially inspired to create the show thanks to home videos of himself and his friend Willem Dafoe fishing. But he also drew from the particular lull of glassy-eyed, late-night TV watching. “The idea came from coming home late one night, or I guess morning really, and the only thing on any channel was a fishing show. And I thought, ‘I want to do this,'” Lurie said in an interview with BlackBook.

“I had always had this thing since I was a kid where I would watch Mutual Of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom with Marlon Perkins and he would always be telling you what the animals were thinking, and I just always wanted to do my own show where I would tell you what the animals were thinking. So I was talking about it, more like a joke, a threat — ‘I am going to make a fishing show.'”

Depending on how you look at it, that joke or threat became a reality when Bravo (and later IFC) aired the show in 1991. Lurie had the right industry credentials: A few years before he attempted to ice-fish in Maine, he’d helmed lead roles in several of Jim Jarmusch’s acclaimed flicks as well as Wim Wenders’ wispy Paris, Texas. He played a wiseguy, a pouty runaway, and many saxophonists on-screen, and probably picked up a few cues from Jarmusch on how to direct actors along the way, too. And while Lurie wasn’t your typical charismatic chameleon who hosted television shows, the lifetime he’d spent in jazz clubs observing, waiting for cues, and pouncing in the opportune moment served him well for the sport.

Lurie also has an ear for improvisation, evidenced by the languid, off-the-cuff appeal of his jazz alto sax performances. He used to practice in the late-night, empty subway station at 14th and 1st Avenue back in the ’70s, and that improvisational spontaneity emerges in Fishing With John as Lurie flits between topics with each of his co-stars. He chats about homoerotica and tetanus shots, shifting his tone and demeanor depending on who he’s taking out on the water that day. With Jarmusch as his guest, Lurie is playful, at one point asking Jarmusch if he’s “trying to show me what it was like to work with me” by being difficult. With Dafoe, the two riff on each other like a sitcom duo, with Dafoe playing the optimist to a frustrated Lurie. “Pretend, John,” Dafoe says one particularly trying day on the ice-fishing trip to Maine. “Just pretend you’re from a culture of gatherers and today we’ve had a lame day.” This Survivorman-esque episode is the one that requires you to suspend your disbelief the most, though: At the end, the show’s omniscient narrator Robb Webb suddenly announces that the pair “die” of starvation, and we see them laying in the snow.

But thanks to Webb’s constant and often hilariously inappropriate voiceover interjections, Fishing With John repeatedly breaks the fourth wall and complements the peculiar conversations. Webb states in the pilot that this is not going to be an educational program à la Undersea World Of Jacques Cousteau, and immediately establishes himself as an unreliable narrator by musing: “How deep is the ocean? No one knows.” When Jarmusch and Lurie are walking out of their Montauk motel to go fishing early in the morning, he notes that they are “covered in sores and boners.” Following a self-referential mentions of TV shows not lasting longer than a season in the Matt Dillon episode, Webb notes: “Gunsmoke was one of my favorite programs.” And in the episode following John Lurie’s “death” alongside Willem Dafoe, Webb squeals: “I made a mistake! John is still alive!”

When the show was on air, viewers wondered whether or not it was scripted. But while speaking at an event at Brooklyn’s Nitehawk Cinema several years ago, Lurie confirmed that the show was entirely unscripted. Plot lines developed while the tape rolled and then were finalized in the editing room. Yet some resourceful magic was required to make this show, which he later said was subject to “constant disasters,” such as the cameramen vomiting over the side of the boat when he and Jarmusch were attempting to catch the shark in the series pilot. Notably, Lurie and Waits’ venture to Jamaica couldn’t have been more poorly timed. The crew ditched the first location for that show, Alabama, and instead traveled to Jamaica so that it would coincide with Waits’ island vacation. But at the time, Jamaica was experiencing a dire lack of fish, and Lurie had to hire “fish aggregators” to make the “fishing” part of this expedition happen at all.

The absurdity only starts there. While the episode begins with the two singing in a canoe en route to their homebase, it takes a turn when Waits discovers he has to wake up early to fish the next day (“I haven’t been up at five o’clock since I was a boy,” he grumbles). Waits’ stomach becomes upset, and so does his temperament when he finds out that he has to bait a fish between the eyes after he’s looked at him. “Why don’t you do it?” he asks Lurie of the bait. “He’s already looked at me.” At one point Waits contemplates putting a freshly caught red snapper in his pants. “Should I put it in my pants?” he asks Lurie. “That’s what I’ve done in the past when I’ve been depressed.” (He goes for it). Waits’ displeasure at being interrupted from his vacation time becomes more and more palpable, until it reaches a breaking point during the long walk back. “How did I ever let you talk me into doing this? This is the most absurd thing I’ve ever done in my life,” he tells Lurie. The two didn’t speak for more than a year after that.

While the show ends with Lurie attempting to catch giant squid with Dennis Hopper in Thailand in the final two episodes, he couldn’t entirely suspend the show outside of reality. As Gothamist notes, at one point Lurie had to acquiesce to the show’s Japanese investors, who wanted then-hot shot Matt Dillon to star on the show. That led to one of Fishing With John’s most unintentionally funny (and uncomfortable) episodes. Lurie didn’t so much as know Dillon, and that fact becomes evident quickly. The conversation is strained, and Dillon clams up next to Lurie, who can prove himself to be a live wire on the show. In post-production, Lurie had to fill 15 minutes of the episode with music because the banter was so awkward.

Fishing With John is not unlike a reality show, one that blurs the lines between point-of-view slices of life and the mayhem of “unscripted” television. While it’s not technically the first reality show (that would be the home drama An American Family, which premiered back in the ’70s), Fishing With John pre-dates The Real World, the ultimate example of people stuck in the same boat, so to speak, and simultaneously trying to not rock it too much. The way it documents forced, uncomfortable interactions (especially in Dillon’s case) mirrors a main tenet of reality television: showcasing the mundane. There’s something to be said about the fact that the show aired on Bravo, the place where we can now watch the sordid lives of Real Housewives.

At the aforementioned Nitehawk retrospective, Lurie said he’s not keen on fishing anymore, though he told Criterion that same year that he was hoping to make a “thirteen-episode [sequel] with Tad Friend and David Remnick of the New Yorker magazine as guests,” presumably to hash out his controversial profile. Regardless, we’re lucky his boating adventures remain immortalized on Hulu. If anything, Fishing With John is a reminder that there’s still humor, surprise, and revelation to be found in, well, not really doing anything. What matters is that you’re with good company — someone with whom you can appreciate that nothingness. Give a man a fish, he’ll put it in his pants for a day. But teach a man to fish (ish), he’ll shoot the shit for a lifetime.