“Bob Ross was wrong — everybody can’t paint,” John Lurie tells us in the opening episode of his enchanting new HBO Max series Painting with John. “Everybody can paint when they’re young. Maybe all of us, when we’re 3, 4, 5 … we all have that thing.” But then “the adult part of your mind tells you to drop that.”
John Lurie, the irascible, multitalented, occasionally famous performer and artist, created a little series for IFC thirty years ago which many of us of a certain age fondly recall. Fishing With John was a kind of parody of the travel genre, or maybe it was an anti-travel show. Each episode followed Lurie and a celebrity friend as they grabbed their gear and left the city for the wild blue yonder, with some uncomfortable highway and motel scenes along the way. A well-known announcer of that time narrated the show, mostly uttering banal non sequiturs. It was intentionally weird. There was nothing quite like it on TV.
Painting with John is nothing like Fishing with John, but what’s remarkable is that even though we now have endless TV, and seemingly every idea that could be produced is in development for a streaming channel, Painting With John is, like its predecessor, a true original. It’s about a man who has seen a lot of the world, made a good living off his art, and — with the help of producers Adam McKay and Todd Schulman — has hand-crafted yet another work for television.
John Lurie knows he’s a lucky man. He was lucky to be raised in New Orleans and Massachusetts by two parents with bohemian values who didn’t crush his or his siblings’ artistic enthusiasms (all three grew up to become successful artists). Lurie recalls one morning sitting with his brother Evan over breakfast. Evan loved listening to a certain John Coltrane album and, in an air-saxophone reverie, ripped open the sutures on his mouth and spilled blood all over the breakfast table, and nobody batted an eye. Lurie was lucky to be in New York during the 1970s when he and Evan started The Lounge Lizards, a hugely influential jazz ensemble that led to a prosperous composing career. (Fun fact: Lurie co-wrote the boisterous theme song for NBC’s Late Night With Conan O’Brien.)
Fame had its amusing side — “Once I took cocaine in a broom closet at a nightclub with Rick James” — but also its unseemly side. He was stalked for years, a chapter that was documented in a New Yorker profile that devoted more ink to his stalker than its subject (and which partially explains the faraway island home). Lurie saw how fame crushed his friend Anthony Bourdain, who took his own life. Bourdain wrote some great books and was a celebrated chef, but it was television that gave him his wattage, and Lurie has nothing good to say about it. People who are good at doing TV “are probably sociopaths,” Lurie opines at one point, adding that the longer he spends making this show, and the better he gets at it, "the worse and worse" he becomes as a person. There’s a long pause before he adds, “I’m not kidding.”
You do get the sense that being a well-known New Yorker was pushing Lurie to the edge of something unfortunate as well. But again, he was lucky to be able to get out, Arthur C. Clarke-style, to a home on a tropical island outside the United States. And as he admits, fame helped him collect these stories, which he has now the time and space to assemble into their own work of art.
Each episode of Painting With John has Lurie telling stories as he paints something lush and complicated with watercolors from his island villa. He interrupts these sessions to wander outside and take in the scenery (which is lush and calming) or chitchat with the women who work for him, identified in the credits as Nesrin Wolf and Ann Mary Gludd James. Mostly, though, it’s just Lurie and his art, which includes not only his painting — aptly described by one critic as “kaleidoscopic” — but also the peaceful music composed by Lurie, and of course the show itself, which he wrote and directed.
Methinks, though, that he protesteth Bob Ross too much. Watching an episode of Painting with John has exactly the same restorative effect as watching The Joy of Painting. The difference is that while Bob Ross filled his silences with inspiration and squirrel anecdotes, Lurie tells his little stories. At first they seem kind of random, but like everything that he does, the stories are carefully assembled into a work of art, a meditation on life and art, albeit with f-bombs.
“I was hoping this show would be educational, but I paint so much from intuition and I don’t know how you teach people intuition,” he says. A few moments later he adds, “I don’t know what the f*** I’m doing. I’m just stubborn. I refuse to let these paintings be bad, so I just work on them until they’re good.” That’s the kind of insight into the artist’s craft that you’re not going to get on PBS. Bob Ross is long gone. We don’t have Mr. Rogers (or Mrs. Rogers, RIP Joanne) to shield us from an insane world. The way ahead is grim. And yet we must plow on, and it seems to me that John Lurie has given us not only something to calm our nerves, but some nuggets of salty wisdom for making the world a better place. Make it your canvas, and keep working on it until it’s good — or at least not so awful.
Painting With John premieres January 22nd at 11:00 PM ET on HBO.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.