Fishing With John Lurie

How did the show become a cult classic?

In the months after he first saw “Fishing with John,” a friend of mine began thinking about buying a boat. He wanted to live off the sea. He thought about it most days until he found he could think of nothing else. Then, one day, he moved to Key West, bought a boat, and spent his days fishing. Another friend drove a few hours to a town in far-out Connecticut to buy a saxophone. He wanted to echo the sounds he’d heard on the show. A third friend awoke one morning and noticed that he was droning the theme song. He wasn’t sure exactly what he wanted.

“Fishing with John” was a very short-lived TV show, it hasn’t even been aired since the ‘90s and everyone I know had to find it on the web. It wavered between documentary realism and whimsical fantasy. It wasn’t a mockumentary, but more akin to the Steve Coogan-Rob Brydon Trip series or an exponentially funnier “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” if either show was willing to trail a toe in mind-bending, surreal waters. The eponymous John was John Lurie, star of Jim Jarmusch’s early films, mentor to Jean-Michel Basquiat, Oscar-winning composer, and bandleader of The Lounge Lizards, a musical experiment whose strange beauty could only be rivalled by Lurie’s own Marvin Pontiac recordings. “Fishing with John” surpassed all that, though, and used all of his eclectic skillset to create the weirdest and best fishing show ever broadcast.

Lurie secured funding for the show by playing home video tapes of fishing trips to a group of Japanese investors. With their money, he tried to recreate the off-handed magic of those tapes. He set off into the wild with celebrities of varying temperaments—a pissed-off and seasick Tom Waits, a bubbly and playful Willem Dafoe, a sugar-high Dennis Hopper—not necessarily in search of fish, but with all the fisherman’s accoutrements. They’d encounter strange locales and sometimes strange locals. They’d chat. Once in a while, almost by accident, they’d catch a fish.

Lurie and a skeleton crew of producers and artists turned cinematographers only managed to produce six episodes before the money ran out. After half a decade of litigation and funding gluts, Lurie edited together the footage and imposed story structures, which varied from a quixotic search for a giant squid and the squid monks who protect its secrets to a delirious, fish-less drama on the ice sheets of Maine, with the help of Robb Webb, a loopy, subversive, and extremely authoritative-sounding narrator. It went out on IFC and Bravo in 1998 and it hasn’t been on TV since. The Criterion Collection hasn’t even had a fresh home video release of it since 1999. But it’s all on Youtube.

How did the show become a cult classic? What gave it its enduring transformative power? Part of it was the strain of psychological realism that ran beneath the surface surrealism. Lurie’s masterpiece caught the wandering mind of a casual fisherman better than anything else around. As the narrator put it, with utterly straight-faced intonation, “these are real men, doing real things.”

Two real men are sitting in a real boat on the Rio Colorado, in Costa Rica. “No white man has ever been this far before,” the narrator lies after a few cutaways to dangerous looking reptiles lurking on the water’s edge. “Would you like some Fanta?” Matt Dillon asks, his tank top inflected with sweat, his sunglasses pressed to his face, and his black baseball cap on backwards. “No thanks,” Lurie says, and drinks it. “Matt?” “Yes, John.” “You still with me?” “Yes, John.” They cast out a few times and the boat rocks back and forth a bit, drifting away from the camera. They catch nothing. It starts to rain, then stops. They have still caught nothing. “How come I can’t catch a fish?” Lurie asks Dillon. “Do you think I have bad luck?” They talk about whether they did the fish dance, to honor the dead fish, with enough enthusiasm that morning. Soon a maddening montage begins. “From the depths of the jungle the power and mystery of the fish dance has been released,” the narrator tells us. Totcho, a local fisherman who led them to the hut where they spent the previous night, transforms himself into a white bird and flies to their rescue. Fish begin literally jumping from the water into their hands.

The show’s trademarks are all there: the otherworldly narration, absent-minded dialogue, strange editing, languid pacing, and impossible narrative. But none of that matters as much as the degree to which it made you want to join in, as the fact that it was a scene you felt like you could step into, a conversation you could interrupt.

Part of what makes the show so inviting is that Lurie and his guests aren’t particularly accomplished fishermen. They’re not these ridiculous semi-heroic he-men that populate your average fishing show. They don’t know everything about this year’s trout population in this particular lake. These are guys who’d rather sit and guess at what the foreign names of familiar fish are, even if it’s clear they’re just spouting bullshit. It becomes clear that this pastime and this world are accessible to your average amateur.

This is signature of Lurie’s, apparent in all of his artistic endeavors—he engages the audience, then lures them into joining him. Recently, this aspect of his work and life has reached comic heights in his hilariously overactive twitter, and with his paintings becoming popular memes in Russia, but it’s been his modus operandi long before he’d logged onto the internet. In the 1990 documentary, A Lounge Lizard Alone, we see Lurie in what looks like a dollar store, examining small instrument-shaped noise makers in plastic neon colors: little saxophones, little horns, little drums. “Should we get a thousand?” he asks. Later, at three in the morning, he and his 15-year-old bucket drummer throw them out into the crowd at a German nightclub, and he encourages them to make noise. In “Fishing with John,” it’s a little more subtle than throwing you an instrument. He gives you a model of a pleasant fishing trip and you’re free to follow it. Given the surreal elements of the show, you’d be best off improvising significantly from the model.

If none of this speaks to you, at least consider how weird it is that this minor icon of eighties urbanism ended up producing a fishing show that propels others into nature. In the commentary track to the Thailand episode Lurie says, “You go to places like this. Why do you ever go back to New York? Why do you go back to L.A.? Why do you live where you live? It just seems dumb. It’s beautiful to be here.” Listen to his meditations on quiet and soon, like my friend who suddenly found himself on a boat in Florida, you find that “Fishing with John” has changed you.

I used to catch tiny fish in a pond under train tracks with my grandfather when I was a little kid. For a long time after, with the exception of a few very brief deep sea excursions that were closer to whale watching than fishing, I hadn’t so much as held a rod. I hadn’t even consumed a fish in years. This simple and unhappy state of affairs persisted until I stumbled into an obsession with this show.

The stages of a “Fishing with John” obsession are fairly standard. First, you watch it for an easy giggle in a dark room. Soon, you find yourself watching it all the time because you’ve considered the possibility that nothing else around you really makes sense, and you continue rewatching because you’ve run out of new episodes and are hoping that there’s something new to catch in the old ones. Browsing in a bookshop, you start salivating over titles like Walleye Tactics, Tips & Tales, and A History of Fly Fishing in 40 Flies, though you’re unlikely to ever go fly fishing. You find yourself mistakenly watching films like The Annihilation of Fish. And then you find yourself going fishing every month, then every other weekend, and finally you find yourself taking days off work to go fishing. At any rate, I do.

But when you’re out there, it doesn’t feel like an addiction. Not an unhealthy one, anyway. It does feel like a high, though. “There is nothing,” says our esteemed narrator, “like fresh air with a rod in your hand.” Once you’ve done the dance that all fishermen do, once you’ve hooked a worm and you’ve cast out, a strange peace quickly overtakes you. Echoing a throwaway line from the narrator, you announce to your friend that “life is beautiful, for some more than others.” And your mind drifts off as you stare at the bobber bobbing in concert with the sines and cosines dictated by an absentee moon.

You breathe in, sit back, and look at the clouds. They’re moving slower than you’d ever imagined, shifting with the lackadaisical energy of snow before a gust of wind shakes it from a tree. You exhale and you think to yourself, “Ah, fishing.” A soft breeze passes by and the water ripples before you. You hear your friend atonally throat singing the theme song of the show, and you begin to mouth drum. In the communal cacophony one thought resounds in both your minds. It’s a random line from the show that, like so many others, you remember almost daily. “Cheese fish?”