This Weekend We’re Watching
Painting with John: A hilarious unscripted series on Showmax
In an unnamed island in the Caribbean, reclusive eccentric polymath John Lurie paints, plays and prattles on about life, art and music. In this unscripted, uplifting and unexpectedly calming series, pretty much anything can and does happen.
One of the greatest conveniences of the online world is a person’s ability to tailor their consumption of entertainment to meet specific niches. But sometimes the most bizarre content lands up appealing to a wide audience. Millions find it pleasing to watch fruit being sliced, and Mukbang is a bafflingly popular streaming trend where a person binge-eats in front of a camera.
Painting With John is no less peculiar a niche, and it’s found just as enthusiastic an audience. It exists somewhere between Pretend It’s A City (Martin Scorsese’s documentary show about cranky New York comedian Fran Lebowitz), Bob Ross’s relaxing and encouraging instructive television show The Joy of Painting, and the absurdist HBO docu-series How To With John Wilson.
John Lurie is a multi-talented highly quotable goofball curmudgeon. Imagine your grumpiest uncle and make him 10 times weirder. He first became famous as the co-founder of the avant-garde jazz group, The Lounge Lizards; went on to write music for and act in television; was pushed into musical retirement when he contracted Lyme disease; and became a successful water-colour painter. He’s ended up as this wise-cracking badass hermit with an endless well of stories about a rather wild life.
The show is an amalgamation of Lurie painting to the music of The Lounge Lizards while telling stories; entrancing footage of the jungle around his home; and improvised comedy bits, which are essentially just him playing. There are slow-motion interludes that go on for several minutes, repeated scenes with only minor details changed, and Dali-esque animated sequences superimposing John over his paintings. Everything is framed by a dry surreal humour, and in that sense, it’s sort of a late sequel to a stream of consciousness series he made in 1991 called Fishing With John (a show satirising the fishing shows on American TV at the time) which came about after Lurie filmed a fishing trip he went on with Tom Waits in New Zealand. Watch it on YouTube here.
Lurie is a difficult dude to get, and you have to enjoy his madness to enjoy the show, because he is the show – he writes it, directs it and stars in it. It’s filmed in his home, the music is by his band and each episode ends with a moving gallery of his art.
Lurie’s stories never cease to shock and entertain. He speaks casually with a slow, raspy voice and a frankness that is both refreshing and a little offensive. He goes on scornful tirades that somehow end with a sweet message, and tells ofttimes pointless anecdotes that are always top-notch and unpredictable.
In one, he fights a seemingly immortal eel. In another he beats cancer. Zach Galifianakis used to clean his house. His younger brother impersonated Mighty Mouse for a week. He insists that Barry White’s voice is so deep it made his “balls vibrate”.
He’ll say things like, “Once I took cocaine for three hours in a broom closet at a nightclub with Rick James and Steve Rubell. There’s no story to go with this, it’s just a funny thing.” That captures the show’s ethos pretty well. There doesn’t need to be a point and you don’t have to justify enjoying it anyway.
The first episode is titled ‘Bob Ross Was Wrong’. “Everybody can’t paint. It’s not true,” Lurie asserts. “I think that everybody can paint when they’re young. Most of the best paintings I’ve ever seen were put on a refrigerator with a magnet.”
It’s pertinent that he starts his show by speaking about the authenticity and creative freedom of child-like wonder, because it’s this characteristic that makes him so lovable, despite his generally unpleasant demeanour. He has no shame whatsoever. He will happily have a several-minute argument with the moon, or dress up in pyjamas and a sun hat and demonstrate ridiculously how white people dance. His music and his artworks are just as unconstrained.
The real John Lurie is an exuberant child. The angry old man act is just part of his shtick. He frequently pokes fun at Bob Ross, saying things such as, “I just want everybody to know that these trees are all miserable” or “welcome to Painting with John, season two, the show where I do not teach you how to paint”. But despite his greatest efforts, in the end he’s just as encouraging and life-affirming as the man he lovingly mocks.
The musical interludes of his painting have the same calming effect that people appreciated so much about The Joy of Painting, and the footage of the jungle imparts this tranquil feeling of escaping to paradise. Covid was ramping up when the first season was being filmed but it’s never mentioned – that stress is not a part of Lurie’s world.
The first season starts by contradicting Bob Ross, but ends with a similarly uplifting message about self-expression: “Just get some paint. Mess around with it. Put the colour down. It’s good for you.” By season two, which has recently been added to Showmax, Lurie’s intolerant façade has practically dissolved. You feel like you know the guy. He even has inside jokes with the audience. Season two is self-referential, and Lurie can’t resist occasionally using the platform to speak about issues such as cat-calling or climate change.
There’s something delightful about an outspoken, kind-hearted cynic, and though we can’t all be as culturally unorthodox as John Lurie, there’s a lot we can learn from him. DM/ ML
Painting with John is available in South Africa on Showmax.
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