To explain what Fishing with John is “about” misses the boat entirely. You can’t explain absurdity, so let me try and explain.
In 1991, saxophonist-actor John Lurie, founder of the avant-garde jazz act the Lounge Lizards, released a low-budget, six-part television documentary series that has now, almost two decades later, become a featured exhibit in cult television’s Hall of Fame. Telecom, a Japanese company, financed the first half-hour episode, which featured Lurie’s buddy and Independent Film Czar Jim Jarmusch; Lurie said in an interview, “Jim, I figured, owed me a favor for all the stuff I’ve done for him,” including roles in Jarmusch’s indie classics Stranger Than Paradise and Down by Law. (“20 Questions” by a.d. amorosi, Philadelphia City Paper) Eventually, the Independent Film Channel aired the remaining five episodes. The rest is television history.
Each episode’s premise is simple: Lurie voyages with a pop culture icon to an exotic location to fish, and the duo experiences zany, “uneventful adventures”, with voice-over guru Robb Webb’s monotone narration (everyone has heard his voice at least once!) guiding each excursion. However, the problem (or joy, depending on your patience level) is that Fishing with John is the deadpan antithesis of popular angling shows: the “fishermen” are not experts, they rarely catch fish, the anglers are poorly prepared and often get lost (both on land and on wave), and Webb’s narration rarely matches what’s happening on screen.
Nothing normal happens, which is the whole point; in fact, Nothing happens, but in fishing, Nothing is often something (it’s the journey, ma-a-an, not the destination dude!). Imagine a Seinfeld episode on a boat with rods in Jerry and Kramer’s hands…you get the picture.
The introductory jingle is one of the weirdest songs I’ve ever heard, which is why I generally miss each episode’s first five minutes: it usually takes me that long to stop laughing. The song seems more appropriate for an eerie, psychedelic crocheting workshop than a fishing show, which usually boasts testosterone bubbling jams that would make Jan Hammer of Miami Vice soundtrack fame smile. This song puts Sleep to sleep and then gives it bizarre dreams.
Also in the wacky opening is a close-up of Lurie that encapsulates his absurd genius: holding steady for a few seconds his stoic, pretense-penetrating glance, the camera then captures him cracking up laughing, unable to hold off Absurdity’s army.
Lurie’s guest list reads like a Who’s Who in popular culture: Lurie and Jarmusch travel to Montauk, Long Island seeking shark; Tom Waits joins him in Jamaica to fish for snapper; Matt Dillon hops along for a supernatural experience in Costa Rica; Willem DaFoe shacks up, literally, with Lurie while ice fishing in Maine; and Dennis Hopper tags along for two episodes in Thailand to pursue giant squid.
Like his paintings (see John Lurie Art.com), Lurie’s Fishing with John narratives are invitingly impressionistic. For example, with Jarmusch there are strange, bubbly montages of creepy underwater scenery and Jarmusch’s occasional mumblings of “Why am I here?” With Dillon, there is the supernatural “fish pain” dance that brings good luck to fishermen, or has something to do with women and money. And with Hopper, there are the funky Thai hats, the inane banter, and, well, Hopper himself.
Eccentric motifs punctuate each episode: men wait for something to happen; haunting atonal sounds surface more often than fish; men wait longer for something to happen; pretty, authentic tribal music flows through each scene; men wait even longer for anything to happen; beautiful cinematography abounds; men continue to wait; and Lurie and his pals walk and walk and walk some more, hoping to find any destination.
There’s also ample silliness such as Jarmusch’s futile effort to dangle cheese overboard while Lurie waits tensely with a pistol in hand. Or Lurie and Dillon’s obliviousness to the dangers that surround them; after the narrator reports that sharks could devour the anglers if they fall into the water, Dillon states, “Want a Fanta?” Or DaFoe’s confession that “I get kind of sweet when it comes to bedtime,” which he utters while settling into his sleeping bag, immediately triggering Lurie’s deepest fears.
With Tom Waits there is an epic hike across the island (not quite, but it sounds good, no?); Waits’s hilarious decision to store a snapper in his pants recalls Derek Smalls’ provocative cucumber in This is Spinal Tap. After all, that’s what Waits has “usually done in the past when I’ve been depressed.” When Lurie catches a fish identical to Waits’s, he wonders if it’s the same fish, but Waits replies in classic deadpan fashion: “No, it can’t be. The first one’s in my pants.”
Equally irreverent is Waits’s refusal to succumb to seasickness and vomit because he’d “hate to throw up such a beautiful breakfast.” And watching Lurie navigate an old, rusty tugboat looking for a fishing hole is, as the MasterCard commercial would say, “priceless”.
With Dillon there’s also a treacherous plane ride across jungle habitats and an encounter with the elusive Don Marino, who gives them instructions, but neither Dillon nor Lurie understand his language. We also learn about the ironic origins of Dillon’s name. Of course, they catch no fish.
With DeFoe, there’s “real men doing real work”: making a shack from discarded wood. Again, nothing happens here, and the protagonist of this episode is frankly the snow. My favorite scene during this trip is when DaFoe – they didn’t’ think of brining any food – admits to having cheese and crackers, but Lurie is upset he didn’t bring peanut butter crackers. A choosing beggar never appeared so humorous. When the episode concludes with the narrator’s somber admission that they died while ice fishing, the series’ lunacy assumes new dimensions.
I’m not sure what to make of the Hopper episodes other than, as many anglers have done before them, Lurie and Hopper never locate or even talk about their mythical quarry: the elusive giant squid. Instead they talk about Hopper’s sugar fixation, a possible sequel to Easy Rider, and other sundry topics. However, at one point, it’s clear the giant squid is watching and hunting them.
Of course the real “rub” of each episode are the stories that surface amongst these eccentric characters. Jarmusch narrates a tale of a swimming woman who had a dolphin nose her breast; she later discovered she had breast cancer. Waits narrates his youthful encounters with exotic creatures such as the chickenfish, the cheesefish of France, and the goatfish. And who can ever forget the armless auger story shared between DaFoe and Lurie. Who cares whether or not these stories are true; they’re there, waiting to be heard and to put smiles on our faces.
Nevertheless, the boys occasionally catch some fish, sort of. Lurie and Jarmusch hold an epic fight with a huge blue shark that teaches them, well, nothing. Waits and Lurie catch some nice snapper although we later learn those catches were rigged. DaFoe and Lurie catch an 11-inch brown trout but return it because it wasn’t big enough (Who cares that they’re starving and there’s nobody in sight?). Otherwise, the trips are, from an angling perspective, not worth mentioning, unless you want 1,000 laughs.
As DaFoe at one point notes, “I think the best thing about ice fishing is it’s filled with possibility.” It’s not only ice fishing that inspires possibility. Although Fishing with John satirizes Saturday-morning ESPN-type fishing shows, it does so respectfully with the kind of humor that celebrates instead of destroys. Irreverence, absurdity, and surrealism rarely seem so enticing, especially when dangled on Lurie’s hooks.
There … goes the boat. Do you think it needs this anchor?