Lurie only lightly touches on this backstory in his show, which comes with a simple credo: Creativity is the only survival tool for cursed times. The show’s set-up is simple, too. Lurie, who has become a collected and well-respected painter since giving up the saxophone, paints from his home in an undisclosed location in the Carribean, creating works of luminescent earth tones full of lurid looking fauna (and populated, at times, by comic creatures, which have occasionally caused his work to go viral in places like Russia). And while he paints, mostly in basketball shorts and sleeveless shirts, his voice set to a pleasant growl, he tells stories—about being a once-famous downtown guy (“Fame sticks to you,” he explains with disdain), about the time his oven exploded in his face, and the time an eel nearly bit it off. If you watch the show, you’ll see Lurie do some silly things too. Like, fly a drone into a tree, or mess up the intro, attempting various cheeseball grins befitting a host. Or ponder a tropical sunset. “I thought I should say something poetic,” he says in that scene. “But I didn’t have anything to say, so just imagine I said something poetic. How did it go? Did you do good? Why put it all on me?”
The concept for the show began as a quarantine pastime. Lurie, who paints every day, explains, “I’d start a painting, and put it aside and be like, ‘Well, how the fuck did you do this?’ ” His long-time assistant, Nesrin Wolf, began filming him, in the hope that he’d stop forgetting how he assembled his pictures. Soon the videos began to appear on his Instagram and website, and Lurie sent them out to a circle of close friends. He wanted to cheer people up. “It was going to be nothing more than that,” he says.
Then he invited a young filmmaker named Erik Mockus to scale up the filming and editing process of these videos. Mockus, 34, first made contact with Lurie via Twitter in 2015, when he sent him an hour-long loop he’d made of the theme song Lurie wrote for his 1991 Bravo show Fishing With John. Now a cult-favorite streaming on the Criterion Channel, Fishing was a kind of spaced-out, slapstick riff on traditional outdoors programming. Lurie would travel to exotic locales with his famous friends—Willem Dafoe, Jim Jarmusch, Tom Waits, Dennis Hopper—spending days at a spot, and then failing to bag a single fish. Each episode would fizzle out inconclusively, charmingly, like a freshly-opened beer spilled on the floor.
Painting With John is a more solitary but similarly slapstick affair. Mockus and Lurie shot for five weeks, mostly at night as crickets and tree frogs chattered outside the house—a process Mockus describes as “grabbing things as they floated by.” “It was really handmade,” Mockus says. “There was no schedule. John was just coming off his cancer treatment, and he had sleep apnea, so the windows for making things were small.” Ultimately, they found themselves with 90 minutes of footage. As Mockus put the episodes together, he had only a vague mood board in his mind: “Something like Bob Ross meets Colonel Kurtz meets Fantasia.”
Eventually a rough-cut of the first episode made its way to director Adam McKay, of Anchorman and The Big Short fame, whose production company, Hyperobject Industries, swiftly sold the series to HBO. “I didn’t know who Adam McKay was,” Lurie admits. “I had to look him up. But everybody I knew knew Adam McKay, and they all went, ‘Oh, wow.’ ”