So yes, not everyone celebrates Christmas, but there is something to be said about the gaudy white-flocked fake trees, excessive Yuletide decoration and eerie-eyed nutcrackers that can make the holidays rife with camp and freakiness. Yes, it’s a time of cheer and joy and all that other junk, but it’s also comically and charmingly full of trash, delightful family hijinks and a coming together of people who maybe don’t ever really want to see each other.
It’s really no wonder, then, that John Waters—divine power of filthy dark comedy—has taken his one-man Christmas show, “A John Water Christmas – Filthier & Merrier,” on the road for another year. Proudly from Baltimore, Maryland, he’s known for being the prince of profanity and is an absolute gay and queer icon—having worked with actor and drag queen Divine for many years and being out as gay and an advocate for gay rights, himself. All of his movies, from 1972’s “Pink Flamingos” (a story about the “filthiest people alive”) to acclaimed hit Hairspray (turned Broadway musical, turned movie musical) include some level of nuanced raunch—from eating literal dog shit, to more subtle dialogue on interracial relationships or serial killer suburban moms—that have paved the way for future artists and freaks to relish in a carefree “fuck it all” freedom.
John Waters has always felt like a breath of fresh air in a world bogged down by a dense smog of “normalcy.” Amid the tedium of the everyday, Waters is able to successfully throw a wrench in everyone’s plans and make them laugh it off with a shrug. With his precocious wit and utter likability, even the most harrowing moments can feel lighthearted or so bizarre as to stir up an off kilter giggle. It was our pleasure at ELEVEN to have the chance to talk with the Pope of Trash himself as we roll into this holiday season:
Eleven: I’m a big fan of your work, but I have not yet seen your Christmas show! Can you just say a little bit about it, and how it got started?
John Waters: Well, it started probably from an original essay I did called “Why I Love Christmas”. And I change it every year, if you’d seen it last year it would be very, very different this year. But I’m always adding things, keeping it up to date. I mean I add things the day I get there because politics is changing so much, and the current events has always been part of my show. But it’s all tied to Chritsmas, which I believe everybody can survive even if you hate it. Even this year, when it’s going to be a tense Christmas at home, if you have family that doesn’t agree on politics. It’s like a Civil War Christmas really, it doesn’t matter where you live in the country.
11: This is not the first time that you’ve used Christmas in your work. Do any of the stories in your Christmas tales hold any biographical truth?
JW: Well, in “Female Trouble”, when the Chritsmas tree fell over—Divine knocks the Chritsmas tree over on her mother in “Female Trouble”—when I was young, the Christmas Tree did fall over on my grandmother but she wasn’t hurt that badly or anything. She thought it was funny later, that I put it in the movie and was so obsessed by it. I had heard, from doing this Christmas show for many years that Christmas trees do fall over on people a lot. People have told me their personal stories, often it is the dog or cat and also liquor is involved a lot. I also wrote a movie called “Fruit Cake” which was about meat thieves in Baltimore and how they come and knock on the door and say “meat man” and you go downstairs and say, “I want a turkey and two pounds of veal,” and they go shoplift it and bring it back and you pay half of the label. I guess that was a Chritsmas movie too.
I think those are the only Christmas themes I’ve actually done. I do know someone that was arrested on Christmas Eve at their parent’s house and he tried to run and the police tackled him and the tree got knocked over. We had pretty peaceful Christmases.
11: This is a one man show, correct?
JW: Completely it’s me, a 70 minute monologue and 20 mins of questions.
11: So what it that like, running a one man show? How is that different from directing a full movie with a cast?
JW: It’s completely different because I don’t use notes, it’s all memorized. It’s like working without a net because I don’t have any actors that [deliver a] que, like you do if you’re in a play. But it’s my alzheimer’s exercise! It’s hard for me. When I’m in other people’s movies and I have to remember dialogue, I’m not that good at it, but if you write it, it’s much easier to memorize it.
11: That makes sense. Has anything ever gone wrong?
JW: Oh sure! You go up and you just suddenly don’t remember where you are. And then I start up again and have to think, “Where do I cut back in?” That’s the hard part, you have it all visualized in your mind. I don’t even take my glasses onstage, I couldn’t read anything even if i had it with me! It seems to work, I’ve been doing it forever.
The first night is the scariest, because you don’t know if you’ll remember it all. And also, the length is important—it’s supposed to be 70 minutes, and generally I come in pretty close, but I do take a timer onstage which I look at in the last 10 minutes to see where I am.
11: What year did you start giving these performances?
JW: Well I have another show, “Filthy World”, I do all year, and I have one called “Make Trouble”. I do that all year—I’ve been doing this for 50 years really. It started when I used to go to the colleges with my movies really early in the ‘70s and I would bring Divine and we would introduce the movie and it sort of grew from that into what I do today. It’s a vaudeville act basically.
11: I assume you have been through Portland?
JW: Oh many times! I’ve done my Chrtismas show many times. I’ve done book signings there, with my movies—it’s always been a really welcoming town.
11: How do you like it here as compared to Baltimore?
JW: I like it! It reminds me of Baltimore. In some ways, it is like Baltimore. It’s gotten even hipper—it always was hip! And like everywhere else, it’s gotten a little more expensive. But there’s still, I think, room for Bohemia, as there is in Baltimore and there isn’t in many cities in America.
11: What is your ideal Chritsmas gift?
JW: I book that I’ve never heard of that I really like that I didn’t know existed.
11: How do you feel about gift giving around Christmas?
JW: Well, I have to buy about 100 presents or more. Sometimes it’s a burden, but it’s something I’ve always done—I can’t not do it. I get into it, I try giving presents that are personal, I don’t just give someone money or a gift card. That’s the biggest insult ever, if you give a gift card I mean, “Hi, stupid!”
11: I’m curious about the soundtrack alongside the show, is it part of this play as well?
JW: A John Waters Christmas is a CD compilation I put out, oh God, 10 or 15 years ago. They play it a lot when people are coming into my show, and when I have book signings they usually play it as a soundtrack, but I’m not going to come out and sing the songs on it. If I could sing, I would have exploited that a long time ago!
11: Did you write those songs?
JW: No, no, they’re songs I very much like and they’re pretty obscure Christmas songs I wanted to bring to people’s attention.
11: There’s something about Christmas that when it’s really extravagant, it already has the potential to enter this sort of campy, gaudy realm.
JW: My parents always told me that giving expensive Chrtismtas presents was in poor taste, even if you were rich. More so if you were rich! It was vulgar to give presents that would only cost money that were obvious—then it puts pressure on the other person.
11: As a status symbol?
11: You prefer things that are more personal.
JW: Yes, because even if I want somebody to spend a lot of money on me, I’d want them to buy me a rare book or something. I wouldn’t ask for a rolodex. Or a Rolex! Not a rolodex, maybe they’d be collectable though at this point.
11: What is the craziest Christmas toy that you’ve ever seen?
JW: Well, I got things that people made for me that are not exactly toys, but I have one where Divine is knocking over the Chrtismas tree, which was a scene in one of my movies, and it blinks—the Christmas lights blink on that and everything. So it’s not a toy, but it’s a Christmas decoration.
I do a thing every year in my show about the world’s most unsafe toys, this list is put out every year and I collect them. I eagerly look forward to that list every year, I’m waiting to put it in my show this year. I think that would be it.
Gobbles the Garbage Eating Goat, they said it was unsafe because children would eat the pretend garbage that you gave Gobbles to eat. I thought, “What parents would feed the pretend plastic garbage to their children?” I guess it meant that they would eat it themselves, I don’t know, I think there’s bigger problems in society that Gobbles the Garbage Eating Goat, so I embraced it!