John Waters:
The TVD Interview

“A John Waters Christmas” just might be the most genuine event of the holiday season. Coming up on its tenth year, John Waters’ one-man stage show has become a twisted annual holiday tradition. Inspired both by his avowed love of the holiday and his legendary drive to push the boundaries of good taste through humor, “A John Waters Christmas” is—like its eponymous star—warped, provocative, and deeply funny. (If you don’t have tickets already, don’t hesitate for long; many East Coast dates are already sold out.)

For those not in the know, John Waters made a name for making transgressive films before anyone coined the term, and is happily dubbed the “Pope of Trash” to this day. Not surprisingly, then, “A John Waters Christmas” is a showcase of the legendary (perhaps more accurately, infamous) filmmaker/artist/provocateur’s sardonic commentary on Christmas detritus, from hokey TV specials to holiday kitsch. But “A John Waters Christmas” also doubles as a method of catharsis for his audience—to those in the path of “the steamroller known as Christmas” which is, let’s face it, all of us.

John was happy to share his thoughts with us on the ironic and un-ironic joys of the holiday, his fascination with vinyl, and what it takes to get on his Christmas card list. We’ve also included his oddball holiday playlist to make your days merry and bright, if not a little bit tawdry. 

As I was preparing for this interview, I recalled that my aunt let me watch Hairspray when I was probably about eight years old…

There’s nothing the matter with Hairspray. That’s okay to watch.

My parents were a little perplexed by that decision, but I think it started me on my appreciation for the bizarre and trashy. So, would you recommend that film to other kids?

Sure! I do! I get people now, all the time—and it’s really amazing on these tours—who’ll say to me, “God, my parents showed me Pink Flamingos!” When I was young, your parents had you arrested if you had Pink Flamingos. So, it has radically changed; it was probably their grandparents who saw [Pink Flamingos] the first time.

So, that’s changed and parents come now to my shows with their incorrigible children in a last-ditch effort to try to bond with them. [Laughs] I really respect that, but I always don’t know if it works or not because I never see them again! But I’m sort of touched by that they think, somehow, I might bring them together. It’s me or Columbine.

You’re one of those people whose desire to make fun of something is directly proportional to how much you love that thing—

But I’m never mean! I think that’s why I’ve lasted this long because I love everything I make fun of! I make fun of myself first! I mean, I started my career by calling my films “trash”—the local critics used to complain that I beat the critic to the typewriter.

Do you feel that you tease Christmas so much because you love it so much?

Well, it’s funny; it’s really kind of un-ironic because I do like Christmas. I do understand that there are people who hate it, and there are other religions that resent it. So, I speak to everybody—I try to speak to every kind of minority and majority that cannot escape the steamroller known as Christmas.

I think is the tenth anniversary of your show—or, at least, the tenth anniversary of your Christmas compilation album. Are you doing anything to celebrate?

Well I have my annual party that I have every year; it’s sort of at the end of the tour—I think I perform the night before in Baltimore. I’ve had it for forty-five years; it’s everybody from my family to the guy who played the singing asshole in Pink Flamingos to people I helped get out of prison to the judges that put them there to the governor. A fleet of lunatics, so it’s quite the mix!

Are you a stickler for absolutely no Christmas stuff before Thanksgiving?

Yes, but now it’s Halloween! In the stores they start putting it up by Halloween. Actually, Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday because I don’t have to do anything except bring wine and go to my sister’s all day and go to the movies with the family. So, actually, Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, but there’s not much comedy material on Thanksgiving. Melatonin really isn’t that funny.

Do you like big lights, small lights, or bubble lights?

Well, I find the real bad taste—the most hideous decorations—have to be the inflatable kinds. Vandals always pop them and they sort of like dissolve into this hideous slush. I actually think what used to be thought of as really bad taste were all blue balls on Christmas trees, but now I think that’s changed and that’s seen as kind of cool. But my mother always told me that the classiest was one single, real candle in every window, but you’ll burn your house down with that.

All white lights—my mother always told me that I have to have them, but I don’t really have them. I have colored lights, but I do decorate, yes.

I don’t even know what bubble lights are. What are they?

I can’t believe you haven’t heard of bubble lights! They probably came out in the ‘50s and they’re filled with some kind of fluid and when you turn them on, they sort of bubble as they heat up.

So, they’re like a lava lamp?

Basically, but they never quite work as well as advertised.

Yeah. I have all different kinds because people give them to me and I’ve saved them over the years. My mother’s given me needlepoints, and I have insane Christmas decorations that fans have sent me; the best one is a statue of Divine knocking the Christmas tree over on her mother with all the blinking lights on it. Fans have sent me really great Christmas decorations!

Given that you’ve done your Christmas show for many years, do you have any preference for being on stage as opposed to behind—or in front of—the camera?

It doesn’t matter because I just need a way to tell stories. My book [Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America, chronicling a hitchhiking trip from Baltimore to San Francisco] was out this year and it was a best seller… as long as I have a way to tell stories, I’m happy. The spoken word show is a way that I keep very close in touch with the fans—to see what they like. I’m very in touch with my audience; I get older and they get younger, which I think is the ultimate compliment. I think hitchhiking brought a few of them out! [Laughs] Even though all young people have never hitchhiked, all people my age did at one point in their life, they just don’t do it now.

They scared the shit out of my generation when it came to hitchhiking.

Yeah! I still think you should do it. Hitchhike to your mom’s house for Christmas! [Laughs]

Well, I’m definitely doing the road trip for Christmas, but I love that you did this hitchhiking thing to get those stories. Hitting the road, especially in America, is such an authentic way to inspire storytelling.

It is! It’s really the only way I get to see local color anymore because you go to each city, if you fly there, it’s the same stores; everywhere’s the same. I must admit, even my fans everywhere I go in the world—just this week I was in London and Glasgow and the week before I was in Des Moines—my fans all look the same in all those cities—they look great!

What was it like to have the Film Society of Lincoln Center showcase a fifty-year retrospective of your work—especially your early films?

Yeah, they asked me to do it and I was very flattered! It was like being at your own funeral and getting to hear the eulogies. It was great—are you kidding? All the people who came… it really was like a high school reunion for lunatics.

Did you surprise yourself at all by what you came up with for the exhibit?

Well, I was moved by it. They showed every one of my movies including my very first one, Hag in a Black Leather Jacket that only played once at a beatnik coffee-house to no acclaim in 1964 and the second time it was shown was at Lincoln Center! [Laughs] If you stick around long enough, they can’t get rid of you!

Given that I write for The Vinyl District, I have to imagine that as a lover of all things kitschy, you must have some great record store finds.

I do! I’m an old person because I still buy DVDs. I have every one of my albums and 45s—I even have a couple of 33s and I do have a turntable. But I must admit, I don’t listen to vinyl today. But I listen to all types of music, and I have a new obsession—and you should Google this—Ian Whitcomb. He did two songs that make me crazy, and if you look at them on YouTube… one’s called “You Turn Me On” and the other’s called “Nervous.” Look him up and you will see my new obsession.

Yeah, he’s kind of like a cross between Tiny Tim and Frank Zappa or something.

No, to me he’s like Tony Perkins. I thought he was cute! He reminds me of Tony Perkins with Tourette’s syndrome. He’s really great. [Sings] “You really turn me on-aha-aha-aha-aha!” I told everyone in London about him, but nobody seemed to know who I was talking about. [Laughs]

I have a compilation album of his I haven’t listened to in years.

Do you? I’ll have to get that!

I know you don’t listen to vinyl anymore, but is there anything that you miss about that era?

Oh, the albums themselves! That’s why I still buy CDs. Even downloads, there’s no packaging—I love packaging! That’s why albums are collectables. Some albums you’d never play, but the cover’s so great that you can’t live without it. People still give me albums all the time for Christmas and stuff—really amazing ones.

Now, you probably get this one all the time, but if someone had never been to one of your Christmas shows, what might you entice them with to go?

Well, if you’re a parent, I tell you how to get through Christmas. I think that if you’ve ever had a bad feeling about Christmas coming, I’ll tell you how to deal with it. So, I think in a way it’s like going to a sane psychiatrist that actually gives you some good advice, I hope!

It sounds like you’re doing a public service with this show. Christmas is a rough time of year for many people.

I hope so! But it’s not rough for everybody. Well, I’m working all the time; I’m like Johnny Mathis at Christmas now. I’m like a drag queen on Halloween—I’ve got a job. [Laughs]

What does one have to do to get one of your handmade Christmas cards?

You have to know me, and even you—I’m not going to send you one because I know you as a business thing. You have to either have hired me or, if we went out to dinner, it wouldn’t be tax deductible.

I understand!

[Laughs] Meaning, I have a personal life! And it’s really good this year. We’re just putting them in the mail next week. You’ll be able to see it because somebody, against my wishes, will put it online. And then I will track them down and burn down their house on Christmas Eve. [Laughs]

12/8 – Portland at the Aladdin Theater
12/9 – Seattle at The Neptune
12/11 – Boston at the Royale
12/12 – Northampton, MA at the Calvin Theatre
12/13 – Long Island at The Space at Westbury
12/14 – New York City at City Winery
12/16 – Red Bank, NJ at the Count Basie Theatre
12/17 – Philadelphia at Union Transfer
12/19 – Baltimore at Baltimore Soundstage
12/22 – Alexandria, VA at the Birchmere

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