Nov. 27 2015 12:21 AM

The legendary director and provocateur talks to CityBeat about surviving Christmas, his humble beginnings and what books to give for the holidays

Photo by Greg Gorman

CityBeat: Can you tell us how you first started these shows and how you got the idea to do them?

John Waters: I do two shows: One I do all year round called This Filthy World: Filthier and Dirtier which is a very different version of the show that was released called This Filthy World on DVD and Netflix. I also have my Christmas show and I believe this is the tenth or eleventh year I've been doing that.

But I've always done this. From the very beginning of my career, with Mondo Trasho and Multiple Maniacs, we used to go around and I would get bookings for the films. We would go around the country and show up and I would come out in the beginning sort of dressed like a hippie pimp. I'd introduce Divine and I'd talk about nudist camp movies and mix all the stuff together. I got that idea from Kroger Babb who made movies like Mom and Dad where he would show the birth of a baby and go around and sell sex education literature with fake nurses in the library. I sort of took that showmanship and used it, because we didn't have any money for advertising. The only thing we could get was publicity from which was like free ads.

So, we did that early and it began with that and then with Multiple Maniacs and Pink Flamingos where we would go and I would come out and talk about movies and then introduce the most beautiful woman in the world. Divine would come out and rip a phone book in half and mess with the audience. And then we’d have a fake cop come out. We had a stolen police uniform and a shorthaired wig. We'd get some friend of ours to come out and pretend he was a cop to bust us. And Divine would strangle him and then the movie would start. And that's how it began.

CityBeat: Not exactly humble beginnings.

Waters: We were humble! I used to tour in the car with the movie prints in the trunk. I'd go into a town and talk whatever the weirdest little art theatre was into renting me the space for a midnight movie screening and if nobody came, I would owe money, but if people did come, I'd get the money… I'd stand on the corner and give out flyers. That's pretty humble!

CityBeat: Oh, I just meant the show itself being as grand as it was. I meant the show itself.

Waters: Well it was sort of grand. No other underground filmmakers had an act. Except today, I don't even play in comedy clubs. I'm more in big theatres now, but I’ve played in punk rock clubs, I played in prisons. I think Kevin Smith has a show that he does and I think… what was the guy's name who was in Back to the Future? The one that got in trouble on the Letterman show? He has a show where he tours around and shows his movies.

CityBeat: Crispin Glover?

Waters: Crispin Glover! Yeah, he has a show that he tours with. There are others that do it, but Kroger Babb was my real mentor on that.

CityBeat: As far as the shows you're doing now, is it hard to come up with new material from year to year?

Waters: No, I just wrote a lot and was rehearsing it this morning. I try to come up with new stuff. It’s certainly not hard to come up with new material, because current events will always keep any kind of stand-up comic in business.

CityBeat: What have been some of the more interesting audience interactions or reactions throughout the years, both good and bad?

Waters: Well, I wouldn't want to encourage the bad ones, but I've never had a bad audience. The only types of bad ones are when the fans in the first row are drunk and they're too much of a fan. They laugh loudly at everything you say when you didn't even say a joke yet. And then they pass out. Somebody bit me once. I've married people that were in line. Many people have been proposing marriage for some reason. That's a new one for me.

I'm most touched when mothers and fathers bring their angry, fucked-up teenage kids with them in a last ditch effort to bond by coming to see me. I never know if it works but I’m always touched by that. It's a very, very different from when I was young. When I was young, parents would call the police when they caught their kids with my movies.

So many people have tattoos… My fans dress up for me. They look good! And I have signings at a lot of the shows, book signings, so I get to meet my fans all over the world. And they get younger every year and I get older which really makes me happy.

CityBeat: I sense some sarcasm, but that's ok.

Waters: No, I don't say that with any sarcasm. An audience getting younger as you get older is the one thing nobody can buy.

CityBeat: What about the etiquette for the shows? I read a thing about you where you were talking about Christmas party etiquette. Does the etiquette for Christmas parties apply to your shows as well?

Waters: Well, when you come to one of my shows, the etiquette is basically to laugh and ask good questions. You can always tell how intelligent the audience is during the question and answer period. I like when I get questions that I've never heard before. Good ones. The least imaginative questions are when somebody stands up and talks about themselves the whole time. They’re usually promoting their own movie or something like that. If they have a hidden agenda, you can tell right away by their questions. That’s kind of bad manners, but it’s not like I’m going to throw them out and give their money back.

CityBeat: The shock value of some of your shows is one thing but there’s also a sense of nostalgia with going to see someone talk about Christmas. Was there a sense for you for these shows to bring people back to a better place of when they would go, like you said with the mother and the son, where they'd go to see a show together and bond in the spirit of the season?

Waters: Well, people either hate Christmas or love Christmas. Even if they hate it, they’ll still feel good at my show because I understand why some people hate it. I understand why people who aren't Christian hate it even though a Christmas tree is sort of a pagan symbol. The only time you have a terrible time at Christmas is if you pretend to ignore it. It's impossible. So you've got to have a defensive plan. I think that's what my show is: A hopefully happy, defensive and practical plan on how to get through this holiday. If you're rich or poor, if you're crazy or schizophrenic, no matter what you are, I think I can help you get through it.

CityBeat: So it's like a go-to guide?

Waters: Yes it's a self-help Christmas special.

CityBeat: I we heard that you love giving books for Christmas and I couldn't help but think of that internet meme of you that gets around. The one you’ll see from time to time on social media. It's a quote from you about not fucking people who don't have books in their house. And I heard that…

Waters: I'm lying. If they're cute enough, who's looking at the book shelves.

[mutual laughter]

CityBeat: Fair enough, but you do like to give books as gifts for Christmas, yes?

Waters: Well, I like to get them too.

CityBeat: Any books that you'd recommend for the holiday gift giving season?

Waters: Sure! If you really want to give a controversial present you'd give Michel Houellebecq’s book, Submission. I'm a huge fan of this book. It caused lots of trouble and got in a lot of trouble before the recent disaster in France. I would recommend that book to someone who is really politically sophisticated and daring. I loved Purity by [Jonathan] Franzen. For a truly intelligent person, I would give David Plant's The World Apart, which is a very personal diary of his life. I also have read Bruce Wagner's new book that's coming out, I Met Someone, but it was in galley form. That's a better present: if somebody gives you a galley of a book that hasn't even come out yet. That's the most glamorous present.

CityBeat: Getting back to the show, you know you said that there's always plenty of material and plenty to grasp onto for new material. Has there ever been a time that you felt like you did have to sort of scale it back, because something might have crossed a line?

Waters: Hmmm, you mean, do I have any ISIS jokes?

CityBeat: For example.

Waters: You got to come see it.

CityBeat: Fair enough.

Waters: I think there is new stuff certainly and this year it's called A John Water's Christmas: Holier and Filthier, which is itself a kind of double bill so I guess I have to go more deeply into religion.

CityBeat: Seems only fair.

Waters: Well, I do! I know the material so let's just say... nobody ever gets mad at what I say anymore. Nobody. But even with the religious stuff, I am not that mean-spirited. I just like to challenge every voice, because I don't care about people's religion as long as they don't make me do it. When they try to make me do it, it rubs me the wrong way.

John Waters performs at The Observatory (2891 University Ave.) in North Park on Monday, Nov. 30 at 9 p.m. Tickets start at $45. observatorysd.com

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