John Waters is a world-class talker who needs nothing more than a topic and a nudge to set him off on a verbal voyage, destination unknown. With encyclopedic knowledge of the most profane edges of popular culture, he is a high-art savant—a connoisseur of the lurid, the lowbrow, and the louche. Best known for his film work, Waters has also published multiple books, and in recent years he's been working his brand of linguistic magic onstage in This Filthy World, his one-man show/lecture series/borscht belt vaudeville stand-up routine.
Before he brings a "dirtier and filthier" update of the show to the Carolina Theatre, we reached "the Pope of Trash" via a landline—a landline!—in his New York City apartment. He lived up to his legend, providing a barrage of banter on subjects ranging from tour riders to the writing process. And he had a few choice words about the chief executive and his supporters, too.
INDY: I've always been fascinated by the way you came to Hollywood, the way you created your own career.
JOHN WATERS: Well, I didn't get to Hollywood until the end of it. I started with underground movies, then I went to midnight movies, then independent, then Hollywood, then back to independent. I think I've made every kind of movie. I think the world of independent film that I do is no longer there, so I'm glad I've made sixteen movies or something, if you count all of them. It's not like I haven't spoken, and I'm still in the film business. I've had three development deals that never happened for different projects in the last ten years, so Hollywood has treated me very fairly.
Was Hollywood your goal or was it "I want to make films," and whoever supports that, you were willing to work with them?
When I started out I was so young, in high school—did I think I would go to Hollywood? I didn't not think I was going to. I got Variety when I was a teenager so I knew about the film business. I was interested in it, but when I started I just wanted to make underground movies because that was the only thing I thought was possible at the time and I always learned from just doing it.
I started out the same way kids do when they make the films with cell phones with their friends. I did the same thing. My friends were a little more extreme, but they were playing a part. They really weren't the characters that we portrayed, in real life, and I had to use a big heavy camera that was made for the news before video came out. That's the difference—my camera equipment was a lot heavier, but it was the same.
I've always viewed your films, and your subsequent books and speaking tours, as the work of an innate storyteller.
That's all I need to do, and really, I'm a writer. I wrote all my movies. I wrote my books, I wrote my show, I write my journalism, I write my art projects. Everything I do is about making it up. I could never make a movie I didn't write. I wouldn't know how to do it. I'd be bored. I've always needed a way to tell stories. The last film I made, A Dirty Shame, was not a success at the box office. My last two books were a success in the publishing business. I guess you always just stay where they like you the most. Common sense.
You've always been up-front about wanting to do the work regardless of how your audience views you working in a particular medium.
I always had an audience, even in the very beginning, and I understand it's called show business, it's not called show art, so basically they have to make money or you won't be allowed to make the next one. So I understand that real world. It's not like in Europe, where all these great art movies that I put on my top ten list for Artforum every year—the government helps to pay for those movies. That would never happen in America. Could you imagine the government paying for Todd Solondz's last movie? It's not gonna happen. In Europe, it would happen.
In publishing a book, you collaborate to get the book published.
When I write a book it's just my assistants—they are good researchers and copy editors, and I have a great editor, Jonathan Galassi, but it's not like making a movie where you need to credit rolls of people who do all the technical stuff.
Now you have this speaking tour and it's just you, a microphone, and an audience.
Yes, but I've been doing this for fifty years, and I do have agents that set it up and people that make sure every detail is taken care of. But you are right, I have a very short rider: Evian water, some food in the dressing room, and me. But I constantly upgrade and rewrite this stuff, and I'm always writing new material. You still need the people to book you, the promoter, etcetera, and it is still writing something. You just need to memorize it, and that's the difference because you have to be an actor at the same time. I'm playing myself when I do my spoken-word show.
For your spoken-word show and your writing, what is the compelling thing that moves you to tell the story?
First of all I want to make myself laugh, make others chuckle, and at the same time change how people think by taking them into a world they may be nervous to enter. I think I am politically correct, even though people would definitely question that. My whole life has been a trigger warning. At the same time, I am asking to change your opinion by making you laugh, by making you think—to not judge other people and consider that you really don't know the whole story about everybody's behavior, to be a little more open-minded.
In relation to that, I was wondering if you would talk about the current political climate.
It is very much part of my show. That's one of the main subjects I talk about. The scariest thing was Trump last night when he acted like a president. That's scarier. That was Pence you saw speaking last night. He's scarier. And I saw him nodding in the background, like some sort of schizophrenic other person. The three personalities of Eve, that's what it was like. Him speaking with the other two behind him nodding and applauding and smiling devilishly. And unfortunately, he did it well, so that's what was frightening, when he was praying and people were looking to the heavens. It makes me very nervous.
You speak all over the country, and there has been a lot of talk about the division in the country. Have you noticed a difference in your audiences regionally?
First of all, my audience is smart, multi-aged. They dress up for me. I think they are smart, so I don't explain every joke. I have yet to see a cute Trump supporter, even in a rough-trade kind of way. I guess there might be some Trump supporters there, but it doesn't feel like it. I would say that ninety-eight percent of my audience didn't vote for him, but you never know; liberals can be big fascists, too. I've seen that. I try, when I speak, to recognize that you might not agree with me. But that doesn't mean I don't find hope for a new kind of political rebellion which is happening and I hope continues to happen.
How do you think we keep people engaged?
By constantly using humor to humiliate our enemy. Use humor to make the opposition look ridiculous. I have always been for that, and that's the only movement I can really join.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Certain Waters."