What you might not know is that he’s a huge fan of Christmas. (Counterintuitive, I know.) He’s been touring the world with a Christmas show for going on ten years. I saw it in 2005 at Dante’s and remember being shocked by the fact that the man talked rapid-fire for two hours straight without a breath or a sip of water, leaving us all to stitch up our own laughter-busted stomachs afterward. So I couldn’t turn down a chance to talk with him about it in advance of his return, even though his press handlers told me I had 15 minutes exact (I would receive a text message 90 seconds before I had to hang up) and that he’s a stickler for punctuality—if I were even two minutes late, he might not pick up.
How much ground can one cover in 15 minutes?
With John Waters, a lot: from the War on Christmas to Justin Bieber to cultural homogenization to Portlandia to sex while hitch hiking. Unsurprisingly, this conversation might not be appropriate for all readers.
On the Town: The director David Weissman (We Were Here, The Cockettes) here in Portland has a number of Christmas cards from you hanging on his fridge. If I remember correctly, there’s one of you with a creepy doll, both of you in Santa hats...
John Waters: That’s my fake son, Bill. Be careful. Don’t insult my fake son.
My apologies. David didn’t mention that. He did say you send them out to a massive list of people, basically everyone you’ve ever held a conversation with on a plane or at an event.
No, that’s not true. It’s not every person I meet, but it is every person I’ve liked and done business with. I’d say it’s 1800 people, but I’ve been in business for 50 years. I have a lot of friends.
So between the cards and the show, you obviously have a deep love of Christmas, which seems so counterintuitive when you terrorize all things wholesome in your movies? Why the love?
Because it’s such an extreme time. People either hate it or love it, or they’re offended politically by it, or they go broke by it, or they find happiness from it, or they cry about it, or terrible things happen and trees fall on people.
I always do a Christmas tour. I’m like Johnny Mathis. I’m a drag queen on Halloween. And I always have a huge party, and then I go to my parents.
In a weird way, I have a traditional Christmas, but I’ve always said you have to know the rules of good taste to celebrate bad taste.
Are your cards and your show a way of subverting this sweet, family-friendly event?
No, I think I'm having fun with it. Like anything I make fun of, I love it. That's why I don't think my movies or my books are ever mean. No matter what I say, I'm fascinated by the subject matters that I pick.
Nobody ever gets mad at me now, no matter what I say. Sometimes it's completely rude, but nobody gets mad; they just laugh. I’ve worked for a long time to make that possible.
So you’ve never been the target of Bill O'Reilly’s crusade against the “War on Christmas?”
No, I get along with those people. I do Bill Maher a lot. What's the one that died this year? Hold on, my assistant [phone beep]—hold on, I'm blank because I've been doing this all day. I remember: Andrew Breitbart. He was somebody that many people would think we’d be great enemies. But you know: we’re all in this together. We’re all entertainers. He does the same thing I do, only on the other side.
Do you give any credence to the idea that there’s a “War on Christmas?”
Oh no, I love Christmas. I spend money on it. I fully participate in Christmas. But I am on the War on Christmas politically speaking: to make it so the government doesn’t force it on people who don’t believe in it.
What about you. Did you ever believe in Santa Claus?
Yes, but I got confused. I was Catholic, and I thought maybe the holy Trinity was William Castle, the Easter Bunny, or my Guardian Angel and Santa Claus. And then we always went down in our neighborhood to the little family square where they would decorate the tree. Santa Claus came every year, but I could see that it was the next-door neighbor. It was blatantly him. That confused me even more: why are they lying?
That's why children take heroin today, because their parents lied to them about Santa Claus.
A John Waters Christmas
Aladdin Theater If he were real, would you want to meet him, and do you have any idea what shape your relationship would take?
Well, today I would think he's a bear, isn't he? He's a silver fox. It's a very gay kind of thing: Prancer the reindeer, come on.
I'm older than Santa now maybe. I’ve been doing Christmas interviews all day for the tour, and I thought: how old is Santa? He looks like a 50-year-old bear to me.
I'm with you: he doesn't look like an old man. He’s too round and jolly and his posture is too good.
Well, my posture is not bad, I'm not round and jolly, but I'm older. I'm an old otter.
If you're an old otter, you're going to have to work on the silver hair.
Well, I have gray hair now. I hope it's silver; I have to use the right shampoo.
Changing topic: Miley Cyrus recently called her twerking performance at the Video Music Awards “a strategic hot mess.”
It wasn’t that good.
But looking at her, Jackass, and Honey Boo Boo…
Wait, stop right there. Don't put Jackass in there. He's one of the best comedians in the world. I think it's the closest to Pink Flamingos anybody's ever come. I think Johnny Knoxville [who co-starred in Waters’ 2004 film Dirty Shame) and Jackass have absolutely nothing to do with those other two you mentioned.
Fair enough. I was just lumping them together to ask if you think the shock value and sleaze of your movies have gone mainstream now.
Well Honey Boo Boo, I have nothing against her, I just think that show invites you to look down on the family, which I'm against. I don't ask you to do that in my work. And Miley Cyrus—I don't have any opinion. It's hardly controversial to me.
She doesn't draw your desire to collaborate as much as Justin Bieber does.
Nothing against her, but I don't think about her at all. But Justin Bieber: he gets better and better everyday. If you believe it: that one magazine said that he [performed a sexual act on a female fan that some men claim not to savor] for an hour without taking his hat off. He's a feminist! He should be applauded for that. What woman would be mad about that?
I think it's tough being Justin Bieber. I met him, I did a TV show with him, and I love him. I'm still a big Justin Bieber fan. His oldest fan, maybe.
But what do you think of the state of trash and sleaze in art today?
I don't even say that anymore. Trash in art—I don't even know what that means anymore. I know what you're asking; I get the question. It seems like American comedy now is based on gross out. And to me, Hangover is really funny. But like anything, when something’s a hit, they make 30 versions of it, and you spend more and more money, and they get worse and worse and less and less funny. So I think that's happening in Hollywood, but it has absolutely nothing to do with me anymore.
What do you think is transgressive in film now?
The movies I like are all fine arts films. They're always French films. I like Bruno Dumont. I like all these directors that most people have never heard of, who are making depressing movies. I love the feel bad movie.
Although Spring Breakers was my favorite movie of the year. I thought it was hilarious. And I loved James Franco's Oscar campaign: “Consider This Shit.” It was so funny.
Did you see his remake of My Own Private Idaho?
No, it wasn't My Own Private Idaho. Oh, yes it was. I thought you were talking about Cruising. But I did see that at Gagosian Gallery. He and Gus Van Sant had a show together.
Yeah, Gus is a local here.
I love Gus. He's one of my favorite people in the world.
Let’s come back to Gus and Portland. You tour a lot, and you have a new book coming out, Carsick, about hitchhiking across America. Is there a publication date, by the way?
Yes, June 3.
I read somewhere that you said hitchhiking is a great way to meet people and have sex. Is that basically a plot summary?
The beginning of the book is fiction, where I think up the best 15 rides, and I do have sex, and I think up the worse 15 rides, and I won’t give it away, but there’s sexual stuff in it. But in the real version—let’s just say it’s a lot different hitchhiking at 66 than it was at 16.
[Laugh] So you've traveled across the country hitch hiking and performing. What are your thoughts on increasing cultural homogeneity?
I don't even know that word. Use it in a sentence.
Basically, the idea that the country is becoming a never-ending concrete strip mall of sameness.
Well, here's the thing: in some ways it's great. You never have to leave where you were born to be cool anymore. When I was young, you had to leave where you lived if you wanted to see movies. You had to go to New York or L.A. or San Francisco. So that isn’t true anymore; everywhere is cool now. Which is good.
Bad is: I travel the country constantly doing these shows, and the ride from the airport to the city is the same: I don’t know where I am. I just got back from Liverpool, and it’s the same stores. Japan—everywhere is the same. So it’s good and bad.
Everywhere is getting more the same, but also the kids are great. My audience at every show is cool. They look the same. I could be in Liverpool, where I was last night; I can be in the South—I’m going to Key West this week. And I promise you: the first five rows will look the same. The Internet has made the world closer together.
But your films are so particular to Baltimore, and Gus’s films are so particular to Portland. Do you feel like we’re losing that sense of regionalism and character?
I think that’s good. Portland is a character in his movies, and Baltimore is a character in my movie. The very first thing that I do when I’m writing a script is find the house that they live in, so you might see me standing out in front of your house. People think I’m an insurance salesman, but I’m just imagining something hideous happening in your life—and people smile at me.
But as things get more and more the same, and the kids everywhere are cool in the same way, will people be able to make movies in which the city still plays such a particular character, or will all cities be the same character?
Of course they could. People ask me if I could’ve made the movies if I didn’t grow up in Baltimore, and I say sure. Whatever city I grew up in, I would’ve made a movie that exaggerated and praised whatever that city was initially embarrassed about. And I think Gus did that, too.
Portland and Baltimore are very similar, though. It’s a city that’s been very good to me.
If you were to make a movie about Portland, do you know what it would be about? What do we lend ourselves to?
If Gus Van Sant and I could team up—God knows what trouble we could get into at our age.
Do you watch Portlandia?
Yes, I’ve seen it. He [Fred Armisen] was at my Christmas party last year; he was the big star guest. Even the governor and the mayor were impressed.
What do you think of the show?
I think it’s funny. To me it has a great sense of humor. Do they like it in Portland?
Yes and no.
Yes, I can imagine. I think it makes Portland look interesting and great. I said to the governor here, who hates The Wire, I said to him I was in Tokyo and saw a map of the US where the city of Baltimore—the only things it had on it were the corner where Divine ate shit and where people died on The Wire. There’s all different types of people who like cities for all different reasons.
I think we're running over for time, although your PR person hasn’t texted me to tell me to get off the phone.
You’re the last one of the day. I’ve been thinking about Christmas all day.
Christmas. Would you ever do a Valentine’s or Easter show?
I had a Valentine’s record that came out called A Date with John Waters. But yes, I want to do an Easter show, a Groundhog’s Day show, a Mother’s Day show, a Thanksgiving show. I’ve thought about it. I could work year round, but I would have to do so many rewrites and so many holiday jokes that it would be torture.
What do you like about being on the stage as opposed to behind the camera?
They’re the same to me. It’s just a different way to tell stories. That’s what my books are, that’s what my movies are, when I do photo shows, that’s what they are. The Christmas show has a million Christmas stories. I just like to tell stories.
Is there one story in the Christmas show that you most like to tell—something to give folks a taster of what to expect?
I guess the Christmas tree falling over on people is something that everyone can identify with. I’ve learned from touring the show that it’s a very, very common thing. Usually it’s the dog’s fault.
If your Christmas tree falls over this year, embrace it. Take a picture of it. And I’ve always said you should have a little wire, a little trigger, so you can pull over your own Christmas tree at the height of opening presents.