John Waters Talks Christmas Traditions and Yuletide Manslaughter

Catching up with the Pope of Trash before A John Waters Christmas: Filthier and Merrier comes to the Aladdin on Friday, December 6

By Conner Reed December 2, 2019

Image: Greg Gorman

John Waters is 73 years old and he hasn't made a movie since 2004. The legendary filmmaker, whose deliriously offensive catalogue has earned him nicknames from the Prince of Puke to the Pope of Trash, has been in the game for more than 50 years, but for the last decade and a half, he's mostly existed as a figurehead—writer, stage act, deity. On a recent, humiliating visit to the Lloyd Center Barnes & Noble, I emptied my checking account for half-off Criterion Blu-Rays, and a copy of Waters' 1981 classic Polyester (packaged with a repulsive scratch-and-sniff card) quickly catapulted to the top of my most-prized-possessions list. Such is his power.

Waters is coming back for his annual Christmas show at the Aladdin on Friday, December 6 (this year’s iteration promises to be filthier and merrier), so naturally, I gave him a call. Below is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity, but not condensed, because who am I to condense John Waters?

How are you?

I’m well. I’m in New York and thinking of Christmas all day. Writing the show in the morning, doing press to promote it in the afternoon, so I feel like it’s December 22nd. 

You get to live in that space for a while, yeah?

Well, before the Christmas tour starts, I go to Greece and London and Birmingham, England to do my other show, so I have to keep so many shows in my mind.

What’s the other show?

The one I do all year is called Make Trouble. All the shows are constantly changing, but there’s the Christmas version, and then there’s the other show I do all year, and sometimes I have a horror version. I know it’s redundant, but I have a gay version.

Can you highlight, briefly, for my personal benefit, what the gay version looks like?

All the jokes have even more of a gay twist, and the horror ones have a horror twist, and then I just came back from Australia, I had Australian jokes in it, I’m gonna have Greek jokes in it. I always try to specialize—not only write new material, but also specialize it to the location.

When you come to Portland, will you specialize it for us?

On the Christmas show… yes, there’s one thing—no, two things I can think of in the show this year that I specialize, but I’m not gonna tell you because then it won’t be a surprise.

In general, can you give me an overview of what this Christmas show looks like?

The Christmas show is really to get people that either love or hate Christmas to see the extreme humor and how to get through what’s going to be a very angry Christmas because of the political situation. It’s a civil war, and no matter which side you’re on, you’re pissed off, and you’re gonna go home to your family and either dare not talk about it or knock over the Christmas tree and throw a turkey in someone’s face. So we have to find a way to make each other laugh at Christmas, and I think that’s what my show is about, even in this political nightmare.

Not to say that we haven’t always been living in some sort of political nightmare, but before this political nightmare, was that still the vision for the show?

Yes, it was. I do like Christmas for real, I had traditional happy Christmases when I was young, but I learned all the rules about what a Christmas was supposed to be, and that’s what I’ve always done: my parents drilled good taste into me, so I had to learn all those rules to bend them and have humor and imagine the worst case scenario or imagine purposely rebelling against those rules, and how you could do it and still be funny. 

Can you highlight some of those “good taste” rules? What did Christmas look like for you growing up?

Well, my mother always really hated colored lights, and one day she said people should have one single candle, and I said, ‘But mother, the house would burn down,’ and she said, ‘I don’t care, that’s good taste. Colored lights are so trashy.’

Me, I find people that over-decorate their house so much that it becomes an attraction with cars lined up outside their house, I feel really bad for the children. They can’t deal drugs anymore, they can’t sneak out the window. Now the police are around their house all the time. They hate their parents for doing that. ‘Thanks Dad, it’s so embarrassing that you have five thousand Santas on the roof, and you’re outside dressed as Santa Claus.’ And I’m also really suspicious of the people who work in the post office who have the ‘Dear Santa’ letters, where children write them their inner thoughts and leave their personal address? I’m telling you, that’s pedophile stuff. Don’t have your child put the address on the letter. Santa’s all-knowing, Jesus, he’ll know where your house is.

Something about that—we’re so fast and loose with our personal information, but it still feels like maybe addresses are something to keep close to the chest.

Are you kidding?! Your phone knows every single thing. If you say one thing on your phone, in two minutes I get an ad for it. Your phone is a spy is what it is. 

I guess we’re generally okay with living among the spies.

I think we don’t have a choice and we’re so addicted to them, and everything’s ‘faster, faster, faster,’ and it is kind of amazing, but yes, I think that’s the downside of it. It’s like the downside of free speech: you have to put up with Nazis and hideous pornography, but you do have to put up with it.

As an adult, what do your Christmas traditions look like?

The tradition I have is that I do the Christmas show every year so I can pay for my Christmas presents. I also have a Christmas party that I’ve had for 50 years. Everybody thinks it’s some movie star party, it’s not. I mean some celebrities come, but they’re not in Baltimore. It’s my old friends, it’s my next door neighbors, it’s my family, it’s people I’ve known that have worked behind the scenes on the movies for 50 years. That’s a tradition. I have two sisters—my brother died unfortunately, and my parents passed away, they were both 90 and had a good, happy life—so we have this family dinner, and every year it’s somebody’s turn, this year it’s not my turn. Christmas afternoon, after the family dinner, I’m going to Switzerland, as I’ve done many times. It’s beautiful. So yeah, I have lots of traditions. I decorate the house—well, I don’t do it, but people do do it, and it’s all the same Christmas decorations that I’ve collected over the years. Fans have made me many divine Christmas balls, like, crazy Christmas balls. People have made me really amazing Christmas decorations that look traditional until you get close up and look at them.

Give me an example.

It might be a Christmas card of the entire MOVE Organization or the Satanic Temple.

What do you like about Christmas?

I like the extreme capitalism of it. I have to buy 100 presents, which is insane. I like the idea that there’s pressure to be happy. It keeps a lot of psychiatrists in business. You have to see your family. And I also believe that it is an affront to many people that aren’t Christians, and I certainly understand that. The biggest tradition I have every year is that I do a big Christmas card that I make and hand-sign, I’ve signed about 500 out of 2,000 of them now, but every year it’s a kind of pressure, I have to think it up. One year I had a Christmas ball that was clear, but inside it had a fake cockroach, which people thought was real. One year I sent my card to Liza Minnelli and it came back signed “Moo,” left no address inside. I took a picture of that and that was my Christmas card last year. My card’s good this year, but I’m not tellin’. 

Is there anything you don’t like about Christmas?

Yes. What don’t I like? Gift cards, which I think are really rude to give anybody. A fruit basket, which I’m always appalled at. I can buy a pear for God’s sake, why would you send me six pears? There are presents that I don’t like. One year, we decided to purposely give someone a present that they would hate the most. That’s kind of a fun theme to do for Christmas.

What did you get?

It was irresponsible, what I did. I lived on the seventh floor of an apartment at that time, and someone gave me the soundtrack to Rocky, and I just opened the window and threw it out. I should’ve looked, it might’ve hit somebody. What a tragedy that would be. To be killed on Christmas Eve by a Rocky soundtrack. 

There are worse ways to go.

Maybe they wouldn’t think so, they weren’t in on it. I’d be in jail for Christmas murder by flying object.

If someone’s been to the Christmas show several times before, why should they come this year?

‘Cause it’s completely different!

Does it change pretty drastically every year?

I would say 90 percent or more. I’ve done it 15 years, how many Christmas jokes can I think of?! But I have, I have.

You come to Portland quite a lot. What do you like about it? 

It reminds me in some ways of Baltimore, the good stuff about it, where everybody there can make fun of themselves but they have to do it first. And they’re smart and have a good sense of humor, and they don’t want to live in—in Baltimore, I love it when I say to people, “I have an apartment in New York,” and they say, “Why?” I find it so hilarious, because in other places, people say, “Oh, you’re lucky!” There they say, “Why would you have that?” which I like. And I think Portland has a little of that. And for years, they kind of had to live in the shadow of Seattle you felt, a little bit, and now they don’t at all. It seems to me closer to a city where it would be more affordable to have a bohemia. I could be wrong, though. It seems like everybody feels good about Portland when I’m there.

In the subtitle of your new book, Mr. Know It All, you call yourself a “filth elder.” Do you have any filth apprentices running around?

Sure! I was a filth apprentice when I was young. I don’t know who they are, but I meet them at every one of my shows. They always give me videos or DVDs or books they’re working on or other projects. I think every person that comes to see my show is one.

Who were your filth elders?

Well, I wrote a book on that—that was Role Models. Tennessee Williams, Little Richard. I wrote a whole book about the people who did that for me when I was young, that’s why I kind of wanted to do Mr. Know It All and give that advice back from what I’ve learned in 50 years.

Is there usually a Q&A component at these shows?

Oh yeah, there always is. People ask so many things you wouldn’t believe.

Hit me with some highlights.

They’re never the same, but one was, “My father told me he almost went home with you at a bar one night.” I didn’t know quite what to say. “Tell him hi!” What do you mean “almost”?! Tell that fucker, “What’s the matter with you?” I have signed tongues, dicks, asses, lots of mastectomy scars from trans men, but I have never gotten to sign bottom surgery yet, and that’s my bucket list.

Always good to have goals.

Who knows? Maybe it’ll be in Portland.

Last question: obviously you’re on the road a lot, do you think that you’ll finish your life out in Baltimore?

Oh yeah, definitely. I mean I have an apartment in San Francisco and one in New York, but yes, Baltimore. I’m not moving now. I like it better than ever. We got edge. You want edge? Come on down.

What other places do you think have edge like Baltimore’s?

Lots of places, you can find edge wherever you live. The only city that almost doesn’t have it anymore is New York, because it’s so rich that there’s absolutely no air for radical ideas to catch fire.

What do you like about spending time in New York, then?

Oh, I like the art world here. Tonight I’m going to see David Byrne on Broadway, tomorrow night I’m going to my friend’s art opening. I like to shop here, there’s good bookshops, I have a lovely apartment, I have lots of old friends here. I love New York, but I don’t know of a hip, weird bar in Manhattan that I would go to now. I’m not saying there isn’t. They’re all in Brooklyn—no, they’re in Queens now, they’re not even in Brooklyn. And Queens looks like Baltimore, so I don’t wanna go to New York to go to Baltimore. 

A John Waters Christmas: Filthier and Merrier

8 p.m. Fri, Dec 6, Aladdin Theater, $37–115

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