John Waters is best known for the long list of cult films he's written and directed, including Pink Flamingos, Hairspray and Cry-Baby, but for the last 11 years he's been occupied with other creative projects outside of the movie business. Among these are his spoken word performances, which he's been giving since the '60s.
Waters started his Christmas show shortly after the release of his book Crackpot, which covered numerous subjects Waters is obsessed with, among them the holiday built around Jesus' birthday. That got its own chapter, "Why I Love Christmas."
The first "John Waters Christmas" show went up in San Francisco and has since grown into a holiday tradition for people all over the country. This year the show will make stops in 18 different cities, including one at Dallas' Kessler Theater on Dec. 14. "I've been on a lot of airplanes," Waters says. "I can afford my Christmas presents."
It's a big commitment for a man who takes his own Christmas celebrations very seriously. (For the last 30 or 40 years he's thrown a notorious party at his Baltimore home that is attended by everyone from the mayor to the actors in his films.)
Waters was gracious enough to take a few more minutes away from his preparations to tell us about his upcoming Dallas show, how to gift-give well and his theories on the JFK assassination.
When you began doing the Christmas show, did you anticipate that it would become such a huge endeavor?
It was crowded and as long as it's crowded they'll keep booking you. If I had one year when nobody came, I'd know it was time to hang it up but that hasn't happened at all, and weirdly enough my audience keeps getting younger and younger, which is really the ultimate compliment.
I used to say that many of the people who come see me weren't alive when I made my most popular movies, now I say many of them weren't even alive when I made my last movie. Or they weren't adult, cause I made my last movie 11 years ago. There are certainly people now who could be my fans but never saw one of the movies.
What was Christmas like for you growing up? Why did you develop such a love for this particular holiday, as opposed to other popular ones like Halloween?
I love Halloween, but Halloween was more vandalism. Kids don't do that anymore. This year I never saw one car that was soaped up. Did you? I never saw one car that had soap on the windows. We had a week of building up vandalism before Halloween. I miss that. I liked Halloween best because it was a time to be a juvenile delinquent.
At Christmas, I always wished I would get sticks and stones. And to this day I do not know any child, ever, who got sticks and stones. Nowadays they have cute ones. They have licorice ones or they have artist versions. So now it doesn't even have a threat. But I always used to wonder, "What do you have to do to get sticks and stones? What is the worst thing you could do?" So I try to imagine that — but you have to see the show to hear that.
You have spoken out many times against gift cards as gifts. Since you're a big believer in thoughtfulness being the most important quality in a gift, what's the most thoughtful gift you've been given?
For me, a book is the best gift. Because A) you think the person's smart who gave it to you. And B) there are so many choices. You can also find books that are not expensive, that are used books, but are funny or weird. I have a lot of books that are just for the cover, really. They're art pieces to me. But there are other funny gifts, too. Someone once gave me a crucifix doorknocker.
I have gotten great gifts. I'm hard to buy for, maybe. But I have a registry in my office. If you call here, my assistant will tell you the books I want for Christmas. But it's hard to buy me a book without checking because I have 8,500 books and they're all basically in the computer so I know what I have. But you can easily call here before you give it to me. I like music, I like books. It's definitely not about how much they cost. It's about how much time you spent looking for them. If it's a brand new book that you think I would have bought, I did.
Don't you think the one tricky thing about giving a book is that you don't want the receiver to feel like you're waiting for their book report?
I hate it when people give me a book and they say, 'Oh, what'd you think?' You can't ask them what they think 'cause then it's homework. Another thing I hate to do is ... it's not really good to give people your art unless you know they collect it. Cause then they come over to your house, and suppose you don't like it? And a lot of times you don't. Otherwise you would have bought it in the first place. And then they say, 'Well, did you hang it up?' That's a very major commitment. I think to hang any art up you really have to like it. You can't be polite and hang art. So to me, then, you just have to say, 'No. I didn't.' And then it's *scoffs*. So I don't think you should give art unless you know that person collects your art.
Christmas is getting to be a bigger retail industry every year, and people are increasingly sensitive to perceived threats against the holiday — by people who celebrate other holidays, for example. Has that made your show more or less fun?
To me it's always fun because my show makes fun of the whole thing. I like what I make fun of, so I think it's not mean spirited. But everybody knows Christmas is out of hand. That's the point of it. That's why it is fun. Without Christmas every retail outlet would go out of business.
But at the same time, I'm offended by nativity scenes in the state capitol. Not everyone believes in Christianity, so to me the fact that it takes over the world is a little offensive. So I can make fun of that, which I do, because I don't mind anybody's religion as long as they don't make me participate in it. And having a nativity scene in the state capitol building is forcing people to participate in it.
I very much love the Satanic temple, which is a group almost like the yippies that use humor as terrorism. They sue every state capitol that does that to put in their devil worship scene and they win. And they have to put this devil thing right next to the manger scene and they have pictures of children looking at it upset. It makes me laugh. And they won recently the right to put devil bible schools in public school.
I think it's hilarious even though I'm certainly not a Satanist. I think Satanism is as ridiculous as Christianity. But I don't mind if you believe in all that stuff. Just don't make me do it. But all religions can't just be satisfied with their own belief. They feel like they have to make you do it. They want to make unsuspecting people do it.
Aside from your extensive film career and these spoken word shows, you've also written books, and made art that's been displayed in major museums around the world. Is there anything you haven't done yet in your career that you're looking forward to trying?
I'm writing a novel. I signed a two-book deal with Farrar, Straus & Giroux, my last publisher. I'm writing another book first which is essays, but I did sign a contract to write a novel. And I've never written a novel which is scary. But I've written 17 movies, and that's fiction. It's just a different form.
In my last book, Carsick, two thirds of it were fiction. I imagined the best and worst things that could happen while hitchhiking. But I was in it, so that makes it a little easier. So that's coming up; that's something I've never done.
I wish I could sing. I would have explored that a long time ago. And I'm no good at sports, so I can't have a sports career. But everything else I think I've gotten to. And they're all important to me. They're all ways to tell stories and I think I've participated in all those worlds.
Can we expect a lot of new material in the Christmas show you'll be bringing to the Kessler in December?
Oh, yes. I always write it in July. There will be some things about politics, crime, fashion, everything that's happened. I do a big update on it every year. I've written it but I haven't memorized it yet. In about a week or two I'll start that.
So you're really starting to get into the Christmas spirit as early as July.
I don't know about the spirit, but I'm getting into the Christmas writing. I'm thinking about Christmas on July 4th when everyone is going to fireworks. But things remind me of Christmas all year, and I'm the cliche writer. I have notepads everywhere in my house and car. Whenever I get a new idea, I just put it in a different folder.
I'm always thinking of new material. For my books, my other spoken word show, 'This Filthy World'... I'm really relieved that by the time I do this Christmas show, the election will be over. But there will be new jokes, because one of them is going to win.
You're planning to cover the election in your show?
Well, once it's over, I think it will be impossible not to talk about, because something will happen.
Is there anything that you plan to do in Dallas while you're here? Or that you've enjoyed doing here in the past?
I usually never have time because my flight is at 6 a.m. I get there, I check into the hotel, I go to sleep, then I eat and then I do the show, and then I do the little signing, and it's midnight and I've gotta get up the next morning. So I almost never do.
But I did of course go to the JFK thing, that museum. They took me down that road, of course.
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And what do you think about the industry that's been built up around the assassination?
It's very personal to me because I made a movie called Eat Your Makeup in 1966, that was shot in 1966, where we did the entire Kennedy assassination with Divine as Jackie and people were really mad about it then cause it had just happened. And it looked very much like the Zapruder film. So it's hard for me not to think of Divine when I think of the Kennedy assassination.
And I do have hanging in my dining room a Warhol Jackie that was $100 in 1964 and it is her in the car — it's her from that day. It's hard not to make that personal.
I believe Oswald acted alone. I'm not a conspiracy buff. I think he completely acted alone. His mother was the most insane. His mother, I have her voice in Roman Candles, one of the first movies I ever made. She was the first insane mother in the news. She was in the news a lot then, Lee Harvey Oswald's mother. I wonder if anyone's visiting her grave this Christmas.
John Waters Christmas takes place at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 14, at The Kessler Theater, 1230 W. Davis St. Tickets are $40 at thekessler.org.