Please, John, not on Christmas!
Groundbreaking, gay-canonized filmmaker John Waters knocks over the Christmas tree on Austin tour stop
Another year has gone by under the shrewd gaze of Gay Father Christmas Meltdown, legendary filmmaker John Waters. The iconoclastic, charismatic fast talker made a career out of celebrating extremes (in movies like the shocking Pink Flamingos, and the mostly mainstream Hairspray), ultimately developing the cinematic benchmarks of camp for many admirers, whether they realize it or not. Not for the first time by any stretch, Christmas is Waters’ muse in his annual standup performance, “A John Waters Christmas,” which he's bringing to Austin's Paramount Theatre on December 5.
In the same way straight viewers love claiming Die Hard as a Christmas movie, gay viewers have John Waters to thank for images of a Christmas tree toppling onto a shrieking mother in Female Trouble. They may be surprised to learn this episode sprung from Waters’ actual early Christmas memories, which include the year the tree fell on his grandmother. Since fame shifted the way the world interacts with the filmmaker, he has garnered plenty of festive new stories to tell, from nieces and nephews accidentally picking lewd shirts from his collection of uncensored press mailers to details on the blacklisted dangerous toys he buys himself.
Every year, Waters rewrites his standup Christmas show to make sure the content stays fresh, and while the holiday season is propped up against 70 minutes of rude jokes, the writer makes it clear it’s all out of love. CultureMap chatted with Waters ahead of his upcoming tour, discussing what’s too vulgar — even for him — on Thanksgiving; where to steal Christmas presents; and the genre-defining nerve of individuals with a vision. (Editor's note: This conversation contains sexual language, and has been edited for length and readability.)
CultureMap: Do you think it's important or just fun to have an alternative Christmas canon?
John Waters: Well, I think it's important to have a plan for Christmas, no matter what it is, because even if you hate it or love it or whatever, you can't avoid it — it's coming at you. This year nothing works anymore … and I think Christmas is the same. So rather than despair, I'm going to tell you how to fix it in a more ludicrous way … even though most people might not follow my advice.
CM: I think Austin will listen to you, because Austin loves being weird.
JW: Austin’s always been a great audience for me, so I’m happy to be coming there again. … I’ll always be the Chainsaw Massacre fan while I’m there. When I first was there, I met [Tobe Hooper], and he gave me a skull from the movie that I still have sitting right here on my desk.
CM: What’s one of the weirder holiday traditions you’ve seen that’s not yours?
JW: In Maryland, they always have sauerkraut for some reason. When I grew up and had Thanksgiving somewhere else, I was [wondering] where’s the sauerkraut? I don't know why, I guess maybe there's German people? I find it a little creepy to see mothers fist-f*cking turkeys with stuffing ... I always look away from that. It's too much for me.
CM: Do you remember a really wonderful gift, or a terrible gift — or both — that you've received?
JW: I can remember both, because Divine once gave me a beautiful cashmere throw blanket that he might have stolen, that I still have. And I used to say, ‘Are stolen presents better?’ But it depends where you stole it from. If you stole it from a large chain store that has [homophobic] politics, then yes; if you didn't, and stole it from a little shop, it's wrong. The worst present sometimes can be fun. We used to do a sort of thing where you drew a name and then … you pick the present they would hate the worst, and it's a really fun way to have a Christmas.
CM: Do you remember what that was, for you?
JW: Yes, I got two soundtracks to both Rocky movies. And I did throw them out the window, which was a mistake because I lived on the seventh floor of a high rise at the time. I don't think it hit anybody, but it wasn't very responsible. Suppose on Christmas Eve you had been murdered by a flying Rocky soundtrack.
CM: You said that the Christmas season doesn’t change, and you can’t change that it’s coming. How has the Christmas show changed over the years?
JW: I completely rewrite it. I just finished it yesterday. It always has to be up to date, because things change so much. The last show had COVID in it, but people are sick of talking about COVID. There can be a [current events] joke in there that happened that morning on the plane. I try to keep it very up to date, because a lot of people come every year. I want to give them a new show every year.
CM: How many newcomers do you think come each year?
JW: I think they get younger and younger. My audience gets younger and younger, which is the ultimate flattery.
CM: I heard that sometimes you said parents will bring their kids.
JW: Well, that's what’s really weird. When I was younger, parents called the police … and now they bring their children. My sisters used to say to me, ‘I’m not sitting next to Mom when you say that shit.’ I always warn people when they bring in their kids, you might not want to. Because, do you talk about rimming with your children? I work blue. That’s what they used to call it. People always say, "My parents gave me Pink Flamingos." I say, "They did?!" My parents never even saw Pink Flamingos, and they paid for it, and I paid them back.
CM: What do you do when you’re not in the mood to write? How do you get into the Christmas spirit?
JW: The Christmas spirit and writing are very different. I write Monday to Friday because that’s my job, and if I don’t, I’d have to go get a real job and work for somebody else. I’m like a drag queen on Halloween. I’m working if it’s Christmas. But then right when the tour is over I go with my family … so I do have a private-life Christmas that’s fairly functional. But it’s weird when I’m on the tour and I look out and see and think "God, it’s Christmas for real. It seems like this play I’m in, or something."
CM: Which part of it feels surreal to you?
JW: Well, that’s a word that’s so overused these days, and I know what you mean, but it’s just — I’ll be in an airport and I’ll see people rushing and I think, where would I go Christmas shopping. In an airport? … There is no time off. I don’t live in the real world. And people say, ‘How is it?” I don’t know what it’s like; I’m never in it.
CM: This is a one-man show, and you’re known for having a muse, but you’re writing about a huge tradition. What inspires you about individuals?
JW: Individuals: that they have the nerve to do something, that even though most everything that changes in the arts is originally hated, and got bad reviews, and it outrages the public. And I don’t mean we’re shock value, it’s just — I mean, minimalism, think about that, just really infuriated people when they first saw it. Andy Warhol with the soup cans. He put abstract expressionists out of business in one night! Just like the Beatles did to Motown. So I’m always amazed at people that have the nerve, like Cy Twombly, that just gave people those scribble drawings when he was young…. Little did they know they’d be worth millions of dollars, and be so beautiful later.
CM: Do you ever feel burdened by having to carry the weirdness for other people?
JW: No, because I don’t concentrate on that all the time. Ever since Pink Flamingos came out, I never tried to top that ending. I never did. That was it. Then, you’re trying too hard, and that’s the ultimate sin.
CM: I read that you have a lot of books in your house. Do you have any favorite Christmas books and movies?
JW: I have one called How to Eat Your Christmas Tree, and it’s for real. It’s brand new. But my all-time favorite book ever is called Extreme Ironing, and it’s pictures of people, like, ironing on speed boats or on mountain tops. I’m still completely perplexed by it. I have it down where my housekeeper is. She sees it and laughs. And every time I see her ironing I say, "Are you sure you don’t want to go out and do that on the top of the car while I’m driving?"
John Waters is visiting Austin for “A John Waters Christmas” on December 5 at 8 pm, at the Paramount Theater. Tickets (starting at $25) are available at austintheatre.org.