For more than 40 years, filmmaker, author and wit John Waters has illuminated the stranger corners of American life. His movies, including Hairspray, Serial Mom and the notorious Pink Flamingos (still shocking after all these years), are parades of freaks and outsiders, who find themselves trapped in a surrealistic suburban existence.
In his nonfiction books — Crackpot, Shock Value and Carsick — Waters expresses wonderment at all the weirdness this country has to offer. His ongoing fascination with the more twisted aspects of our lives has earned him the titles “The Pope of Trash” and “Prince of Perversion.”
It was only a matter of time until Waters turned his spotlight on Christmas, a holiday that mixes sweaters, elves and the Son of God — all smothered in gobs of kitsch.
Waters is bringing his monologue, A John Waters Christmas, to the Barrymore Theatre for the second year running on Dec. 16. If you are worried that this is a hatchet job on Santa, then you don’t know John Waters; He adores the holiday.
Isthmus spoke to Waters about holiday movies, Christmas curses and old-school Madison radicalism.
John Waters: [Whenever I go to Madison], I always think of the Weathermen.
The Weathermen, as in the activists?
Yes. Didn’t you have a very radical campus in the ’60s?
Yes, we had one of the most radical campuses: “Berkeley East.”
That’s what I’m talking about. Today, people don’t even know what that means. I had a movie called Multiple Maniacs — it got re-released this year — and there’s a scene where this girl says “This is a Weatherman,” and people will say to me, “What do you mean? He was on the news?” It was like saying “the Sportscaster.” It really made me laugh, because kids don’t know what that means. And that’s too bad because all radical groups to me have been interesting.
Let’s talk about Christmas. Some people are surprised to learn that you’re doing a Christmas show. Why?
Because I’m never mean, and I celebrate a lot of things that people hate, and a lot of people hate Christmas or they fear it. Or they have to go home to dysfunctional families, and there are other people, like myself, who have great experiences at Christmas. You just can’t escape Christmas. It’s coming at you, and there’s nothing you can do to escape it, so you might as well seize it and decide how you’re going to handle it, and that’s kind of what my show is about.
What tips do you have for people like me, who might not enjoy decking the halls? I like Christmas, but I don’t like decorating the house.
Well, think of something you do like. Go through your old pictures and find the ugliest picture of each relative and put them on Christmas balls and hang them up. You’d be surprised what a peacemaker that is around the tree. Or if you have relatives you don’t like or are abusive in any way, when they are out of the room lick their furniture or the present you’re giving them and I promise you: It’s a curse. It works.
To tie this into movies, other than the traditional Christmas fare, A Christmas Story, It’s a Wonderful Life, Elf and such, what Christmas movie do you wish got constant rotation during the holidays?
Well, the one I’m in: Alvin & the Chipmunks: The Road Chip, their Christmas movie that came out last year. I have a whole scene with Alvin where he talks about Pink Flamingos, which is staggering when you think about it. It’s a G-rated movie. It’s shocking. It is shocking. I snuck in the theater proudly to see it. I said to the ticket woman, “I’m in this movie. Alvin is my friend.” She looked at me like I was insane and a child molester because what grown man goes to see the Alvin movie in the daytime on the day it opens? And children ran out and hugged me when they saw me, which is really odd.
And you’re an old fan of [Chipmunks creator] Dave Seville aren’t you?
Oh, yes, are you kidding me? I’m a huge fan of Alvin. I was sexually attracted to Alvin. That’s how I got the job. I used the casting couch.
Editor's note: John Waters' show has been postponed until Feb. 3, 2017.