When teenage degenerate Dawn Davenport awakens on Christmas morning to discover her parents didn’t buy her the cha-cha heels she wanted, total anarchy ensues: She cusses them out, stomps on their presents, and knocks the Christmas tree onto her mother, who pleads, “Please, Dawn! Not on Christmas!”
That’s how John Waters’ 1974 cult classic Female Trouble begins. Despite the Davenport family’s miserable Christmas, it’s actually Waters’ favorite holiday. He loves it so much that every yuletide season, he tours the country with his hysterical one-man show, A John Waters Christmas.
Though beloved for writing and directing campy films like the trailblazing Pink Flamingos (1972) and the more commercially successful Hairspray (1988), Waters has also written six books, most recently Make Trouble, based on his 2015 commencement address at Rhode Island School of Design.
“Contemporary art’s job is to wreck what came before. Is there a better job description than that to aspire to?” he advised that year’s graduating class. “Go out in the world and fuck it up beautifully.”
John Waters’ work has fucked up our world beautifully, and now he’s coming to fuck up Christmas. I spoke to the pencil-mustachioed Pope of Trash earlier this month, as he was putting the finishing touches on A John Waters Christmas. Prepare for unfiltered musings on dangerous children’s toys, gay reindeer, and “political abuse” whistles.
PORTLAND MERCURY: Just a little over a month ’til Christmas, how are you faring?
JOHN WATERS: Oh my god. Well, I’ve already written all the upgrades for the show. I haven’t learned them yet, so I’m gonna start doing that Thursday. Of course, you need rewrites, because stuff happens every day now for months... but I’m prepared—I will be.
So you’re prepared for your show, but do you feel like you’re prepared for the holiday itself?
Well, I come home the day after my tour ends, which is 19 shows in 18 cities in 21 days, and then I have a party for 200 people, and then it’s Christmas Eve, so I go somewhere, then I go [on] Christmas to my family, and then it’s over! [On tour] I see real people that are having Christmas, where I’m having an imitation of Christmas. So it’s bizarre. That’s the only time it seems strange to me. But I still have to buy presents and [send] Christmas cards. I’m signing them now—I send out 2,000, and they’re all hand-signed.
Why do you love Christmas so much?
It’s extreme. You can be offended! I mean, if you say to some people, “Merry Christmas,” they might say, “Well excuse me, I don’t believe in the virgin birth,” which is a fair thing to answer. That’s why I like the Satanic Temple, you know... [They erect] satanic nativity scenes in state capitols [next to] Christian ones, which I think is hilarious—photographs of children looking confused at each one. I think that’s a healthy debate for a child. We had a John Waters camp this year, and in it they made satanic Christmas decorations and bracelets and stuff. All done with humor, you know. I saw the [Church of Satan] when they had the real one in San Francisco, with Anton LaVey, and it was so hokey that even Jayne Mansfield got tired of it. I thought it was funny, because people would be outraged by it, when it was so obviously a scam. But I have a doll, an Anton LaVey doll, that someone gave me recently. I think they found it at a thrift shop. It was a good find.
Do you ever experience post-Christmas letdown?
I’m exhausted from it. It’s like making a movie, the Christmas tour—there’s an end in sight. I couldn’t tour like that—I feel sorry for rock and roll bands that have to do that year-round. But I don’t do it in a van. I’m first class on airplanes and a car picks me up, and you know, as long as I can sleep in the hotel when I get there, I’m fine. Because I’m not used to night shifts, you know. I usually get up early and write in the morning every day.
Last year you told Stephen Colbert that all you wanted for Christmas was a club called Flip Flop where lesbians and gay men would have sex with each other, thereby inventing “a new strain of heterosexuality.”
Yeah. Hasn’t happened—not that I know of. If it does, it would probably happen in Provincetown. No, wait—San Francisco, maybe.
Do you want something different this year?
I want riots, really. No, but I would say to college kids, “Why are you studying? You should be in the streets!” I mean, with all that’s going on, I really want activism. I want the hippies again, the people who use humor as terrorism, to come back and mortify the enemy. And this enemy is easy, they rise to the bait. You could easily humiliate them. So I want to publish all the porn that they all download. Where are these hackers when we need ‘em?
You know, I’m not really for riots, but I had fun at riots when I was young... And the antifa, they’re so dull... And I bought [a book about the antifa] hoping for Revolution for the Hell of It, but it was really dull. You’ve got to use humor, that’s the thing they’re missing! Revolution for the Hell of It was a really funny book that at the same time did make people demonstrate in a way that worked. You know, the idea when Grace Slick and Abbie Hoffman were gonna sneak into Nixon’s tea party and put acid in the [tea]? Well, this year, this group was going to throw acid at the guests arriving at the Trump inauguration—even that’s a little extreme for me, I thought they meant LSD!
But then, god, you see Trump’s music [taste]. I read that Melania’s gonna be touring with Wayne Newton. I’m thinking you’re kidding, you’re really kidding. He should be impeached over musical taste alone.
Given America’s current social and political climate, have you significantly changed the material in this year’s show?
I talk about riots, I talk about Trump... well, you know, the sexual harassment thing is so new. I think it goes on in McDonald’s, that’s the problem. In show business, it’s getting noticed because everybody has the platform to do it. But suppose it happens to you when you’re working in McDonald’s? Suppose it happens in every single business, which I believe it does. How do they get justice?... I always wondered, how did anybody think [Anita Hill] was lying? I was on a plane once, in first class, next to this person, and I kept thinking, “Who is he? He looks so familiar.” And it was Clarence Thomas. But I didn’t realize it until we landed—he never spoke to me, he never was mean or anything, we just didn’t talk. And then the plane landed and all the people up front go, “I can’t believe you were sitting next to him.” And I thought, if I did know it was him, maybe I would have said, “Excuse me,” to the flight attendant, “there’s a pubic hair in my Coke.” I don’t know if I would have the nerve to say that. But that outraged me, because I did believe Anita Hill. How could she have made up the name “Long Dong Silver”?
Do you have any advice for those of us who have to deal with bigoted relatives at Christmastime?
You go. You should go, and pass out whistles, and explain, “Everybody, let’s get through this.” And [if] anyone talks about politics, you blow a loud whistle. And that is abuse, it’s political abuse. And that way, nobody talks about it and maybe you can get through it. Because otherwise people are gonna knock over the Christmas tree. Everywhere, there’s gonna be a lot of knocked-over Christmas trees this year. I think sometimes the only thing is to not talk about it with a family... you’re not gonna change, and they’re not gonna change. I believe that we should try to at least make the other side laugh, and maybe you could make them laugh at those whistles.