Out filmmaker, writer and all-around fashion and style icon John Waters is known for pushing boundaries.
He’s written and directed films like “Hairspray,” “Pink Flamingos,” “Cry-Baby” and “Serial Mom,” some of which have gone on to become pop-culture touchstones on screen, television and stage. Now the eccentric filmmaker with the wicked sense of humor is turning his penetrating glare to the holidays with his spoken-word show, “A John Waters Christmas,” Dec. 9 at Union Transfer.
Waters’ work might have reached full saturation in the mainstream consciousness with the crossover success of “Hairspray,” but he imagines there are still people out there who might be a bit frightened of the idea of a John Waters Christmas.
“I think that people that come aren’t frightened — except they hope to be a little frightened,” Waters joked. “They want me to take them to a world where they might squirm a little bit. I think they’re excited about it but I don’t think they expect to be shocked. I don’t think anybody comes to my show and expects me to do Johnny Mathis’ show — although I do think we should switch shows just to see people’s horror if I did his show and he did mine. I think people are scared of Christmas this year, period, because of everything that’s going on in the world. Or maybe they are looking forward to it as a break. I don’t know how politics are going to affect Christmas this year.”
Waters assured us that there are things warm and fuzzy among the filth and comedic fury of his Christmas stories.
“I talk about stuff with my parents,” he said. “I talk about Divine. I talk about memories. Basically it’s a comedy show and, hopefully, even when I bring up something serious, I always make fun of things that I really love. And that’s how I’ve gotten away with the things I’ve gotten away with my whole life. No matter what I say, I don’t think I’m mean-spirited.”
Some people revel in the pageantry of the holidays while others loathe the overblown merriment of the season.
Waters said he identifies with both, and each side usually comes together in the audience for his spoken-word shows.
“I address both,” he said. “I understand why people dread it. My God, when people say ‘Merry Christmas!’ to you, I don’t blame people for saying, ‘I don’t believe in the virgin birth.’ I don’t say to you ‘Happy … I don’t know … Muslim holiday.’ So I think it is a Christian holiday but only a certain amount of people in the world believe in it and they act like everybody in the whole world has to believe in it. So I support the Satanic Temple, not because I’m a Satanist but because they challenge church and state, and do it humorously, which I’m all for. I think the time has never been better to use humor as terrorism.”
If you would have asked anyone in the early 1970s if the guy who wrote and directed the cult-classic midnight film “Pink Flamingos” would someday be the toast of Broadway and a cultural icon, they probably would not have believed you.
And yet here we are. It’s just as much a surprise to Waters.
“An ‘icon’ means old,” he said. “You can’t be a 28-year-old icon. Even Justin Beiber, who I love, isn’t an icon yet. You have to have survived it. You have to have kept going. I always am nervous now when I step out on stage and get a standing ovation when I walk out. It’s like, wait a minute, that just means you’re old and you’ve made it. If at the end, they like the show, that’s a whole different story. Did I ever think it would happen? It was hard for me to imagine when I was younger being 71 years old. But I was ambitious. There have been many times in my life where I’ve realized this is all gravy and my dreams came true years ago, which makes people puke when they hear you say that. At the same time, I’m still amazed at how all this happened. I worked hard at it but still there is a certain hand that you are dealt and life isn’t fair. For me it’s been very fair, overly fair probably.”
One would think there’s a huge difference between writing and directing a film and performing live in front of an audience.
But Waters said, for him, they are almost one and the same.
“There isn’t that much a difference,” he said. “I started the spoken-word thing when I toured colleges. They would send me out and I would do a 15-minute introduction and then it would get a little longer. Then Divine would come out and we had an act. We didn’t need movies to do it. So in a way, I’m a writer. That’s what I did. I wrote my movies. I never made a movie I didn’t write. I’ve written books. I write my spoken-word shows. I write my art show. So to me, it’s all kind of the same career. I’m a storyteller. I’ve always gotten to know my audiences by touring with the movies. It’s not so different than that. The thing that’s different is that my audience is cool everywhere. When I started, they might send you to some small town in the Midwest and 10 people would show up. Now that same town would be filled with people just as cool as the one in Paris and New York. The great thing about the Internet is that you don’t have to leave where you were born anymore; you just stay and make that cool.”
Besides his Christmas tour, Waters recently released his album “Make Trouble,” an audio version of the 2015 commencement speech he gave at Rhode Island School of Design.
The speech quickly because an online sensation, later became available as a book and is now a recoding on Jack White’s label, Third Man Records.
“I realized as I gave it that it was going over really well,” Waters said of the speech. “Then I saw it online. It went viral. Nothing surprises me. This year ‘Serial Mom’ and ’Multiple Maniacs’ are being released again in Blu-ray versions and updated. My films keep coming up in different versions. I’m saying with ‘Make Trouble,’ what can I do next? Maybe an opera. I’m always trying to be optimistic and have a new product out. That’s why I write books, so I can keep telling stories and I don’t need anyone but me to write books. Still, writing a book is the longest job. I’ve got a book called ‘Mister Know-It-All’ that I’ve been working on for two years. But that’s how long it takes to write a book, especially when you have 500 other things that you are doing.”
John Waters will appear 8 p.m. Dec. 6 at Union Transfer, 1026 Spring Garden St. For more information or tickets, call 215-232-2100 or visit www.dreamlandnews.com.