How to be a radical: A John Waters Christmas show

John Waters/Courtesy

John Waters. Both cult film director and would-be cult leader, this Baltimore-born artist has infiltrated mainstream cinema with his films such as “Pink Flamingos,” “Female Trouble,” “Mondo Trasho,” “Eat Your Makeup” and his more commercial movies such as “Hairspray” and “Cry-Baby.” As the self-styled “pope of trash,” Waters has corrupted our “filthy world” with his “trash” politics by heroizing what he might call the delinquents, street rats, sexual deviants and miscreant-rejects who frequent mainstream society’s slums and pits of depravity. This is all best summarized by the famous line from “Pink Flamingos” in which Divine screeches out, “Filth is my life; filth is my politics.”

For die-hard fans, these may be familiar terms. To unfamiliar audiences, it should be noted that these descriptors, as employed by Waters, are not meant to be derogatory or insulting; they are merely meant to paint a poetic impression of the filthy world that he has constructed in his lifelong work. He reclaims these rejected people and aspects of deviance that are diminished by mainstream society. To Waters, filth, trash and miscreancy are idyllic terms — they are not insulting, but rather utopic. The definitions of “filthy” and “trashy” are fluid; they attempt to uplift the outcasts of society and taint simple shock value with a finer social critique — one that demonstrates the faults of mainstream culture and conformity.

Even as he infuses films and media with these countercultural elements, he does so in a way that is both absurdist and witty. He does not merely use his films for showcasing trash, but instead seeks out the good taste in bad taste. Waters clarifies that there is a certain art in being selective in bad taste: “But you know, bad taste and good taste is tricky, and it comes in and out of fashion — especially at Christmas.” This, Waters demonstrates, can be found in your own backyard: “The worst are those inflatable Christmas decorations, and you know, I always thought that vandals had slashed them, but I didn’t realize that they just deflated them in the daytime to save on their electric bill. That’s even worse — it’s such a Diane Arbus photo.”

To Waters, filth, trash and miscreancy are idyllic terms — they are not insulting, but rather utopic.

Despite his aging career in trash cinema, the longevity of his repertoire’s imagined social world still extends to the media of modern youth. Waters’ career, although he believes he has never had a real one, has evolved from basing his work on his films to capitalizing on his personality. Stemming from his first backyard films of the ‘60s, Waters has since colored his public image through his nightmarishly obsessive literature, his summer camp, televised interviews, his stand-up routines, his college campus visits — all of these glorify the era of the ‘60s, Waters’ eccentricity and his caricatured personality. Now, as a 72-year-old “filth elder,” Waters still tours the country, sharing his personality with his fandom and reminiscing on his industry and art of yester-half-century.

All of these themes surface in his annual Christmas show tour.

The show, A John Waters Christmas, tours annually across the whole of the United States. Although Baltimore is Waters’ formative partner in his early directorial and authorial career, Waters now finds devoted audiences in cities from Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco to Providence, Rhode Island. On Nov. 29, the show visited San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall, drawing a crowd of grandpa punks, generational filth-disciples, and David Lochary and Mink Stole look-alikes at what was a sold-out venue.

Although it’s family-friendly, nothing ordinary and plain should be expected of this show. The premise is deceptively simple: “How to get through Christmas without going crazy or making crazy,” in Waters’ words. But like all of his work, it offers a particular brand and flavor of cultural degradation — “how to be radical, how to be a juvenile delinquent, how to be stylish.” Waters’ performance, melding these descriptors into one 70-minute monologue, provides audiences with a variety of solutions for how to deal with dysfunctional families around the holidays, original ways to give gifts, and whom to look to for political sovereignty and justice in a time of seemingly critical despair and cultural agony.

The answer, Waters says, is him. He imagines out loud all the ways he would change the United States if he were elected president. If there’s one thing a ravenous fan can do to display their worship and gratitude toward the detritus divinity of John Waters, it is to take up their civic duty and wield its power for corrupt good, not evil. 

Though Waters’ political poignancy may be diluted by his catalog of radical claims and hyperbolic jokes, his sense of urgency in this year’s edition of his Christmas show is tangible. Through the ocean of dirty Santa puns and Christmas kinks, the most lucid, off-script, and authentic moment of the show was when he started imagining President Donald Trump’s sex life onstage. Though Christmas may be a chaotic and politically stressful time for divided families, there is no greater source of strife and irritation than the current political climate.

The answer, Waters says, is him.

Waters reconciles these issues by mocking the objects of worship and reverence.

“My parents thought even colored lights were trashy and believed that you should have one single candle in every window,” Waters explained. “Of course the house might burn down, but at least it would be in good taste.” The irony drives the tone and impetus of his comedy.

For a cult-film director who specializes in juvenile delinquency and the exaltation of subcultures and the most dejected people of society, Christmas might seem like an unlikely muse. But to Waters, the gape of Christmas lunacy is undrainable. The genesis of this idea began in his novel “Crackpot,” in which he delineates his obsessions, including Christmas. Christmas is an overexhausted holiday — its incessant and omnipresent music paralyzes and drives shoppers everywhere into hysteria as their deflated snowmen sag on lawns like large pieces of litter and their Christmas trees are sprayed with a thick chemical cream to mimic natural snow. This is the lunacy that Waters points to in his show.

Imagining a Christmas in a Waters household might look something like the opening Christmas morning scene of “Female Trouble” in which Divine rejects her parent’s shallow, distasteful Christmas presents and knocks her mother unconscious by way of a falling Christmas tree. But this, Waters explained, was only lightly inspired by actual family gatherings.

He recounts one family Christmas gathering that inspired this scene from “Female Trouble”:

“It’s a very common thing for Christmas trees falling over; it usually involved pets or alcohol. … But it wasn’t that bad. (My grandmother) wasn’t pinned under it screaming, not on Christmas.” Despite the incident’s simplicity, the fact that it inspired such a spectacle in Waters’ artistry represents how he is able to twist an innocent Christmas gathering into a maniacal hysteria, finding comedic lunacy where others might see only the ordinary.

 But to Waters, the gape of Christmas lunacy is undrainable.

Today, Waters’ Christmas gatherings look much different, of course, in the face of his glamor and wealth as a film director. Although no longer accompanied by his friends and co-stars such as Edith Massey, Lochary and Divine, Waters still celebrates Christmas with the same vigor that Divine, who once chopped down the local sheriff’s front-yard spruce and shoplifted Christmas presents in a fit of holiday spirit, would have appreciated.

Attending this show might feel like you’ve entered a time-relapsed set of a Waters film as many of this fans resemble or dress as older versions of his leading characters or are the physical embodiments of stereotypes that Waters caricatures on film. Whatever your fanatic status or generation, Waters’ Christmas show welcomes all. As he said, “Picking a team is so 2017. … I’m not a separatist in any way.” He continues to teach us how to be radical, even in an era when radicalness is appropriated in workplace-appropriate tattoos and Rite Aid hair dye. For Waters, radicalness is both a fashion statement and also more than that. Taste must be just as selective as it is bad.

Contact Layla Chamberlin at [email protected].

A previous version of this article may have implied that John Waters owns homes in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Providence. In fact, these are places where Waters finds his most devoted audiences, but he owns physical homes in New York, San Francisco and Baltimore.