Life as a Happy Neurotic: The John Waters Interview

Illustration: Sean Hennefer

On October 13, in celebration of the Utah Film Center’s 10th anniversary, the legendary Pope of Filth, John Waters, will entertain audiences at Salt Lake City’s Rose Wagner Theater. No stranger to Utah—traveling to the state for Sundance Film Festival, special screenings of his films at Tower Theater and once to record the soundtrack for his film Serial Mom—this time Waters will present his one-man show, This Filthy World. The vaudeville style show contains a myriad of topics—everything from his films, to crime, religion, Christmas and how to have a good sex life—but ultimately, Waters says that he hopes the show can advise his fans on how to live life as a happy neurotic. 
SLUG: A chunk of my family actually lives in Baltimore and because all of your films are based there, they are very reminiscent of visiting the city and my family. You are originally from there as well. What is it about Baltimore that you find so charming?
Waters: They’re Baltimorons, as they call them! I make documentaries—they’re not an exaggeration. People say when they come to Baltimore, “I realize now these are real!” In the very beginning, I made movies that showed what the city used to try to hide, but now they don’t have an inferiority complex. They joke about it and realize that the eccentricity of Baltimore is one of the strongest points. God knows we have edge here. The weirdest thing the first thing people ask is, “Where do you live?” Because neighborhoods define where you live and some people never leave their neighborhood. It’s also the only city where when someone asks, “Where did you go to school?” they mean high school, they don’t mean what college did you go to. You can ask anyone over 50 if you were a drape or a square—like in the film Cry-Baby—and they won’t say, “What do you mean?” They won’t blank. They will give you the answer. Everybody was one of the two, and neither were uncool. If you said neither, you were a nerd.

: Were you a drape or a square when you were in school?
Waters: I was a closet drape. I was too young to be one. I was eight years old, I couldn’t be Elvis Presley or rockabilly, but I was a drape sympathizer—a square who dressed preppy because I was forced to. I was a drape trapped in a square’s outfit.

SLUG: In your memoir Role Models, which was released in 2010, you talk about how you enjoy doing things like going to thrift stores and going out to bars—what are some of your favorite spots in Baltimore?
Waters: For thrift stores, I don’t go to them anymore. I just pay too much for clothes that look like they came from thrift shops, but are actually designed by designers, which is what I have to do at my age. When I was young, I went to thrift shops constantly. I think anybody under 30 that pays a lot for clothes has no taste at all because they should be the ones that are inspiring the designers, not the other way around, but as you get older, you need a little help.  Bars that I go to ... I wrote about some of them in the book—the ones that are still open. I go to Club Charles, The Otto Bar, which is the punk rock bar, The Bloody Bucket, which is a good redneck bar. I go to the neighborhood blue-collar bars. There are always new ones, I went to a new one that was in some woman’s house and it was a hardware store, too. You could see her bed behind the bar and you could order a drink and a hammer and some #2 nails—which I liked, actually. There was a sign out front that said Budweiser or something. I don’t know the name of the place or if there is one.

SLUG: On Oct. 13 you will be in Salt Lake City performing your one-man show, This Filthy World—will this material be similar to what is found in your book Role Models?
Waters: It will be new material, there may be a little of that in there, but it’s also very, very different than This Filthy World that came out on DVD. I’ve rewritten a lot of it because I want to give you new material! There might be a few things that I punch up a little bit, but no, it is not Role Models. I might try to sell you Role Models at the end …

SLUG: Do the stories change depending on the city you visit or the crowd that evening?
Waters: It’s always written before I get there, but I do upgrade it. I change it more when I have a convention, or when someone like the Library Association hires me, I’ll do more book jokes. I prepare every one of them. I don’t ever do a stump speech, I’m constantly upgrading it and working on it—otherwise you get lazy. And the audience wants some new material, so you give them that.

SLUG: You’ve stated before that your career is similar to a campaign for popularity or like a carnival—after all these years, what makes it exciting to take the show on the road?
Waters: It’s exciting to do because I go all over the world. I was just in Spain. I’m doing it in Australia, New Zealand. It’s how I make my living and it’s part of what I do. I live in four places and I’ve got a lot of bills. I’m always working. I have a fear of not flying. I’m on airplanes sometimes three times a week, but it’s fine. I get to see the world and I get to meet the people that are my customers, really. Politicians do the same thing. I hold babies, just like politicians, for pictures. It’s not that different. Only I don’t have to be crooked like politicians. And I’m pretty hard to blackmail. I don’t get why we get so upset when politicians have sex, I think maybe there would be less war if they had sex more. Are they running for sainthood? I don’t get it.

SLUG: Role Models is filled with stories of people living extreme lives—spanning from well know legends like Johnny Mathis to Baltimore legends like lesbian stripper Zorro. While reading I got the impression that many of these stories were ones that had not been fully told before. Why do you think people are so willing to open up to you?
Waters: I don’t judge them, and they know that I’m struggling to understand, that I want to hear. I’m interested in human behavior. The ones that I don’t understand I like to imagine how they are thinking. I think I’d be a good psychologist, I think I’d be a good lawyer, I think I’d be a good warden. I’m genuinely interested in people’s emotional state. I’m not saying I always live by my advice, I’m not the best person in the world, but I think I can give healthy advice. A psychiatrist can be a mass murderer and still be a good psychiatrist.

SLUG: Over the years, have you ever felt a need to push boundaries in your career to maintain your reputation as “The Pope of Trash”?
Waters: No, I don’t think I ever really do, and no one ever seems to get angry about anything I do anymore. I think if people come to see me, they want to be surprised. They want to be taken somewhere they might not go alone, and I’m a safe guide for them. I think a lot of people are trying too hard to shock right now. Shock value was a term I learned in elementary school from the writing teacher—you use it to get people’s attention. If you can make somebody laugh, they’ll listen to you. They might not change their mind … but if you’re up there preaching like you’ve got the cure for cancer, no one is going to pay any attention to you. If people can make me laugh, I listen, even if I don’t agree with them. I think that’s part of it.

Join John Waters on Oct. 13 at Rose Wagner Theater for a night of jokes, life advice and ultimately a lesson in why they call Baltimore “Charm City.” For tickets to This Filthy World visit or call 801-355-ARTS.

Illustration: Sean Hennefer Illustration: Sean Hennefer