John Waters is a man of many names. Dubbed the Prince of Puke, the People’s Pervert and the Pope of Trash, among others, the legendary filmmaker has made a career out of his personal brand of quirky, twisted humor. Although best known for bringing Hairspray to the big screen along with cult classics like Pink Flamingos, Cry-Baby and Serial Mom, Waters is a prolific storyteller who’s published numerous books and essays. In fact, “Why I Love Christmas,” an essay he wrote for National Lampoon in 1985 and reprinted in his book, Crackpot, in 2003, became the impetus for another one of his signature storytelling projects: A John Waters Christmas. It’s an annual standup comedy show that tackles the Christmas industry with raunchy glee in a way that only Waters can.
“There’s a skeleton of it in a way that’s the same [each year], like presents I want for Christmas,” Waters says. “That makes me be able to talk about anything. [The show] always addresses fashion, politics, drugs, despair, presents, how to act at Christmas, how to get through it, how to love it, how to hate it and how to not let it defeat you.”
A John Waters Christmas
The Paramount Theater
While the Baltimore native’s material ebbs and flows based on current events, he doesn’t feel as though any particular subject matter is off limits. If anything, he sees humor as the path to common ground.
“Certainly I have humor about gay rights and everything,” he explains. “But I think I’m actually completely politically correct throughout the whole thing if you really wanna know the truth. No one ever gets mad because I’m not mean about it and I invite the other side to make us laugh because I think that’s the only way you’re going to change anyone’s opinion. I’m not a separatist.”
It’s a philosophy that he employs during the Q&A session at the end of every one of his Christmas shows, which will come to the Paramount Theater on Thursday as part of an 18-stop tour.
“In every town so far, I say, ‘Look, I’m not a separatist, there must be someone in the audience who voted for Trump,’” Waters says. “‘So when you come up at the question and answer session, will you please say something funny against us and everybody will cheer you.’”
Waters’ show is chock-full of advice on how to juggle the holidays, including how to deal with politically divisive relatives. “Wear a whistle and anytime anybody talks about politics, blow the whistle and eventually everybody’ll start laughing,” he recommends.
And how to find the perfect Christmas gift for that special someone?
“I think that you should have a Christmas where everyone purposefully tries to get the other person the gift they would hate the most and then leave your Christmas tree to fall over or decorate it with parking tickets,” Waters says. “Just do everything kind of in reverse and then you’d have fun.”
The same goes for the Christmas standards that overtake the radio every year. “I like Christmas music. I wish Chet Baker had a junkie jazz Christmas album like, Baby I’m Jonesing Outside and it was all jazz music for junkies nodding out while they’re singing Christmas carols.”
As the king of Christmas deviancy, Waters has no shortage of these anecdotes. Even his favorite personal Christmas memories are laden with mischief.
“I used to have this guy that I was friends with, and I thought it was the most romantic date. We would go after Christmas when all the people put their dead Christmas trees in the alley and he would set them on fire and he would put a video camera up on the hood of his car and we’d drive through them and it was fun!”
During one reoccurring bit in his Christmas show, Waters delves into what he wants for Christmas. When trying to recall the best present he’s ever received, a particular childhood Christmas comes to mind.
“There’s a picture of me in my family album when I was about 12 years old and I have a puppet I got because I was a puppeteer at children’s birthday parties and in the other hand I’m holding The Genius of Ray Charles album,” says Waters. “I’m sure that I asked my mother for that. They didn’t just give me that. So I think that was exciting to be listening to Ray Charles when you were a 12-year-old white boy in Baltimore.”
Earlier this year, Waters joined the ranks of musicians by releasing his own vinyl via Jack White’s Third Man Records. “I just like the idea of having a record that looks like what my parents’ record collection looked like,” he says. “[Plus] my street cred went up with the young people who collect vinyl.”
The spoken word album features Waters reciting his infamous commencement speech that he first delivered at the Rhode Island School of Design in 2015. During a highlight, he advises that contemporary art’s job is to wreck what came before. “Think about it, Warhol in one minute put abstract expressionists out of business with a soup can the same way that the Beatles ended Motown,” he muses.
Waters knows a thing or two about wreckage. After all, he’s spent half a century cultivating a legacy based on disrupting social and cultural norms. He’s always one step ahead—just waiting for everyone else to catch up.