Landmark underground cinema auteur-cum-mainstream queer icon John Waters marks his 76th birthday April 22 and he’s busier than ever. To celebrate, he’ll give special performances of his one-man-show, False Negative, April 22, at Sony Hall in New York City, and April 23, at Anchor Rock Club in Atlantic City. He can currently be seen in the most recent seasons of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Search Party, on Amazon Prime and HBO Max, respectively. His debut novel, Liarmouth: A Feel-Bad Romance, will be published May 3 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. And most interactively, fans can once again get away, with the legend himself, to Camp John Waters September 9-12 in Kent, Connecticut. As it all kicks off, he sat down for a chat with Metrosource’s Ben Rimalower.
Happy almost birthday!
God, I love a birthday. One’s in New York and one’s in Atlantic City. I haven’t played Atlantic City in a long time.
Are you a casino person?
No, whenever I go to a casino, I always want to lose. I always wanted to have a slot machine with my name on it – you know Elvira has one with her name on it – but I want one where you always lose, because that way you can go up to your room and read, which is what I like to do. When I go, I play and I’ll say, “Okay, I’m gonna lose a hundred dollars.” But every time you win ten bucks, it just prolongs it.
Lately I’ve been winning at scratch-off lottery tickets that people give me. And so that’s why my Christmas card this year was a scratch-off lottery and I gave away prizes. But so few people scratched them because they didn’t think it was real. They thought it was a joke. Many of the good prizes no one claimed.
They thought that if you scratched it, it would ruin them, like if you collect the cards I send every year, then scratching this one would make it less valuable. But I think the ones that will be the real collectibles will be the scratched ones because there were only 25 different winners. And the prizes were like old porn, or there was $500. And nobody got that one
Do you just hold those prizes to be collected at some future point?
They’ve got one year!
How about being in New York? I’ve read that you have a place in the Village. Do you spend a lot of time there?
I’ve had the same place since 1990. I don’t spend a lot of time there, but every time I walk in, I think, “Oh God, I love this apartment!” I have an apartment in San Francisco, I have my house in Baltimore, and I rent a place every summer in Provincetown. And all the ones I own look exactly the same! But I’ve always said happiness is three sets of underpants. You arrive and there’s always underpants.
People talk a lot about the loss of old, dirty New York. I’m wondering, being a connoisseur of filth, is there anything in particular from those years you would like to see brought back as New York is sort of rebuilt?
Not really, I mean, I got hideously mugged once in New York, so I don’t miss the bad old days. And I’m not so sure it isn’t getting a little more like that today, unfortunately. San Francisco is even more shocking to me how different it is. Baltimore always was an extreme place to live, so even now it’s not so different. But I still love all three cities. San Francisco, I spent my wild youth there. New York is where I first saw underground movies, where the art world is, so I can’t imagine not having a place in either city.
When I bought my New York apartment in 1990, it was a real stretch for me because I got my house at the same time, but that’s when I was making money workin’ for the Hollywood studios. Before that, I used to sleep on people’s couches for years, at Cookie Mueller’s house and at Dennis Dermody’s house. So finally it got to the point where I was like the man who came to dinner. I’d be on the phone working all day, they couldn’t even get a phone call. I had outstayed my welcome.
How about being on the road with False Negative, do you like that lifestyle, I assume you’re not on couches with that tour?
I have two shows, one is the Christmas show and one is False Negative, which I wrote last year when I went back on the road because the world’s changed so much. I did 18 cities at Christmas and I just made it because of the new COVID strain. If it had hit a week earlier, the whole tour would’ve been canceled. But I did make it and I got through all 18 cities and didn’t get sick.
But now I’m back on the road, I did two Valentine’s shows recently, I’ve got two birthday shows, plus the book tour. It never ends. Yes, I like being on the road, but it’s not like I’m Elton John, where I’m touring constantly for the rest of my life. I don’t work on weekends, sometimes when I’m on the road I do. But look, when I’m on the road I stay in great hotels, I fly first-class, a car picks me up and takes me.
A lot of times people say, “Aren’t you going to retire?” I’m like, “No!” I’m afraid I would drop dead! I like being in touch with my audience. It’s what’s kept me going all this time, to see what people are like. I’m always flattered when there are all ages in my audience. I’ve never been a separatist. I want gay, straight, everybody all together, whatever you wanna be today, I think we’re all in this together.
One of the things I bonded over with my straight dad was your movies, he was such a fan going back to the first releases.
Oh, that’s good, because my audience is not about sexuality, they’re angry and have a good sense of humor about themselves. That’s the one thing all my audiences have going on.
That’s sorely missing in this country today.
That’s the problem and I talk a lot about that. It’s the righteousness of the politically correct. When I was young, we used political incorrectness as a weapon, but the first thing we made fun of was ourselves. You gotta make fun of yourself first before you can get people to listen to you.
During the depths of the pandemic, did you miss live performing? Did you do any virtual gigs?
Never once did I do one. As soon as I do one, who’s gonna pay me to come? Once I did it years ago, we filmed my one-man-show, This Filthy World. It was the first thing Netflix ever produced and Jeff Garlin directed it, but I realized then once it’s on film, why go? It’s better to continue doing it.
Well, there was that great New York Times piece when it first started.
Yes, that was the first one, we did it once the very first year.
You have a waiting list every year.
Oh, the camp is really touching to me and every year it gets better and better. The first year we had t-shirts that read “Jonestown with a happy ending.” Ricki Lake said, “I wouldn’t have believed this, and in the best way.” We have guest counselors every year. It was Kathleen Turner and Patricia Hearst last year. Mink Stole comes every year. This year it’s Deborah Harry and Colleen Fitzpatrick, who played her daughter in Hairspray and went on to be Vitamin C.
And the campers are from everywhere. I see them at every show I do, they’re everywhere in the world. And they see each other all year round. People get married at the camp!
What do you think is the appeal of a camp experience?
I think it’s just a certain type of people who like to hang out. I mean Kathleen Turner brought her daughter and her daughter liked it so much, she stayed. She didn’t go home with Kathleen.
Sometimes you get assigned a cabin, you don’t even know who’s in it – total strangers – but everybody seems to get along. They’re all united with a sense of humor. And they dress up as the characters from my movies and use props. They’re really clever and creative and really know my movies, which is incredibly flattering to me. It’s amazing to see the ingenious ways they come up with celebrating them.
Do you have any advice for people entering the costume contest?
Well, the more obscure, the better. I mean last year’s winner came as the painting of Don Knotts from the flea market in Serial Mom. One year we had an obscene phone call contest with Mink. The guy that won said (about Mink), “Nancy, that’s her real name, isn’t it?” They’re really hilarious. My advice is to be witty. You got good competition at this camp, I’ll tell ya.
Is it true you reward the people that lose in sports?
They might have done that at some of the events, but you know it doesn’t even matter anymore. I mean, I was the Nike ad. How could that be? I’ve never caught a ball in my entire life. No one’s ever even thrown me a ball, I don’t think! My father, I wish he’d been alive, because it would’ve been the most shocking thing of all to him. I did get to say, “Just do it” and on the last take, I said, “Just do it, Mary.” They didn’t use it, but maybe they will one day.
I’ve read that at your camp growing up, one of your favorite things and something that changed your life was Backward Day.
Oh, yes, I put that in Desperate Living. Backward Day was the first surreal thing I ever experienced. They picked you up in reverse order in the morning. You had to wear your clothes backwards – which was Comme des Garçons before its time! You had dinner when you got there. You did everything out of order. I just loved it because it was so obsessional and so weird that I never got over it. So really in my mind every day is Backward Day intellectually.
You’ve also talked about the sort of delinquent aesthetic and how you gravitated toward that and maybe it protected you from bullying.
Well, bullies thought I was nuts and they sort of left me alone because I could make them laugh. Also, I was very anti-authority, which helped with the bullies. Although you can’t tell your children, “Just be really mean to the teachers and the bullies won’t beat you up.” That is what I did, though, make fun of the teachers and then the bullies left me alone. But in Catholic school, the bullies were allowed to beat you up. And they did. And the other thing that’s really amazing to me about Catholic school is we were allowed to smoke cigarettes. There was a smoking area, from 9th grade on. Isn’t that bizarre?
How many years from that indoctrination did it take you to quit?
You know it’s the only thing in my life I regret: smoking cigarettes. I write it down on a note card every day – 6,982 days I’ve been without cigarettes.
Will that be hard for you in Atlantic City, the smoky casinos?
When I hitchhiked across the country, I wound up in the one hotel in Reno that didn’t allow smoking, although you could still smell it everywhere. But I’m really looking forward to Atlantic City. I just love that all the names are in Monopoly. And I love a beach town.
I’m quite curious to see what it’s like and especially see the people who come see me who live there. I bet they’re really my kind of fans. I bet it takes more of a commitment to live in Atlantic City even than it does to live in Baltimore. What are the cool places in Atlantic City? I don’t know. I guess the Anchor Rock Club. That’s where I’ll be.
Last modified: April 5, 2022