The Filth Elder Speaks

John Waters Brings His (Filthier, Merrier) Christmas Show Back to Houston

The Pope of Trash talks Santa, The Joker, and how he's always up to stuff a turkey.

By Trent Lira December 9, 2019

Image: Greg Gorman

For 50 years and counting, the “Pope of Trash” has blessed us with celluloid classics like Pink Flamingos, Hairspray, and Female Trouble, critically acclaimed memoirs such as Shock Value and Carsick, and irreverent one-man shows like The Filthy World. In 2019, the output of “The Duke of Dirt” is still as filthy and fun as ever with a new book, Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder, and a brand new tour of his annual holiday show, A John Waters Christmas—Filthier & Merrier (“It’ll Stuff Your Turkey”).

Before the aforementioned tour slinks into the Heights Theater on Dec. 13th, Houstonia chatted with Waters about the new material in this year’s Christmas show, some interesting chapters and advice mentioned in his latest book, and his thoughts on pop culture and Hollywood today.

And, yeah, we admit it, we totally hit him up for some recommendations for what to do when we make our first trip to Provincetown, Mass. (Waters is known for hailing from Baltimore, but those in the know are aware he has been a fan of this town on the Lower Cape since he started summering there in the 1960s.)

Anyway, the Filth Elder has spoken, and we have simply taken down for posterity what he spake. 

Houstonia: Have you had any experiences in or around Houston since you've been doing these shows for many years?

John Waters: Well, I had an art show there, but that wasn't during the Christmas show. I certainly know during the Christmas shows I'm there for one day. Usually I get up in the morning, I get to the next city, I do a show, I do the meet and greet, I do a book signing, and I'm out of there.

But I know that I've had a lot of separate art life there, through galleries and stuff. But, during the Christmas show, I can't remember. You know they do blend together a lot. But the audiences, when I get to meet my fans, that's the important thing, and I get to see they're very varied. They dress great, they're smart. I have a really good fan group, you know. It's nice to see them every year and stay in touch with them.

H: While I was looking into the history of the Christmas show I noticed that you do different iterations of it every year—

J.W: It’s different every year, I rewrite it every year. It’s completely different. I'm in the middle of doing that right now. It’s Friday, I don't have to think about it till Monday. I've got two-thirds of it done, and I've memorized none of it yet, but that's the usual schedule.

H: Something I was thinking about with Christmas for the queer community and kind of an outsider audience; I'm sure doing these shows you have memories of Christmas, and you talk a lot about that in your show. Is there a particular time that you had any difficulties with your family during Christmas?

J.W: You know, I didn’t. Difficulties? No. I certainly had arguments with my parents over the years, but not at Christmas. The only thing they used to hate was I've had a Christmas party for 50 years but in the beginning, maybe the first 10 years, I had it on Christmas Eve and everyone's parents hated it. Everyone had a hangover on Christmas morning. So I changed it, and I don't have it anymore, and I don't really have hangovers anymore but when I was 20 I did. So, I think that was an issue.

I got the idea to have the Christmas tree falling over on Divine in Female Trouble because it really did happen to my grandmother. Not in a fight or anything—it just fell over, and Christmas trees fall over on people all the time. When I was a child that really became an obsession of mine, and my grandmother later said it was really funny because she wasn’t hurt or anything, but people came running, and I was so selfish with how I felt my presents might have been broken. I bawled. I wasn't worried about her, I was worried about the presents.

H: Being a filmmaker, is there any particular Christmas movie that you always go back to?

J.W: I would say Christmas Eve is the only Christmas movie I ever really liked. Mostly, I hated Christmas movies. Well, I liked Bad Santa when it first came out, but most Christmas movies are awful, like, enforcing the worst of Christmas that just disappoints people because their lives are never that good. Christmas is never that happy, so it hurts people. I like the idea that now this is an angry Christmas, and this year people are afraid to go home if they’re politically divided in the house because people are pissed right now. They’ll start knocking over trees, smashing presents, and storming out of the house, and that will happen this year.

H: What is something in this year’s Christmas show that you're doing that you're excited to bring to the audience that they have not seen?

J.W: I'm certainly going to be talking about Santa's sexuality; what happened to Mrs. Claus? Why, she’s the worst feminist figure ever, because all she does is serve Santa, and that's the only thing that we know about her. It’s about drugs at Christmas, it’s about what kind of presents to give, it's about how we can go cause Christmas trouble this year. Maybe it's time I even respected the Republicans who raided the impeachment hearings. How can I be upset when I'm so for us doing it in the other direction? Yeah, so, we're talking about Christmas and political mayhem.

H: When you do these kinds of shows, what’s inspired you to keep presenting in this format?

J.W: I used to do it during my film career. I used to go to colleges and introduce the films, and it grew from that. It grew out of Divine and I going to the burlesques in Baltimore, seeing the last of the strippers when they had on baggy pants, and dirty comedians come out 20 times a day and pull the same joke—it came from that.

H: Moving from the Christmas show to talking about Mr. Know It All…, your newest book. This one kind of focuses on what we could call “phase two” of your career, and you talk about how being “accepted” is kind of the scariest thing for an artist.

J.W: It’s scary, but it’s good. Some artists like Mike Kelly—a contemporary artist that I love—he killed himself because he was successful. In a way that had something to do with it. He was always the outsider, and he was always a rebel bad boy. How can you be a rebel bad boy when you're showing at Gagosian with production costs in the millions of dollars? I thought it was a great show, and it's really not a reason to kill yourself. I will say nothing bad happened to me because of any success in show business. Even if you have to pay a lot of taxes it means you made money.

I don't know, but [this book] is passing down, hopefully, my negotiation skills of how I got away with it. I always feel I'm lucky to have gotten away with it. When I look back on Mr. Know It All… I am trying to tell younger people how to survive in a world filled with sharks. I still go swimming at the beach in Provincetown. It’s filled with sharks, and I still go in the water. I think that it's important to pass that down. I’m 73, I've learned something after doing it all this time, and I'm just trying to pass down advice, but, hopefully, in a humorous way—I mean I don't think I'm lecturing anybody.

H: With all this knowledge that you now have, are there current films in Hollywood that get you excited? And is there something people are doing that makes you think, “wow, I love that”?

J.W: Well, I love The Joker. I love the idea that [Todd Phillips] got a film that radical—and no matter what you think, it does celebrate anarchy in an effective way—through the Hollywood system. Not only did he get it through without softening it, it's a giant hit. I give him great, great respect for pulling that off. I also love the fact that Quentin Tarantino has a giant hit. Finally, an original movie is a hit. So, I think the fact that those two movies are Hollywood hits is hopeful, because you know Hollywood always just tries to repeat every hit they ever have. So I’m all for that.

H: Another thing that I was thinking about in the book: Obviously Divine was a huge part of a lot of your work. With drag being much more accepted now, what do you think about the current wave of drag being popularized in the mainstream?

J.W: Good for RuPaul. He deserves every Emmy, everything, for somehow making drag incredibly appealing to middle-class America. I think that's amazing. The fact is that even if you come in last on his show, you still have a career for two years in clubs. That's pretty amazing. He's created an industry. RuPaul’s been around as long as Divine. Believe me, I remember him from forever ago. Divine was punk before there was punk. Divine was the first drag queen in a way that was punk, that was purposely designed to frighten hippies. Every drag queen now has an edge. There are no square ones—actually, yes there are. I see pictures of some of them in the local gay papers, pictures of “Miss Philadelphia” and “Miss Baltimore,” and I’m thinking, “People still do that?” You know, beauty queens like that. But I think mostly all of them now have an edge, and I think that’s because of Divine.

H: Is there anything in the queer space that you're also kind of excited about that has that same wavelength to you?

J.W: I talk about things that are “gayly” incorrect in my show, and I think we have the right to do that. I don't accept rules from anything, you know, so I like gay activism. I think there should be more activists. I have a whole chapter in my book where I talk about how we should go beyond “Act Up” to “Act Bad.” I don't get why we're not in the streets right now.

H: I remember in the book you talked about this incident with Mink Stole where you were in Provincetown and you kind of had this crazy trip...

J.W: We planned it for eight months. It was a beautiful trip, actually. I spent eight months to get the very best acid I could ever get, and it was better than even the strongest stuff I had when I was young. So it was a wonderful experience. We hallucinated for 12 hours. It was very bonding, it was beautiful, and I don't think I ever have to do it again. It was the same when I hitchhiked across America, I just wanted to dare myself to do something.

H: I was bringing it up because I know that you have a big connection to Provincetown, and I'm planning on going there for the first time next year. What are some things that you love doing when you’re there?

J.W: I never get tired of going to the beach there, I write there, I love it. Go to the store, Map. That's a good store. I like the Strangers and Saints restaurant. There's lots of good places to go. You just ride your bike and walk around, and it's great for people watching. You’ll have a great time.

A John Waters Christmas—Filthier and Merrier (“It’ll Stuff Your Turkey”), Friday Dec. 13 at 7 p.m. The Heights Theater, 339 W 19th St. More information at

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