John Waters world is of course filthy. And these Waters may or may not run deep but they sure do run funny. Both funny-peculiar and funny-laugh-out-loud-ha-ha.
As a stand-up comedian, he works a dirty-minded spell. He’s taken his “This Filthy World” act, an apparent stream of cultural consciousness but actually a comedic tour-de-force that’s tightly scripted and frequently updated, to college campuses and clubs for several decades.
And he did so, working this spell again with glee and an antic gleam in his eye, in a non-stop 65-minute conversational caper that captivated his Georgetown University audience at the Sunday night closing event of the Tenn Cent Fest, a centennial celebration of Tennessee Williams.
It was so appropriate also for Waters that he was there for the festival finale, for he has famously written of Williams that he “saved my life,” as a 12-year-old living in suburban Baltimore when Waters swiped a copy of a special-edition book of Williams’ short stories “One Arm” from the local library’s special collection, otherwise out of reach for “a warped adolescent” the likes of young Waters.
Williams, Waters writes in his recent book titled “Role Models,” was a “bad influence … in the best sense of the word: joyous, alarming, sexually confusing, and dangerously funny.”
“The thing I did know after finishing the books,” he says, “was that I didn’t have to listen to the lies the teachers” at his Catholic school “told us about society’s rules.” Also important was that “I didn’t have to worry about fitting in,” he wrote, because “no, there was another world that Williams knew about, a universe filled with special people,” and Waters determined to become one of them.
After all, this is THE John Waters, who mined his sexual subconscious to produce masterworks of transgression, subversive classics of camp, daring censors to stop him before he would film again, plumbing new depths of bad taste (literally), beginning with his self-styled “trash trilogy” including in 1972 “Pink Flamingos,” still famous for its scene, added as a non sequitur at the film’s end, showing in one continuous take a small dog defecating and its star, roly-poly drag queen Divine (his boyhood friend and muse, AKA Glenn Milstead) downing its feces.
From the moment Waters, with his trademark pencil-thin moustache, strode onto the stage, clad in a shiny black suit fringed with stripes of red and black plaid and wearing “Wizard-of-Oz” Muchnkin-style horizontal striped socks, he filled the high vaulting ceilings in the august surroundings of Gaston Hall, in Georgetown’s historic Healy Building, with the glitter of gay gab and the glitz of ersatz glamour, exactly what the crowd of perhaps 600 devotees gathered early, camping out there and hoping for.
The Bard of Baltimore, the sultan of cult, the auteur of “trash,” was introduced by the Tenn Cent Fest artistic director Derek Goldman and hailed for for those very “trash masterpieces” also including “Female Trouble,” “Pecker,” “Polyester” and Cecil B. DeMented” — as well as Waters’s popular breakthrough success, “Hairspray,” a 1988 film that introduced Ricki Lake and earned a modest gross of $8 million, but hardly chump change for Waters. In 2002 it was adapted into a long-running Broadway musical, which swept the 2003 Tony Awards, and then was filmed again as a hit film in 2007, starring John Travolta in drag, that earned $200 million worldwide.
Waters has worked with stars including Johnny Depp, Melanie Griffith, Christina Ricci and Kathleen Turner and real-life criminals like Patty Hearst and former porn star Traci Lords. But in many ways, he is still just a dirty old man who has not greatly out-grown the dirty little boy where it all began in Lutherville, Md., — a suburb of Baltimore — and as a 7-year-old he grew captivated by puppets and proceeded to stage violent versions of “Punch and Judy” for children’s birthday parties. Also influential, according to his biographer Robert L. Pela, were the tacky films young Waters would watch, from a distance, with binoculars, at a local drive-in.
Sunday night’s performance was mostly monologue, with Waters riffing off a stream of topics, from his youth and his filmmaking career to the stars he has worked with, and of course Tennessee Williams, and finally his thoughts about everything from “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to marriage equality. After completing the stand-up part of the show, Waters sat, crossed his legs, exposing his Munchkin socks, and riffed even more, this time in dialogue with Jason Loewith, himself a playwright and co-author with composer Joshua Schmidt of “Adding Machine: A Musical,” first produced in 2007 in Chicago and then running Off-Broadway for six months in 2008. Then Waters took a raft of questions from a largely adoring audience.
Here are some of his bonier bon mots from the evening:
“Welcome to the John Waters impersonation tour” (his greeting to the audience).
“They have John Waters look-alike contests at colleges, and lesbians always win.”
“If you’re called a ‘bad influence on others’ in high school, then in show business that means you’ll be a director, not an actor.”
“About my new best friend, Justin Bieber, I just love Justin, he has a pimple medication to endorse, and I had bangs in high school too, but underneath those bangs was a minefield of whiteheads.”
On “literary ephemera,” “does someone have the bottle cap that Tennessee Williams choked on?” (the cause of the playwright’s death in 1983) — “I don’t want it, but does someone have it?”
“Pornographers are our friends.”
“Drugs, I don’t take drugs any more , it’s so retro — but ‘poppers I take, I like poppers — someone has sent me a lifetime supply of ‘Rush.’”
“All gay people know about bears — older gay men who are heavy and hairy, and the young ones who are cubs and want to have sex with otters, younger thinner men who will be bears later. Bears, who introduce you to their partner saying ‘This is my hus-bear’ or ‘this is my significant otter.’ who call their semen ‘grissom’ and for whom fag hags are called ‘goldilocks.’”
“I have some limits,” he said, when discussing “anal bleaching,” asking “Are there rimmers who look for this?,” then, “I mean, I’ve never yet seen a before-and-after picture.”
About gay marriage, he said, “I’m for it, but I don’t want to do it — I already owe three alimonies!”
About his 1998 film “Pecker”: “In it, I wanted to invent new sex acts, like a ‘snow-man,’ that’s where you get a facial at a Christmas party and then go outside and come back inside and say ‘Hi’!”
Once “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is “finally over, I want to do a ‘Do ask, We’ll Tell’ tour of Iraq,” USO-style.
What is taboo today? “I’m against child molesters, who isn’t? I’m against NAMBLA.”
“Use humor as warfare, you’ve got to use humor — without humor, life is deadly.”