“Christmas, Christmas, here we go!” says John Waters, on the phone a few days before Halloween from his Baltimore home. Trying to ramp up a bit of the pre-season spirit, he’s on the horn ostensibly to chat up “A John Waters Christmas,” his spoken-word show which comes to Berklee Performance Center Dec. 10.
One slight hitch. “I was [still] writing it this morning and I’m already promoting it,” he adds, cheerfully conceding this may be a bit of a cart-before-the-horse situation.
But Waters had also been doing last-minute prep for his Halloween show and that had him first waxing nostalgic for the good old outré days of the October holiday considered “gay Christmas” by many in his tribe. Waters was bemoaning the warmth and fuzziness that has seemed to envelop much of the LGBTQ+ world of 2021 and its public perception.
"The censors I thought when I was young are the exact opposite of the censors I fear today."John Waters
“It’s a thing I joke about,” says Waters, a summertime Provincetown resident. “I used to love the gay parade because it used to be scary drag queens. Now, it’s liberal families marveling at how functional gay people are and showing their tolerance. Not that much fun. I tell gay people, 'Let’s scare straight people again.'”
Life has changed, discourse has changed, comedy has changed. The Dave Chappelle controversy has been raging, prompting Waters to ask rhetorically: “Who are the new censors? The censors I thought when I was young are the exact opposite of the censors I fear today.”
Waters — the auteur behind ”Pink Flamingos,” “Female Trouble,” “Polyester” and, of course, the mainstream movie and musical breakthrough “Hairspray” — is not immune to these shifting mores. Opinions rendered by those self-appointed, politically correct police are what Waters is parsing as he puts together his 2021 Christmas set.
It won’t be all sugar and spice — not even close — but this year’s show will likely not have quite the same nasty bite as the one he did in the same venue three years ago. While Waters shakes up his show’s content every year — and last year’s string of shows was scuttled by the COVID lockdown — this year’s monologue may not elicit quite the same level of jaw-dropping “OMG, did he really just say that?” reaction from audience members.
“Everything is completely different,” says Waters, the man once dubbed the pope of trash, “and no jokes from the past work anymore.”
There will be ribald humor and tart observations, of course. The 75-year-old Waters — as a movie director, memoirist, novelist and monologist — has made a career of pushing the boundaries of conventional good taste. It’s a good bet that many of the Christmas show jokes will mix acerbity and warmth and a fair number will be gay-centric, as Waters likes nothing more than poking fun at his own people. But the looming specter of cancel culture, what’s currently comedically acceptable and what isn’t, is a factor.
Earlier this year, he rewrote the regular spoken word show he does and retitled it: It used to be “This Filthy World” and is now “False Negative.” He premiered the show at the fourth annual Camp John Waters event he did in the Berkshires this past September.
"It’s a thin edge and I want to walk that edge."John Waters
“It’s my best possible audience,” Waters says, “and at the end I said, ‘What can’t I get away with?’ There were a few things they questioned that I changed a little bit. I did it the other night in Pittsburgh for the second time and I asked that question of the audience and they said, ‘It’s all fine.’ But you know what? It’s a thin edge and I want to walk that edge. I don’t believe in trigger warnings. I believe in free speech. The difference today is we always made fun of ourselves first. And the new righteous do not.”
Still, Waters is not an advocate of anything goes. His shows are completely scripted and he’s assiduous about ascertaining where the invisible lines are and deciphering which can be crossed.
It won’t shock anyone to hear “A John Waters Christmas” will not have much to do with celebrating the birth of the holiday’s namesake. “I am definitely an ex-Catholic,” says Waters. “I believe a religion that tells children they’re born guilty is the worst possible thing you could tell them. It’s child abuse if you ask me. If there is a higher [power], I have no idea what it is and it’s nothing anyone’s told me about so far, but I’m open to anything.”
Without revealing specific jokes or punchlines, Waters says one theme of the Christmas show is how we’re dealing with the pandemic. “I think the show’s about how we have to reinvent everything because we’ve had to reinvent our life,” he says. “What is our past life? What is our future life? Is Christmas ever going to be the same? Do presents matter anymore? What is a good present? What is appropriate rebellion at Christmas? It’s not politically correct for anybody to be a bad little boy or girl anymore. When I was growing up, that’s all I wanted to be: I wanted to get sticks and stones for Christmas.”
Waters will be riffing about families getting together for their first Christmas since the onset of the pandemic. “Nobody had family fights at Christmas last year. Nobody had to travel, he says. “Now, what’s going to happen when we go home? We haven’t been together and the political thing has completely changed too.”
Waters says he knows people who voted for Donald Trump and admits he’s even friends with some (“not many”), and he relishes the idea of entertaining political adversaries. In writing the set, he says, “I never assume that everyone agrees with me. And I kind of like it when sometimes they don’t. I like to bring up things that my audience doesn’t believe in. Political correctness used to be a weapon that we used to make our enemies look silly and now I don’t think we always pick the battle we should. We should choose the [right] battles and win.”
Other Waters’ projects are in the works. He spent three years writing a novel, “Liar Mouth,” which will be published in May. “It’s subtitled ‘A Feel-Bad Romance,’” Waters says, “and it’s about a woman who steals suitcases in airports. Let me see if I can get away with that one.” There’s also a movie he’s signed on to, “but I can’t talk about it as it’s in my contract [not to] and god knows I don’t want to jinx it.”
"Political correctness used to be a weapon that we used to make our enemies look silly and now I don’t think we always pick the battle we should."John Waters
Waters steps back to assess his public persona and envelope-pushing comic success in multiple arenas. “I don’t think I’m a mean person,” he says. “I think that’s why I’ve gotten away with it for 50 some years because I start with making fun of things I love and I start by making fun of myself.”
Waters will, as usual, spend Christmas at his Baltimore home — complete with his decorated electric chair-cum-Christmas tree — but, like last year, he won’t be hosting the usual party. “I can’t have 200 people in my house,” he says. “Well, I can, but if it’s a spreader event I’ll get blamed and I’ll be like bad Rudolph. You do get an invitation with my Christmas card saying, ‘You would have been invited.’”