John Waters Tells Budding Artists To 'Make Trouble'

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Film director, screenwriter and author John Waters at WBUR (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Film director, screenwriter and author John Waters at WBUR (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

John Waters is a world renowned director, memoirist, artist, actor. He gave us the movies "Hairspray" and "Pink Flamingos." And yet, this is how Waters introduced himself a couple of years ago to the Rhode Island School of Design Class of 2015:

I should say right off that I am really qualified to be your commencement speaker. I was suspended from high school, then kicked out of college in the first marijuana scandal ever on a university campus. I've been arrested several times. I've been known to dress in ludicrous fashions. I've also built a career out of negative reviews, and have been called 'the prince of puke' by the press.

He told the graduates that day to embrace the chaos of life, disrupt the world around you, live a life, like Waters, that is a trigger warning. In short: Make Trouble.

Now, Waters has taken that speech and turned into a beautiful, pink book, it's called "Make Trouble," with illustrations by Eric Hanson.


John Waters, filmmaker, author, pop culture icon. His new book is "Make Trouble."

Interview Highlights

On why he wrote the book

"I've always been telling people my age how to be adult delinquents with style. So I've been trying to tell young people how to be juvenile delinquents, because what is a juvenile delinquent today?

When I was young, they stole hubcaps. Today, you live with your parents, you're 30, they haven't seen you in six months and you're shutting down the government on your computer. That's a juvenile delinquent today.

... Hackers don't have fashion. What fashion has started from hackers? They have bad posture and they don't go out. I wish I had a hacker boyfriend — they stay at home up in the bedroom."

On how to be an outsider

"Everybody think they’re an outsider, that word’s over! When I was young, being an outsider, I thought it was a bad thing you didn't want to be. Today, everybody thinks — don't you think Trump thinks he's an outsider?

He does! And Obama probably does too. So what I'm saying is that nowadays, we have to sneak in, be a Trojan horse, get inside and screw things up. You know, and change things and and be a spy and find out how to change things. Because college students, you shouldn't be studying — you should be out on the street! You can't just have one Women's March. You should have them every day."

On how 'Hairspray' was a 'Trojan Horse'

"It was because it's being done in most high schools in America now. Two men are singing a love song to each other and even Republicans don't object. They don't. It sneaks in.

You know, [his film] "Pink Flamingos" was preaching to the converted. Anybody that likes "Pink Flamingos" was long gone. You weren't going to change anybody's mind there.

"Hairspray" maybe did change people's minds and that's how you get your political enemies to change their minds — by making them laugh and making them look at something in a way they haven't seen it. Not by preaching and cutting them off and being a separatist."

On how people's attitudes toward outsiders have changed

"I think people want to come into a world that makes them feel uncomfortable ... I think it makes it a little more safe for them. And I'm always interested in behavior I can’t understand. That's why I'm interested. Anything that's too cut and dry, you know, I get it. I like to be involved in things that make me nervous and that's youth’s responsibility — is to make the generation before them nervous ...

And I think it's a really time for activism now, to bring back the Yippies, which used humor as terrorism to embarrass our enemies. But at the same time I think you should never be a separatist. I read every day the Wall Street Journal's editorials because I like to think how my smart enemy thinks."

On trigger warnings

"First of all, I thought you go to college to be challenged, to be nervous and not be in a comfort zone. Well, if you're that delicate that you can't talk about a social issue, then stay at home. You really shouldn't be out in public, you should be in a straitjacket I guess, or with a dog.

I need [a trigger warning] when people say to me they like the new pope. I wish they’d give me a trigger warning … Anita Bryant helped gay rights more than he does because it got people angry and led them to act up."

This article was originally published on April 12, 2017.

This segment aired on April 12, 2017.

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