Last weekend, writer and filmmaker John Waters saw the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, and there’s something fitting about that. At 72, the self-proclaimed Pope of Trash has morphed into the Mr. Rogers of Raw, the kindly uncle of the outré. As he acknowledged in a 2015 commencement address to the Rhode Island School of Design that went viral, the culture has caught up with him. His biggest hit, Hairspray, is now a sweet high-school musical. These days, the kids are teaching him – about everything from “theybies” (children whose parents decline to assign a gender to their newborns) to “blouses” (a sexual designation meaning a feminine gay man who considers himself the top) – and he’s giddy to learn.
Waters’s description of his personal life also sounds one cardigan away from square. He’s summering in Provincetown, Mass., his 53rd summer in a row. He rises at 6 a.m., reads four newspapers, writes from 8 till noon, then takes a dip at “the most beautiful beach on Cape Cod.” In the afternoon, he works on his businesses, and in the evening, he hangs out with his boyfriend “of many years” (that’s all the detail he’ll offer) and reads – recent books include a biography of the photographer Weegee; Karl Ove Knausgard’s Spring and Summer; Anne Tyler’s latest novel; and Tinderbox, about the infamous Upstairs Lounge fire in New Orleans. He also keeps a running tab of how many days it’s been since he quit smoking – the day we spoke it was 5,669 – which he has to dig up his reading glasses to see.
He’s certainly productive. He’s close to finishing a new book, Mr. Know-it-All, which he hopes will drop next summer. This fall, the Baltimore Museum will hold a retrospective of his art called Indecent Exposure. And on Thursday night at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre, he’ll dispense 75 minutes of drollery, plus an unfiltered Q&A, in the type of freewheeling, one-man shows he’s been performing for years. His suggested titles: The Filthy World or The Filthy World: Filthier and Dirtier. Harbourfront opted for In Conversation With ….
“The show is about risk and failure,” Waters said in a phone interview this week. “That could be the name of my biography. The theme is ‘How to end up never having to be around assholes for your whole life,’ which is the only way I judge success.” Here are highlights from our conversation.
On July 1, at a punk festival in Oakland, Calif., you introduced Devo, but first you called Donald Trump a “feckless prick.”
He’s so stupid he even stared at the eclipse. It is exhausting. You can’t not talk about the political situation in the U.S. I’ll talk about it in Toronto, too – especially since Trump was such an asshole to your country. But if you make people feel stupid, they rebel against you. The only way to change people’s minds is to make them laugh. On tour, I always say, “There must be some Trump people here. I get why you’re pissed off. So stand up and say something against us as rude and hopefully as funny as everything I’m saying.” Only in one city did someone stand up, and everyone applauded because he had the nerve to do it.
You just got back from a cross-country road trip. What did you see?
I do it every summer and I love it. Never once have I been hassled. This year, I did the square vacation: Niagara Falls, Mount Rushmore, Old Faithful. I love America’s National Park Service because they don’t have rules. You’re allowed to fall off a cliff in the Grand Canyon if you’re stupid enough to walk to the edge. But it’s very important to see the whole country – the people who drive 100 miles for groceries – and to realize that everyone else isn’t like you and no one has to agree on taste and culture. Next spring, I might drive across Canada.
Can you still shock your fans? Do you still want to?
I can. But I’m trying to make them laugh, and that’s even touchier these days. I’m interested in surprising people, taking them into a world they would never go without me as a guide and hopefully making them laugh so they can understand any human behaviour. For instance, in this show I go deep into bear [furry gay man] terminology. In Baltimore, where I usually live, all straight men are bears, they just don’t realize it. I’ve figured out how to push things to the limit, and no one gets mad because I’m never mean. Because I am truly fascinated with everything I talk about.
There’s a sweetness at your core.
There is. My whole thing is trying to understand behaviour I can’t understand. Without investigating it, you have no right to judge anybody about anything. If I wasn’t this, I’d be a defence lawyer. I do have opinions, but that’s very different from judgments.
What were you like as a kid?
After I read in Life magazine about the painting Nude Descending a Staircase, I pretended I was the painting when I came down the steps every morning. I had a good creative mind. I had a career as a puppeteer when I was 12 years old. I made money. If I was a kid today, I’d be a hacker – that’s the new juvenile delinquent. [Beat.] It wasn’t easy. I never fit in. I remember painful moments. But I had parents who made me feel safe. If you have that, you’ll survive.
What are you liking about this time of your life?
I’m glad I’m not single now. It’s harder to be single. It’s scary to ask someone for a date. It’s the opposite of when I grew up, when you had sex with someone different every single night, and that was politically correct.
What would you say to Trump or Pence if you could?
I pray I never meet either of them. I would ask Pence if he was an adult baby. And Trump – the wind is his enemy.
Is that a metaphor?
No, I mean the wind is his actual enemy, so I would take out a pocket fan and aim it at his hair. No wonder he hates the environment.