John Waters brings bag of Christmas smut to Boulder

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John Waters doesn’t shy away from his obsession with Santa Claus in his touring show A John Waters Christmas.
Courtesy of Boulder Theater

Christmas typically implies a lot of wholesomeness like steaming beverages, wrapped packages and a general influx in morality. But this Christmas, there’s another man in a suit coming to town, and he’s got something a bit bawdier in tow than a bag full of toys: On Dec. 7, writer and director John Waters will appear at the Boulder Theater for his annual performance of A John Waters Christmas.

Those even vaguely acquainted with the work of Waters often remember “that movie where Divine eats dog poop.” Indeed, Pink Flamingos, one of Waters’ most acclaimed films, featured the late actor and famed drag queen Divine’s consumption of a freshly laid dog dump, though Waters himself seems to find nothing much wrong with the act. “It’s just a turd,” he says. “Children do that.”

Waters began writing, directing and staring in art house films in the early 1970s — films that included traveling freak shows, murder, sex and one instance of a woman being accosted by a giant lobster. They feature a slew of magnetic, curious characters played by actors deemed the Dreamlanders, including individuals as unconventionally mesmeric as Divine and Edith Massey.

At his Christmas shows, Waters takes his dark, raunchy humor and adapts it for the stage, touching on subjects like his love of giving dirty gifts and his obsession with Santa Clause.

Talking to Waters from his home before the Christmas tour began, he shares how his Christmas shows originated, his past work and the ugliness of a first class flight.

Q: You’ve been doing these Christmas shows for over 10 years now right? How did it start?

A: In one of my books I had a chapter called “Why I Love Christmas” and I think that my producer, after reading it, asked me to do a show based on that and it gently evolved over the years and became the John Waters Christmas that I do now, which is completely different from that one. But every year I update it and change it and rewrite it so it’s an ever-evolving project. But yes, I’ve been doing it for over a decade.

Q: You must have a real connection with the subject matter. Why keep doing it year after year?

A: Because I need to make a living.

Q: Is that really it?

A: Well, no. I love to tell stories. In a way it’s my anti-Alzheimer’s-disease exercise, too, because it’s 70-minutes long, completely written, and I do it on stage with no notes so it’s like working without a safety net. I have to memorize it. I also do it because I get to meet my fans. I get to travel. I get to be in touch with the people that have been loyal to me for over 50 years. And I get to meet the new young people that I want to joyously fuck up. And it pays the bills; I can afford my Christmas presents.

Q: You and Divine did some sort of version of these, what you call your “Vaudville” shows, even before you did the Christmas shows, right?

A: Yeah, we would make appearances at colleges with [our] movies and we would come out and — a little bit like what Divine does in [the 1974 film] Female Trouble — he would rip phone books in half and throw dead fish at the audience. I had two stolen police uniforms that we traveled with, and we would get whoever we knew that had the shortest hair — which was really hard to find — to play the cops, and they would come onstage and pretend to arrest us. Then Divine would strangle them and then the show would begin. Now it’s so politically incorrect to even imagine doing it today — to make light of that. But at the time everybody roared and thought it was funny. Times change.

A: We might be more politically correct now, but it seems like current audiences are generally a lot less appalled by your work than they were when you started making films. Is this for better or worse?

A: To me it’s kind of funny that I now get these honorary degrees, but it’s great. It just makes me more insufferable: I want pay raises. I want tenure. I get very demanding. But, yes, it’s like going to your own funeral. You get to hear the nice things that people say about you, finally. But I will say that when I walk onstage for my shows and get a standing ovation I say, “Wait a minute, that’s just because I’m old. I didn’t even say anything yet.” If you get a standing ovation at the end it means they like what you said. If you get one before you say anything it’s like, “How did you ever stay alive this long?” Which is a valid question.

Q: Do you think that’s because people are more open minded now or because you’re now this very established figure that people feel the need to applaud before you even say anything?

A: I think it’s both. Nobody gets mad at anything I say anymore even though I do push it. And that’s because I don’t think I’m mean. Any target of mine is either so popular that they don’t care that I don’t like them, or I say it in a way that is, hopefully, humorous.

Q: It seems like you’ve always been interested in creating work that’s obscure and grotesque…

A: Well, obscure I never wanted. Obscure would imply that nobody gets it, but I always wanted people to get my work. I wanted to be surprising. I wanted to be commercial. In my first book I have a chapter where I say that I always wanted to sell out but nobody would buy me.

Q: And how about the grotesque part? Would you agree with that?

A: I never did grotesque just for grotesque’s sake. Well, there are a couple times I did, now that I look back at [the 1970 film] Multiple Maniacs. But at the same I was always trying to make you laugh. In Multiple Maniacs I might have shown you something that was grotesque, but I kind of wanted to ask you to consider it. Maybe it isn’t that grotesque. Maybe nothing is. [My last film] Dirty Shame had a lot of grotesque things about it, but at the same time I think it was asking the question, “As long as nobody’s hurting anybody, why do you care what people do in the privacy of their own home? Why is that threatening?” I’m just always interested in things that I don’t understand — that I don’t have a stock answer to.

Q: How do you feel about coming through Boulder?

A: The last time I was there I was hitchhiking, so I’m looking forward to coming back. It’s right about in the middle of the tour so hopefully I won’t be sick by then. I’m doing 18 days, 18 airplanes, and you really have to wear a gas mask to survive it. I’m in first class, which does make a difference, except everyone is ugly. Everyone is so ugly in first class. Like Halloween-costume ugly. And sometimes you have to sleep with them because when the beds go down there’s nothing in between. It’s like, “Watch it buster! Don’t have Roman hands and Russian fingers here!”

Knowing the subject matter of Waters’ films, you have to wonder what his perception of “Halloween-costume ugly” entails.

On the Bill: A John Waters Christmas. 7 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 7,  Boulder Theater. 2032 14th St., Boulder,  303-786-7030.