Q&A: John Waters talks origins of his one-man show, ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and driving through Kansas ahead of Lawrence visit

photo by: contributed

John Waters

John Waters says the COVID-19 pandemic has been terrifying, but also boring, and he’d rather make it terrifying and funny.

Waters will bring his one-man show — described as a fast-moving, comic monologue about his career, movies, fashion, crime and the urge to startle — to Lawrence as part of the Lawrence Arts Center’s upcoming Free State Festival.

Waters has made more than a dozen films, including the 1972 cult hit “Pink Flamingos” — where moviegoers were sometimes given barf bags — and the quirky 1988 comedy “Hairspray” that was also made into a Broadway musical.

In advance of his visit, Waters spoke to the Journal-World about the origin of his spoken word show, how “The Wizard of Oz” has influenced his work, and which of his many and varied nicknames he likes the best.

-How long have been doing the one-man show — or what do you prefer to call it?

Forty years at least. It’s been called many things, but started out when I would go to colleges with my really early movies…It began when I would come on stage and introduce (actor and drag performer) Divine and he would come out and throw dead fish in the audience, and then we had fake police come in and arrest us and take us away. And then Divine would strangle the cop and the hippie audience would cheer. And that was our vaudeville act, and it grew from that.

When I was in high school, I used to hook school and go to the Gayety Burlesque in Baltimore and see like comedians and stuff. It was one of the last stages of vaudeville. And so basically I’m still doing that. I never got over that.

-Throughout your career you’ve worked in a lot of forms: film, books, art. Is there something that you can express or do better in the spoken word format?

The thing about the spoken word show is I get to be in contact with my audience and see them. And try out material and see what I can get away with … Really it’s to stay in touch with the audience and kind of marvel at the age group. They’re all diverse, except there’s no normal people there — that’s the minority in my audience. But it’s not all gay or straight or anything; it’s just people that are angry and have a good sense of humor about themselves. That’s really kind of what comedy is based on. You have to make fun of yourself first. That’s why I’ve gotten away with it for 50 years.

-I’ve read that you were inspired by “The Wizard of Oz.” What are examples in your movies where that influence shines through?

“The Wizard of Oz” more than any. My life I’ve devoted to being the Wicked Witch of the West, the best villain ever … I think it’s in every one of them. Every movie is about people trying to go home. And I never understood why Dorothy wanted to go back to that dreary farm in black and white when she could live with gay lions. So I was always kind of rooting for the witch and the winged monkeys. But I think “Desperate Living” is like almost exactly — when they get to Mortville — it’s kind of the reverse Oz and Queen Carlotta runs it. I think that one would probably be the most like it of all my movies.

-On driving through Kansas and getting stuck there when hitchhiking across the U.S.:

I wrote a book called “Carsick” when I hitchhiked across America. And I got stuck in Kansas for a long time. I had to basically live in the gas station lavatories there … I met the Kansas couple that’s in the book — that was a whole chapter. They took me a really, really long way and I remain friends with them. And I love driving through Kansas. I mean, to me, it is incredible minimalism. You see snake farms and tornado chasers. It’s really one of my favorite states to drive through because it’s endless and there’s nothing but the nothing. It’s incredibly creepy and beautiful.

-So you’ve been called a lot of interesting names over the years: the Pope of Trash, the Prince of Puke, Queer Confucius. Of all those names, is there one that you’d say best describes you?

Well, William Burroughs called me (Pope of Trash). Let me tell you. William Burroughs of course I visited in Kansas. And actually I believe that James Grauerholz, who was my friend and William’s kind of handler and manager and great friend, told William to call me that. But William did call me that and gave me that quote for a book, and it has stuck. And there is no better quote that I can ever get. Having William Burroughs call you that is like being anointed from heaven.

… I think “The People’s Pervert” makes me laugh the most. That was kind of a recent one. I forget who called me that, but it was in the paper … (It) means you’re not an elitist, but at the same time you’re trying to strengthen the brand of pervert. But the Pope of Trash from Burroughs is the best one.

-So the title of your show is “False Negative.” Obviously the pandemic has affected us in all kinds of ways. What comic relief or humor have you found in all of this?

Well, that’s my show, in a way. Basically, I had to rewrite the entire show completely because before COVID and after, every single subject is different: From crime to fashion to love to sex. Everything. Even going to the movies is completely different. I think people are COVID-weary; it’s certainly not all about that, but at the same time you cannot not address it. Somebody said something to me that is so true: it’s terrifying and boring. What else in your life has ever been terrifying and boring? This is. COVID is. So I try to make it terrifying and funny.

“False Negative: An Evening with John Waters” will take place April 14 from 7 to 9 p.m. at Liberty Hall, 644 Massachusetts St. Tickets are $35 and available online on the Lawrence Arts Center’s website, Lawrenceartscenter.org.


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