Anna Sale: Do you have any close friends who you think are snobs?
John Waters: Yes, And I think they're kind of funny. But they're always so serious. Once I was with Valentino – I was with him on his yacht, I’m name dropping, but it's a good story – and we pulled in and we had dinner with other people, and the waiter said to Valentino, “Water with bubbles or without?” And he went, “Bubbles make you fat.” And he was not kidding. And I've never had bubbled water since.
Anna Sale: Oh, I want for you to have some bubble water. It tastes so good.
John Waters: No, thank you. I don't want to be [00:56:00] bloated as they say in Baltimore.
Anna Sale: laughs
(Death, Sex & Money theme music)
This is Death, Sex & Money.
The show from WNYC about the things we think about a lot....
....and need to talk about more.
I’m Anna Sale.
(end of Death, Sex & Money theme music)
(sound of door opening, hellos)
John Waters: I’m overdressed. Cause I'm going on television right after…
Anna Sale: When John Waters opens his door, he’s wearing a flower-print suit – pink, purple and yellow flowers reminiscent of Monet with red polka-dot socks. And inside his Manhattan apartment there’s original art on nearly every wall, ornate candelabras hanging by the fireplace, and a small, fluffy white dog lying underneath a table…who doesn’t move at all.
Anna Sale: I’m trying to tell. Is that a fake animal over there?
John Waters: Oh God. Yes.
Anna Sale: Yes. I was like, that doesn't seem like a natural sleeping position.
John Waters: Really, you didn’t? Oh yeah. It's looking the other way though. It would've turned around if it was alive.
Anna Sale: laughs
Anna Sale: Yes. Thank you for having us in your home.
John Waters: You set up and just yell if you need me.
Anna Sale: John Waters of course is the writer and director of such cult classics like Pink Flamingos, Serial Mom, and his biggest mainstream success, Hairspray.
(clip from Hairspray’s song, “You Can’t Stop the Beat”)
Anna Sale: He’s been making movies since the 1960s – and he’s also a touring one-man comedy show, performing live across the country to sold-out audiences.
I think of John Waters as a provocateur with manners — in real life. He’s famously perverse, whether in his movies or in his debut novel, released earlier this year, Liarmouth: A Feel Bad Romance.
The novel is an incredibly dirty romp that was so raunchy at points that when I was reading it on a plane, I had to put the book down because I felt too embarrassed to be reading it in public.
The book’s main character, Marsha Sprinkle, is a criminal and a liar, but like many of the characters in John Waters’ universe, her backstory makes her more complex.
John Waters: My women characters are better than my main characters, I think. Maybe, maybe. So Marsha had a reason to be as crazy as she was. She did have a terrible thing happen to her and got pregnant, you know, and in a really awful way.
So at the same time, you know – Ricky Lake’s a good friend of mine and she has done all these documentaries about the miracle birth and that. Oh, my God. When I saw that documentary, I said, “Don't let your children see you have birth in a bathtub in your bedroom. Are you insane? They'll be in shrinks for the rest of your life!” So, Ricky, I always say to her, “Birth is shameful.” Just to kid her, to make her crazy, because I don't believe that. But when I read that people give birth and the father eats the placenta, I'm sorry.
Anna Sale: That's too far for John Waters.
John Waters: Yeah, it is to me. I don't get why you'd have natural childbirth. Why would you want it to hurt? I don't know. I have never given birth, obviously. At the same time, it's such a blasphemy for a woman to be against that and everything. And I think I was being reactionary to Ricky Lake in a humorous way because I had to watch that whole movie of her giving birth. And I said, “This is like Freddy Krueger for a gay man that we have to watch people give birth for 90 minutes.”
Anna Sale: I'm gonna tell you something and it might shock you. When I had my second baby — it was a vaginal birth, the first one was a C-section — and I noticed in the corner of the room, there's this big mirror and I didn't know what it was.
John Waters: Mm-hmm.
Anna Sale: And then when the baby was coming, they said, do you wanna watch? I could watch this child come out of my own body,
John Waters: But did you?
Anna Sale: I did. Yeah.
John Waters: Well, that's to me — when I got a colonoscopy, they said, do you wanna watch? No! Why do I wanna go on a fantastic voyage up my asshole? No, I don't wanna watch. Why would you ask me that?
But I can see that in a way that's a different thing. You see the first, you know, entry.
Anna Sale: I'm so surprised. I think that you would be very curious about seeing your colon.
John Waters: No, not really. Not at this stage. Maybe my 20-year-old colon, not my 76-year-old. It's not my time for a closeup in that department, without retouching.
Anna Sale: When you were writing this, were you alone or were there people in the room?
John Waters: Always alone. I never write with anybody in the room. They can be in the house, but they know not to come in. And my favorite line ever that I always use to everyone I know is — Anne Tyler's a friend of mine. And when she won the Nobel prize, she doesn't give interviews much. Well, the Baltimore Sun knocked on her door and she answered and said, “Excuse me, I'm in the middle of writing a sentence.” That is the funniest line I ever heard. So I always say that if anyone comes in. My friend always says, “I know you're in the middle of writing a sentence, but we need milk.” You know, that kind of thing. So, people know not to call me then.
Anna Sale: And do you like to read sections out loud to yourself to get the rhythm and laugh out loud?
John Waters: Sometimes I do. And also, I hand write everything. So when it finally gets to the stage, which is the second or third draft, to give to my assistants — three of them who type, they can sort of read my handwriting — I make a tape of it so they can listen as we go along. I burn those tapes. Nobody hears the tape. Becuase then I will do the audio book later. But that way I can tell if I'm using the same word twice, I can hear the rhythm of it. And I always did that with movies because I would just play every part, say the dialogue. So I do do that. Yeah. That helps me hear how it's going because I always want it to sound like I'm telling you a story. No matter it might take seven drafts, but I want it to sound like I just made it up right then when you're listening to it.
Anna Sale: And on those tapes that you burn, are you like cracking up when you get to the funny parts?
John Waters: Sometimes I do. Once in a while I do when it's a really good joke. If I can make myself laugh, that's the first audience, yeah. And then I always go through with my staff who are three generations of women of different ages.
Anna Sale: Like what ages?
John Waters: 30, 40 something and 60. They're my sensitivity readers. And they're good at it, you know? And, they bring up points that are good. But then I ask each one, like, what was the most hideous thing you think? And the one that everybody says is her favorite line, three different people who said that: “Even God thought she was a cunt.” And a sensitivity editor might reject that line. But after you read the whole book, maybe not.
Anna Sale: Maybe not.
(St Augustine Red - Blue Dot Sessions)
Anna Sale: This is the kind of taboo storytelling that John Waters really revels in. He loves to shine a light on the worst of us but rarely to ridicule… more as a reminder of how gloriously sinful we can be…He was raised Catholic – his father wasn’t Catholic but his mother, Patricia Ann, made sure he went to Sunday School.
(end of St Augustine Red - Blue Dot Sessions)
Anna Sale: What was your mother's personality like?
John Waters: My mother, when she saw Serial Mom, she said that is me. She wasn't that, I mean, we called her Queen Elizabeth. She taught me good taste. You know, my favorite thing she used to say is, “Fool's names and fool's faces always appear in public places.” So at her funeral, when I spoke, I said, “Sorry, Ma. I really violated that one.”
She thought your name should be in the paper when you're born, when you die, when you get married, and none of those things, did I follow. She was great. I mean, and both my parents, I'm very lucky. They were horrified by what I… Thank God, hey don't have to read this. I would really be uptight to hand them this book. My father doesn't know what analingus is.
Does he even know what that is? Has it ever entered his consciousness? I don't know. Because once I gave my mother this book that I did, it was an art book and it had this art piece that I did called, “12 assholes and a dirty foot.” And I said, “I want to dedicate the book to you.”
“Well,” she said, “that's nice.” I said, there's one thing. And she said, “Nothing you could do could shock us anymore.” Then I gave her the book and then there was silence and she said, “Why would you do something like that?” So I felt bad. I shouldn't have given it to her.
Anna Sale: So just dedicate it without…
John Waters: Well, no, she would've looked through it. I taped the two pages shut with a post-it and she violated and opened it. Well, that's what you get. That's what you get. Snoop around.
Anna Sale: You really did?
John Waters: Yeah. I told her don't look. I warned her. It used to be in the old days, they'd look through my drawers and then they stopped because they didn't want to know. That's why they never asked me if I was gay. They thought the answer was worse.
Anna Sale: (laughs)
But I made Multiple Maniacs in their house, Desperate Living – the bedroom, the baseball comes through, that's my mother's bedroom. They were supportive. I mean they hated the movies, but they were amazed that I could do them. That I was driven to do it. So they respected that. I was lucky that they didn't try to stop that. They never said ‘don't make these movies’ even when I was getting arrested and no one said they were good. There were humiliating reviews in the newspaper. Yeah.
Anna Sale: I've wondered about that. Like your discipline as a maker, alongside your delight and rebelliousness. Are there two parts of you that feel that intention?
John Waters: No, they're not intentional at all, but that's my dad. My dad taught me responsibility and business and how to be organized and how to have a plan, and maybe how to have a backup plan. We just had very, very different product.
Anna Sale: Product? (laughs)
John Waters: He started a company that went on to be very successful and my niece runs it. My brother who died, ran it first and now his daughter runs it very successfully and it's fire protection equipment. And so he sold that and I sold shock. You know, it's the same thing. And he liked talking to me about business, how the movie business worked, and he was amazed that I figured all that out and everything, but that's how we could relate.
Anna Sale: Fire protection equipment, what does that mean?
John Waters: It means, well, in the beginning it was fire extinguishers. You know, you have to have one in your house, but now it's big systems and warehouses, everything, you know. But when we were young, every time we'd hear a siren, we'd jump in the car and go to people's houses that were on fire to watch.
And it would be exciting. It was like, I felt close to my dad watching the neighbor's house burn down because he would go to see it. You know, I don't think he was a pyromaniac. I hope not. But, we did go to watch, we'd be eating dinner and hear the volunteer fire siren go off. So we'd jump in the car and we were fire engine chasers. The whole family would do it.
Anna Sale: I didn't know that. That's amazing.
John Waters: Yeah. It was fun.
Anna Sale: And, did you ever see suffering that was from a…
John Waters: No, I'd ever pulled up where the family was running out of the house on fire. No, I did not see that. Thank God.
Anna Sale: And did he help you when you were figuring out the business side when you were just starting?
John Waters: Well, he lent me the money. And I paid him back with interest and he was so shocked. I think it was the only person of the investors that I raised that hoped I would not pay him back so the career would end and I wouldn't ask him again.
So he was disappointed when I paid him back. But when I would rent halls in the beginning, I would rent the place and my brother would come get all the money and then he'd take it home to my dad. And they'd, you know, they would help me get the money out of there so all of the hippies didn't steal it.
Anna Sale: The Marsha’s in your fan base.
John Waters: No, we didn’t have any Marsha’s, we didn't.
Anna Sale: How do you think acquiring wealth has changed the way you think about or feel aligned with outlaws and rebels in America right now?
John Waters: Well, I say in my show, when I was young, I wanted to burn the bank of America down. Now my money's in there, but I'd still like to burn it down because they run the bank really badly.
My huge art collection I've collected for years went to the Baltimore museum and so, um, has it changed me? Nothing happened overnight. It happened very gradually. The career went up and down for a few years when I made Hollywood movies.
I got real money and I bought a house, an apartment, everything. And I went through what you have to do to get that money, too. And I don't have any complaints about it.
Anna Sale: What do you mean “went through?”
John Waters: Well, if they give you that amount of money to make a movie, they're gonna give you notes. You're gonna go through a test screening. They want it to make money.
I always wanted to make money. I always thought the films were commercial and weirdly enough, they all were. The difference was it took a long time to make the money back. But they're still all in print. They're still all playing. They still come out. And even the early ones had an audience. I didn't have critical support, but the audiences always came. I would rent a church hall and have the premier of Multiple Maniacs or Pink Flamingos on a Friday, Saturday and Sunday at eight, 10, and midnight. They all sold out. The audience was great, you know?
So it wasn't like I felt ignored. Ever. But I did learn how to do it. And I went through with New Line cinema in the very, very beginning. I got Variety when I was 14.
I learned the business. I learned to fight in it. I learned about what expenses are, how it's hard to get the money even if you make money. Bob Shay used to always say to me, “How do you make friends with the accountant?” Which I always did. I still send Christmas cards to accountants from 30 years ago that I made friends with. And they were always furious because the accountants would say, “Whose dinner was this for in Cannes? And they'd say that wasn't your film. They would tell me.
Anna Sale: I love that one way that you have described your work life balance is that you've said at least half of my dinners I don't expense.
John Waters: No, I don't. That just means you have a private life. If all your expenses are not. And I learned a long time ago from my accountant that clothes you can never deduct, even though wearing crazy clothes gets me fashion work. But you cannot deduct clothes. If you can wear 'em on the street, they can't have pockets. They can't. And I like to say, “I'd like to see the IRS wear this suit.” Good luck!
But still I've learned business stuff. You know, how it works and everything. And I am honest: if I spend 20 cents, I have a receipt and I give it to my accountant.
Anna Sale: What's your system?
John Waters: My accountant comes twice a week. In the envelope it's all the receipts that week, the bills and everything. So every receipt goes in. If it's a personal receipt, it goes in one envelope. If it's a business on another one, and if it's one that gets reimbursed a third envelope.
Anna Sale: Uh-huh.
John Waters: And I only got audited once and they said I had better records than General Motors. I wasn't there because the tax accountant I had at the time said, “Don't come.” They didn't want me there.
Anna Sale: So you must have three envelopes right now in the bag that you're carrying right now…
John Waters: I have them right on my desk. And all the boarding passes too to print, so I make sure I get all those frequent flier miles.
(Kashimi Popup - Blue Dot Sessions)
Anna Sale: Coming up: John Waters talks about tending to his circle of friends who range from heiresses and business moguls to incarcerated people and petty thieves, including the one John told me about, who inspired parts of his novel.
John Waters: I did have a friend that used to steal the stewardesses’ pocketbook cause really, yeah.
Anna Sale: Wait, tell me how you found this out.
John Waters: She told me and my other friend said: I was with her and then we're about to take off. And the plane announcement said: “Someone has taken the flight attendants pocketbook, and we're not taking off till we get it back.” She looked over at her friend. She knew her friend did it, and then they didn't tell and they did take off.
(end Kashimi Popup - Blue Dot Sessions)
Anna Sale: We have been updating our Anthems of Change Spotify Playlist with your new additions and we’ve loved hearing from you about the songs that are keeping you going right now…and the songs that have carried you through some tough times.
(Lucinda Williams - Fruits of My Labor)
Anna Sale: A listener named Lina was inspired to share her song after listening to our recent episode with Lucinda Williams, who was one of her mother’s favorite singers. “When I was trying to pick out a song for my boyfriend to sing at my mom's funeral,” she wrote. “He reminded me of the last song he ever sang for us, and it was Lucinda Williams' “Fruits of My Labor.” I still can't get through five seconds of that song without a tidal wave of grief washing over me.”
We also heard from our former intern, Mardy Harding, who said that she had to throw in her song, even if, in her words, “it is so cliche.”
(Indigo Girls - Closer to Fine)
Anna Sale: Mardy says that “nothing thing hits home like shrieking "CLOSER I AM TO FFFIIIIIIIIINNNEEEEE, YEAHH!!!!" at the top of her lungs.”
“The song's popularity and consistency through the years,” she wrote, “is a reminder that I'm not the first young person to feel listless.”
Anna Sale: And then there’s Amy, who wrote to us, “she’s sandwiched between kids and elderly parents (plus husband house dog, not necessarily in that order),” she added. Her go-to song: “Midnight Radio” from Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
(Hedwig and the Angry Inch - Midnight Radio)
Anna Sale: You can email us and let us know what songs you turn to in moments of transition…Send them to us at email@example.com and we’ll add them to the playlist. It doesn’t have to be a new song…could be an old one you’re hearing in a new way, and you can check out our full spotify playlist in the show notes, or just search for Death, Sex & Money “Anthems” in Spotify.
(St Augustine Red Alt SS - Blue Dot Sessions)
Anna Sale: This is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC. I’m Anna Sale.
I will tell you: John Waters makes you feel good. He likes talking, and makes it feel like he likes talking to you…which makes you feel interesting. Like he’s your friend.
So it makes sense that he has a lot of friends, he makes them easily and he takes good care of them.
John Waters: I don't trust people that don't have old friends. Something's the matter with them if they don't. They last longer, even than your family, because they're your age.
Anna Sale: When you think about your closest friends, like your closest, most intimate circle right now. Are they fellow creative people who make art or are they people…?
John Waters: Yes, they are. One is my best friend, Pat Moran. She's a casting agent, but I've known her forever and ever, and she did “The Wire.” She does a million stuff. Dennis Dermot, my dear, dear friend, who's a horror film buff and also has a cinema blog. And the Fremont's – he used to work for Andy Warhol. They both did. But I have lots of other ones that are not in the arts at all. And they mostly all live in Baltimore.
Anna Sale: How did your old friendships shift during the period of isolation?
John Waters: They didn't shift at all. We talked all the time and you know, sometimes I don't see them all the time anyway for both work and I'm in a different city.
The only thing that shifted is I didn't have my annual Christmas party and I still am not having it. I don't know — 200 people in my house without masks drinking… I'm not ready for. Will I ever have that party again? I don't know. And that, to me, the one I had in Baltimore was my Baltimore party. There were people there that have helped me or I've known my whole life. I only see, I'd say half the people that are there that one time a year now at the party. And I know, I’ll probably never see them again. We're still in touch and I'll miss that, but I ain't dying for that. Honestly, I'm not comfortable with that yet. Will I go back to that? I hope so, but I don't know.
Anna Sale: Are you making phone calls to a wider circle of people than you did when you knew you would see them at a dinner or at a party?
John Waters: No. I still see in each place I live the same people, even during the pandemic we would meet.
Anna Sale: I see.
John Waters: Because my building in San Francisco wouldn't even let you have guests. We would order pizza and eat in the park or on the roof. I still stayed in touch with my core of, let's say, 25 closest people. I even saw them during the pandemic.
Anna Sale: I love that you have 25 close people. That's a lot of close people.
John Waters: Well, I mean, if you're saying… probably
Anna Sale: Are they mostly your age?
John Waters: Some are younger but mostly… you know, that's a good question. I think they're varied in age, but I mean, like I went to see my oldest high school friend that I haven't seen in a long time, the other day in a retirement community. It was so weird to go in there, you know?
So I do stay in touch and if anything bad happens to you, I call. If you get a bad review, I call. Iif you go to jail, I definitely am your first visit.
Anna Sale: laughs
John Waters: I never don't come visit, if you're in jail. My mother used to say it was my junior league work.
Anna Sale: What was the retirement community like?
John Waters: It's not a bad one. I get ads for retirement communities that infuriate me and I put 'em right in the shredder. How dare you? Including the one my parents were in. Don't think you're getting me!
Anna Sale: There is a certain ease.
John Waters: Well, I don't know what I will eventually do, you know. Someone I taught in prison, he served 27 years for a double murder and I got him out. He's doing great. And he said, “The only way I can ever repay you, if you're old, I'll carry you up the steps.” I said, “I’ll remember that. I might take you up on that.” Come on over. I'm on the first floor.
Anna Sale: I noticed you've mentioned your back earlier…
John Waters: Yeah, it hurts.
Anna Sale: How are you feeling about the way your body is changing with age?
John Waters: You know, my dad had a bad back. I got one. Otherwise, you know, I'm going to 10 cities this week. I did five last week. I have a 20 city Christmas tour. It's not like it’s holding me back. But sometimes, yeah, I'm 76. I'm not middle-aged. I'm not 152. And people always say, why don't you retire? I think if I retired, I might drop dead the first day.
Anna Sale: Really?
John Waters: I don't know. Well, I don't know that.
Anna Sale: It’s not just aging that John Waters doesn’t relish. He makes the mundane details of living in a body seem grotesque as he explored through his novel’s main character who absolutely hated all of the functions that keep you alive.
John Waters: I'm like Marsha a little, I resent that I have to have a bowel movement. It's the only good thing about being dead. You never have to go through that again.
Anna Sale: Can you tell me why?
John Waters: Because you have no choice. I didn't think it up. Why do I have to do it? Even sex – I didn't think it up. Well, I have no choice, but to do things.
Anna Sale: Do you enjoy eating?
John Waters: Yes, but I wish I didn't have to. I mean, you know, why do you have to eat? It’s this whole thing you have no choice over, you cannot really decide not to do that. Marsha has figured it out as much as she can. She only has little pellets that shoot out. So she doesn't even have to wipe. And she has no odor. She has no BO or she has no odor in any way, because she wants to smell like nothing.
Anna Sale: I thought the detail about not having to wipe was quite evocative. You eat the right kind of whole grain cracker, and it's all taken care of.
John Waters: Well, yeah. And I also think you should never ever leave your house and do that. I think no one should ever go to the bathroom, except when you're in your house and in the privacy of your own home. Train yourself and if you can't do that, stay home. When I see people going to the bathroom on the airplane I think, how can you go in that room?
Anna Sale: You’re so disgusting…
John Waters: Even in first class they’re disgusting.
Anna Sale: Going back to bowel movements and your resentment of bowel movements, the idea that you don't like having to do something that you didn't think up, do you chafe at being told what to do generally?
John Waters: I like to tell myself what to do. Yeah.
Anna Sale: That's not being told what to do by someone else.
John Waters: Um, it depends on the tone again. Yes. If I agree with it, fine. But not many people tell me what to do.
Anna Sale: And writing a novel for the first time, knowing that you didn't have to cast it, knowing that you didn't have to find where you were gonna shoot that scene. Did it allow you to be more wild?
John Waters: It allowed me to go into more detail about people's obsessions and how they feel and feelings. I didn't have to show everything. I didn't have to have them say it out loud to get it. So there was a lot more inner turmoil that I could deal with and develop and go even deeper into their obsessions.
But all the people that are obsessed in Liarmouth believe they're normal. They all think they're right. They think they're on a mission. And, uh, few of them have humor about themselves and that's always the kind of people that amaze me. Like, how could you go out looking like that? Did you look in the mirror? But people look at me and think that.
Anna Sale: And this is the last question, because I know you have to get to Fox News.
John Waters: Yes. Well see if I get out…
Anna Sale: Which I just, I love this transition in your life right now. Um, you used the word obsessions there, which I think is interesting. When you think about what is this thing that this person can't let go of, what is that organizing?
John Waters: Yeah, it's so interesting to me. Like why are they so obsessed with that one thing? Why can they not do it another way? Why can't they see that it's unreasonable? And that is all people that are obsessed or cult-like behavior or people that are so driven into one way that they get detoured out of normal life or, or normal emotions. And those kinds of people always have fascinated me.
Anna Sale: Are you one of those people detoured out of normal life?
John Waters: Am I in normal life? It depends what that means. When I'm on tour I always think, can I walk outside for a minute where I'm not on TV or going into the next thing, but I don't live that life all the time. That is my normal life when I'm on a tour.
So I think I live a normal life for me in my position and what I do in the world. I have worked 76 years to make it as normal as I can. By that I mean, not causing me internal grief.
Anna Sale: Mm-hmm.
John Waters: A certain satisfaction. You've worked it out with yourself about what you expect can happen and what is realistic to believe in what's gonna happen on that day.
(Death, Sex & Money theme music)
Anna Sale: That’s John Waters. His debut novel, Liarmouth, is out now and you can see him perform this fall in a city near you.
Death, Sex & Money is a listener-supported production of WNYC Studios in New York. This episode was produced by Zoe Azulay and Liliana Maria Percy Ruiz.
The rest of our team is Afi Yellow-Duke, Lindsay Foster Thomas, and Andrew Dunn.
Our intern is Lilly Clark.
The Reverend John Delore and Steve Lewis wrote our theme music.
I’m on Instagram @annasalepics, that’s P-I-C-S. You can see a picture of that weird fake dog in John Waters' apartment right there. And the show is @deathsexmoney on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
Thank you to Kerry Coffee in Charleston, South Carolina for being a member of Death, Sex & Money and supporting us with a monthly donation. Join Kerry and support what we do here by going to deathsexmoney.org/donate.
And you know, I asked John Waters a few follow-up questions about that friend who steals flight attendants’ pocketbooks but I didn't get anywhere.
Anna Sale: Tell me about this friend. Was this a friend…?
John Waters: Well, she's alive and well, so I don't wanna libel her, but she's a piece of work. She was a true outlaw.
Anna Sale: I’m Anna Sale and this is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.
(end of Death, Sex & Money theme music)