John Waters on Tiny Tim, 'A Christmas Story' and being a Never-Nude
I was able to speak to John Waters for half an hour when I interviewed him a couple of weeks ago for this week's feature. Editing it down was so hard that I feel compelled to share with other fans what didn't make it into the paper — cock rings and all. Please enjoy, and I'll see you at A John Waters Christmas on December 10 at the Flynn.
What do you know about Vermont? Well, it sounds like my kind of town. You always hear about it. You know, it's one of these places where you feel like if you're on the run from the cops, somebody would protect you there. If you were left wing or it was the old days when the Weathermen were ... If I was running from being tear-gassed ... Remember, people used to put signs on the door saying Angela Davis would be welcome here? It's the kind of place that if I was in trouble, that people there would hide me out, so I have a very good feeling about it. And I'll try not to do anything illegal while I'm there, which is a short time. So for 24 hours, I plan to commit no crimes except verbal Christmas crimes.
Illustration by Kym Balthazar
Public nudity is legal here. Oh, don't
worry, I'm never nude. And that's the problem with nude beaches,
everyone at them is ugly. It's never cute people. All the people I want
to see nude all summer in Provincetown, do I ever see them at the nude
beach? No, I see hideous people, that blatantly show parts they
shouldn't even be looking at.
Hideous people are far more interesting. No. Everybody looks better with a little something on. Actually, that's not true, because Patricia Hearst and I were walking through the dunes and a man about 70 years old walked by us completely nude except for a cock ring. And I thought, That's even worse.
It's something else to focus on.
Yeah, it's a memory we share. She looked at me and I looked at her and
we just [thought], What can he be? We didn't try to say hello or anything, we just
Do you think Christmas will be different this year, given the recession? The difference is, with the recession, all the fancy stores, you can hear the crickets in. So basically, this would be a needy Santa. He wouldn't be mean to you because that would be against store policy today. All the stores that used to be the most elegant are begging you to come. They come in and they give you a sandwich. I mean, it's true. It used to be they would sniff when you walked in, now they try to give you liquor! Everywhere. I walked into a chain bookstore in San Francisco and they were handing out desserts to people who came. People are much friendlier. Christmas shopping will be a lot friendlier this year.
Not as stressful, you think? It will be stressful for the stores because I think they're terrified that people are gonna just cut way back. They may. But they'll be nicer to you, the sales for Christmas start November 26 for the next year! They used to say, what do they call it, Black... the Friday after Thanksgiving?
Black Friday. But now, it's already started. I get Women's Wear Daily and it started in many stores the day after Halloween. They moved it up. So that's what I mean. Any Santa Claus in a fancy store will be nice to you. And when I wrote that I said I wanted one that would be snotty to you for rich kids. Now rich kids are lucky if they get a present.
I've been obsessed with your grandmother getting pinned under her Christmas tree ever since I read about it in Crackpot when I was 12. Tell me about it. I probably exaggerated it a little bit. She wasn't injured or anything. She didn't have to go to the hospital or anything. I don't know how it fell on her, ’cause she didn't have a dog or anything, and by doing this Christmas show I've had at least 10 people who have come up and told me that the Christmas tree fell on their mother and all the horrible things that happened. It's usually the dog, but one person said her mother just went so crazy that she canceled Christmas, wouldn't speak to anyone and got drunk. So it is not that rare. Christmas trees fall over, and when people are emotionally very thin-skinned at Christmas and it can be the final thing that drives you into alcoholism or nervous breakdowns.
This didn't happen, but I was
obsessed by it and I'd really get on my parents' nerves by asking them
to repeat the details of what they remembered. A couple balls were
broken, it wasn't like all of my presents were smashed. She didn't fall
in it like the boxes were all injured; that's kind of how I've
exaggerated it in my mind when I think about it. But I know that the
cleaning woman was there, Bernice, who we really liked. I heard her
running, there was that issue of the panic, but it became something
that we laughed about in our family over the years. I turned it into a
scene in my movie [Female Trouble] and wrote about it in the book and it became a family
legend, the same way that my dad, who was very straitlaced but his
company was fire protection equipment, so whenever we heard the fire
siren, even if we were in the middle of dinner, we would jump up, run,
get in the car and we would follow the fire engines to look at the
people's houses burn down. I was closest to my father then. I felt
close to my whole family about the tale of the Christmas tree falling
over on my grandmother. It really bonded us. And my grandmother would
laugh about it. It wasn't some trauma for her. It wasn't like she was
rushed away in an ambulance with stars sticking in her eyeballs or
anything. It wasn't that good. [It was my] Grandma Stella, the same one that gave
me a movie camera.
How late did you continue to believe in Santa? I don't know because I would get confused. I remember my mother told me that I would say, you know, I know about Santa. I know about the guardian angel and Santa Claus are the same person. So I would get confused, and I always hated the Easter Bunny.
I wrote a whole thing about my hatred of the Easter Bunny. No child believes in the Easter Bunny. And it's such a rip-off. All you get is some rotten candy and you have to wear itchy clothes. It's a terrible holiday.
But I think sometimes I wondered if Santa was the guardian angel. Which I don't remember that I believed that, either, but for some reason I thought that he had two jobs, ’cause I wondered, What do they do the rest of the year? So I always thought that the guardian angel maybe became Santa and was the same person. But when I stopped believing in it — I don't remember, really, and I don't remember it being a trauma. I guess somebody at school told you or something.
The more that you see Santas in stores, the more you know that it's not the real one. Every year we would go to this caroling thing, right, and then Santa would come at the end, and I would recognize that it was the neighbor I knew. He was a really bad actor and looked exactly like the man up the street. I think that really pushed me over, but I think when you know, you don't want your parents to know you know, because you're afraid they'll be hurt.
It sounds like it was always kind of a religion thing for you.
I was raised part Catholic, so always anything good comes with guilt. So,
basically Santa was used against you, like if you weren't good he
wouldn't come, and I always tell the story of my Aunt Kate, who was
Stella's sister, who as a child, their parents really did give her
coal. I've never heard of that, ever! Have you ever heard of a parent
doing that? But they did, and she flipped out and everything. So, that I
always thought of and I was obsessed by that, too. She really got
sticks and stones and coal. Really, that's child abuse.
It is telling your kid they're a bad person. Yeah. I always wondered what did she do, and that nobody could tell me. I wanted to know, what was the sin? What did she do that was that bad? And no one knew. I think it was general smart-aleckness, or what they call in prison reckless eyeballs. That's a charge you get if you give a guard a dirty look. I had reckless eyeballs. I still have them. So I'm amazed, still, that I ever got anything.
On your Christmas album, you include a Tiny Tim song, but not my favorite, "Santa Claus Has Got the AIDS This Year." Why not? I don't know if I knew that one. Did you say has got the AIDS? Oh, Christ. I wouldn't have put that one in.
I like Tiny Tim. I'm a big fan of Tiny
Tim. I have a lot of his albums and his biography, which was written a
long time ago, which is really worth a lot of money now, I think.
Playboy Press published it. I think Tiny Tim was a really great singer
and he was known in the village long before he got the Johnny Carson
thing. He was very known as a Beatnik performer in places in Greenwich Village. So he had a great history. I think maybe that song wasn't that
funny, maybe, I don't know. It had to be joyous and it had to be a song
I really, really loved. I don't think I picked anything ’cause they were
so bad. Well, Little Cindy singing "Happy Birthday Jesus" is frightening,
but I don't think it's bad, especially. I think it's astounding, so
astounding is never bad to me.
I wanted to ask your opinion on some classic Christmas movies. I hope I've seen 'em. I didn't see It's a Wonderful Life until I was 45.
Have you seen A Christmas Story? Which one? There's a hundred movies with that name.
The "You'll shoot your eye out" one. I thought that was funny, good. That was probably one of the first good nasty Christmas movies.
How about Charlie Brown's Christmas?
I'm a big fan of "Peanuts." They're rereleasing those comics in all
different volumes and I wrote the introduction to one of them. I'm a
big, big fan of "Peanuts." That movie, I saw it, I don't remember if Lucy
was in it enough. I just want the Lucy Christmas, not the Charlie Brown
one, that's what I would like to see.
How about Nestor, The Long-Eared Christmas Donkey? I don't even know what that is. I thought you were really going to make me excited and tell me it was Francis the Talking Mule or Mr. Ed the talking mule Christmas movie, which would make me crazy.
Who are the Liz Renays or Patty Hearsts of today? I don't know that Liz is, you know, she died last year at 80 years old, she got the most amazing obituaries. She has a lot of books and they're all good! The thing is, now all burlesque is ironic and I understand that, ’cause they don't wanna appeal to sexist men, they want to appeal to gay men, really. So I don't think there can be a new Liz Renay.
Patricia Hearst, I think she's a good comedienne. I think, who wants to be the next victim? Unfortunately, it was Elizabeth Smart, was a similar kind of thing and she has turned out to beat all the psychological scars, apparently, and Patricia Hearst has, too. But certainly I think Patricia Hearst would much prefer you remember her from being in movies than that. She never signed an autograph until she made a movie. I mean, who wants to be a famous victim?
If you were to write a script based in Vermont, what would it be about? I don't know enough to do it. First of all, the only way you can make a really good script is to make fun of a place you love. And I don't know the eccentricities enough about Vermont, so for me to try to satirize a place I don't know would be stupid and probably mean spirited.
I could do one about Provincetown, I could do one about San Francisco, I could do one about New York, places I know well. But I certainly have an interest in Vermont, and it sounds like a great place. Cold weather, I have no problem with that. I hate hot weather, so I don't know enough. I don't know the other side of Vermont, what's under the rock. And that's what I make movies about, but I celebrate that.