The Hot Seat: John Waters

America's pervy uncle spreads Christmas cheers and jeers.

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Photograph: Nitzan Krimsky


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Does your love of bad taste extend to today's ubiquitous bad-taste culture?
Well, there's a new bad taste; it really helps to be young to identify that. American humor now is based on bad taste. But you can never break the rules with style unless you know the rules. I still am offended if people have bad taste without knowing it and celebrating it.

Is there still value in shock?
I was never just trying to shock you; I was trying to make you laugh. Surprise is what I'm after, or to startle people. It's the same thing in my Christmas show: Taken out of context, some of the things I talk about would probably make everybody very uncomfortable, but together—when I am celebrating Christmas and not in an ironic way—I think everybody wants to take a chance and come with me into that extreme world.

Speaking of extremes, the outsider porn you write about in your latest book, Role Models, looks quaint next to what's online today.
Porn is obscene now. Feminists who say that heterosexual porn is now about making hate are correct. But we have to put up with the worst extremes of porn, and the mafia companies that distribute it and defend it in court. Because we can use those laws in the artistic world for humor about sex and violence.

You had some fun back in the day at the expense of hippies. How do you feel about Occupy Wall Street?
Oh, I'm all for it! Are you kidding? I would be down there getting laid and getting high just like they are! But I can't really go because, you know, I own three homes. [Laughs] I love that they have no demands—that makes grown-ups so mad.

And the protests are full of attractive young people.
They'd be my type—like ecoterrorists, I always think they're cute—but the problem is that they always have B.O. One of the deodorant companies should have come in as a corporate sponsor. They missed the mark.

In your 1981 book, Shock Value, you talk about loving violent movies. How does that adapt to the new generation of torture porn, like Saw and The Human Centipede II ?
I think it adapts perfectly. I still hate real violence, but I can't wait to see The Human Centipede II. That car race when everybody got killed—I don't wanna look at that. But if it was fake, I'd want to look at it. And I think every audience knows the difference.

In Role Models, you write about your friendship with [onetime Manson family member] Leslie Van Houten, and express ambivalence about some of your older work that made comic use of the Manson murders. Is that something you would go back and change if you could?
Well, you can't go back and change, you know. And I wouldn't. Because that made me part of who I am today. If I had never gone to the Manson trial, I may have not made Pink Flamingos. That was a huge influence on that—I made it right after I went to the trial. But then I did not know any of the people, and I did not know the victims, and I did not teach in prison...In Role Models, I did write about it fairly, even though Leslie is my friend; I put in the worst stuff the victims' relatives have said against her. I understand it's a tough, tough question. But I believe that you can get better: not everybody, but certainly, when you meet a madman when you're 17... She should have gone to jail, and she thinks so, too. But 40 years? She's never had a moment's violence in 40 years in an atmosphere that is filled with violence. If you've been taught, you can be paroled.

Speaking of getting better, what's your take on the "It Gets Better" campaign aimed at LGBT youth?
What's that? [After explanation] See how gay-incorrect I am? I'm certainly not against it, but I think it has already gotten better. I don't think that every gay person has to suffer. What's unfortunate that it's become a class issue, where in rich kids' schools its totally okay to be gay, but in poor schools it can still be a big problem.

But does a little bit of suffering help make gay people more interesting?
No! No! People being interesting, to be honest, has nothing to do with whether they're gay or straight. It just depends if they're smart and funny and creative, and straight and gay people can both be that. I'm for coming in, too, if you change your mind! Sometimes, I wish they would go back! Being gay is not enough—it was a good start, but these days, why do we have to be good? [Laughs] It gets on my nerve.

What are you favorite places to go when you are in New York City?
I love to go to people's homes to dinner parties. That's the most old-school, fancy way to go to New York. I'll be honest with you: I do not know a good sleazy bar in Manhattan. I used to. To me, ever since Squeezebox closed, nothing took its place.

A quote of yours has been making the rounds again: "If you go home with somebody, and they don't have books, don't fuck them!" Which is good for me, because my bedroom looks like the Collyer brothers' library.
That's great! So does my house. I'm getting more extreme in my pro-book message. I was the speaker at the 5 under 35 National Book Foundation thing, and I said, "Thirty-five? That's old! I'd made five movies by then! Get busy!" So I would go further this year: If you go home with somebody, and they haven't written a book, don't have oral sex!

A John Waters Christmas plays Dec 19 and 20 at B.B. King Blues Club & Grill.

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