Filmmaker John Waters, the proud “Pope of Trash,” is no stranger to weird questions. But at a recent audience Q&A when someone asked him, “How did you avoid getting cancer?” he was flummoxed. “I thought, ‘I did smoke, I’m 76 — I guess it is a fair question,'” he says on a call from his home in Provincetown, Massachusetts. “I was explaining all this, and the audience starts laughing harder and harder. And then I realized I heard them wrong. They said, ‘How did you avoid getting canceled?'”
For nearly 60 years, Waters has violated the boundaries of good taste with satirical films like Hairspray and Pink Flamingos (recently rereleased by the Criterion Collection in honor of its 50th anniversary), and incisive books that take a closer look at America’s grimy underbelly. Now, the mustachioed misfit is taking on the concept of truth itself with his first novel, Liarmouth: A Feel-Bad Romance, about a compulsive liar named Marsha Sprinkle. “I had a wonderful time thinking her up,” he tells Rolling Stone. “I think readers enjoy spending time with someone so monstrous every once in a while.”
Liarmouth’s protagonist, Marsha Sprinkle, gets off on lying. What does your book say about the truth?
She finds that lying makes her prettier and smarter and gives her power. She believes in random acts of meanness every day. If you lie to somebody creatively, it causes anarchy, and maybe that means she’s the only person in control. I don’t know what Freud would say about lying.
At one point, she tells a kid the Jonas Brothers died.
I know, and I love the Jonas Brothers. That’s probably the meanest thing she does in the book, is to tell children that their idol, something terrible happened to them.
When I was a child, I remember hearing two rumors that everyone believed: that Annette Funicello [from] the Mousketeers had been beheaded in a car accident, and it was totally not true, and one about a girl that was on The Buddy Deane Show, which is the dance show I based Hairspray on. There was a girl named Pixie who I really liked. She was about four foot eight, and her hairdo was, like, three feet high. She quit the show, and a rumor started that she died from having roaches in her hair that came and bit her, and she had to come back on the air to prove it wasn’t true. So I had Ricki Lake have roaches in her hair in Hairspray. So that whole lie turned into a kind of a conveyor belt of scenes that inspired me.
What did you hope to do with a novel that you couldn’t do with film?
It was nothing different; I just want to make people laugh at things they are surprised to laugh at. And in a novel I got to go deeper in describing characters’ feelings. I’m always just trying to make myself laugh first, and then my friends, and then my readers. I think, “Am I going to get away with this one?”
Many of your characters are living their truths and don’t care what anyone thinks, even if their behavior is repugnant. What do you make of people who aren’t afraid to be themselves?
I’m always fascinated by people that don’t see how insane they act, and they really are serious about what they’re doing. Can’t you see what you look like? So I’m fascinated by people’s behavior; all writers are. You’re a spy if you’re a writer.
How do you feel comedy and fiction get to the truth of human experience?
If you want to convince someone else of the truth, you make them laugh and they’ll listen. Preaching, being serious, ranting, telling them they’re stupid — none of that works. You make them laugh, they’ll listen.
What do you think of people who hate sex, like Marsha Sprinkle?
I think it’s refreshing to hate sex. I mean, sometimes I think, “Well, why do I have to do this? I didn’t think this up.” I’m a little like Marsha, I resent instinct. I mean, I like having sex, but I wish I had thought it up. I wish it wasn’t something programmed in me.
What should people who hate sex know?
People that hate sex usually hate it for a reason. They’ve had some kind of trauma in their background, or they just don’t get it. In a way, if you really hate sex, that might be freedom. You’re probably never going to fall in love, you’re not going to get hurt. But you are definitely missing something. But I don’t think there’s anything other people should know that I know. Because like Glinda told Dorothy, “You have to find it out for yourself.” And I thought Glinda was kind of shitty. Why did she make Dorothy go through all that shit? If she’d just, “Click your heels together, you can go home,” but she made her almost die and go through all shit. Why? In other words, maybe you are telling people what they should learn when you write any fiction or write a movie. You’re telling them something that maybe they don’t know, that they take back in their own life and apply it for humor, to get through something.
Does Liarmouth have a moral?
As you read the book, you learn she did have a reason to be so bitter. And then she learned to tell the truth when one insane man did worse to her than she did to other people; she found her match. And maybe that’s what everybody needs, is to find their match.
You mentioned that Marsha practices “random acts of meanness.” What does your book say about the world?
That I’m a kind person and I think the humor in my book is not mean. Marsha learns and, sort of, it has a happy ending.
So what am I saying about the world? That human behavior is fascinating. That’s all I’m ever saying. And that we really can’t judge anybody because we don’t know the whole story. And I think everybody’s born innocent — the exact opposite of what the Catholic church that taught me, that children were born with original sin, the most evil thing you could ever tell a child. Jews are right; they tell them, “You’re the chosen people.” That’s what you should tell people.
Is there any good to Catholicism?
I always said that Catholics will have the best sex because it’ll always be dirty.
In your book Shock Value, you wrote that in your opinion, “bad taste was the peak of entertainment.” How has bad taste changed in the five decades between Pink Flamingos and Liarmouth?
I wrote that in 1980. If my films have done anything, they’ve made bad taste a little more respectable. The kind of humor I used in my early movies is on every television show. Dark humor is, today, American humor. It used to be called “sick humor,” satire, black comedy; it’s all now just American humor. Every TV show has it, every rap song has it, everything has it that’s American. It’s using things that are against you for humor.
When is the last time a story has shocked you?
I’m reading this book called Helltown now, about Tony Costa, the necrophile mass murderer in Provincetown. I remember when it happened, when I was here very, very young. And so now being in Provincetown and [learning about it] again, this is pretty shocking. His murders were really shocking and hideous. He cut up the bodies and had sex with them in different ways. I always thought necrophilia was just fear of performance. Maybe it is.
You’d never get a negative review.
Nobody’s going to say you were a lousy fuck.
Have you seen any good exploitation movies lately?
I can’t think of one. What’s an exploitation film anymore? It’s amazing there isn’t a Covid movie out. There would have been a Covid exploitation movie in two minutes in the Sixties.
You titled a chapter of Shock Value “Why I Love Violence.”
Fake violence in a movie, I have a great time with, but I don’t like to see real violence ever. If it’s a snuff movie, I’m not interested, because there’s no creativity in it.
Why do you think people get off on violence?
Maybe because they think, “Well, at least that didn’t happen to me today. I had a bad day, but I didn’t get shoved in front of a subway.” Just like they asked the editor of the National Enquirer once, “Why do you always write about stars failing?” And he said, “Because our readers are failing.”
Going back to the “getting canceled” question that audience threw at you: Why don’t you think you’ve been canceled?
Because I’m not mean spirited and I make fun of things I love, and I make fun of the rules of the outsider world that I’ve always lived in, not the rules of my parents.
This year is the 50th anniversary of Pink Flamingos. As far as potential fodder for cancellation goes, the one thing that stands out the most would be the couple abducting and impregnating elementary school children and selling their babies to lesbians.
Yeah, I guess. And the chicken scene [in which a chicken is crushed between two characters when one rapes another], but I eat chicken. You can’t call somebody fat anymore. There’s a really rude scene where she gets a birthday card, “Happy birthday, Fatso,” and the audience howls in laughter. But, yes, [backlash] probably is even worse today because of so-called political correctness, but it has not happened to the movie. It got named by the government to the National Registry. What more kind of acceptance can you get? And I think it’s because it’s the right person wins in Pink Flamingos: Divine is the right person, according to her morals, and the other people are jealous and judgmental, everything that I’m against. So the morals are still correct in Pink Flamingos, even if they’re told in a very confusing way.
Speaking of political correctness, did you see that Lizzo got in trouble for saying “spaz” in a song?
Yeah, you can’t say that word. Well, in [my film] Female Trouble, one of the funniest lines in the whole movie is when Divine says to her daughter, “You are most definitely retarded. We had you tested by a team of doctors.” People still howl at that.
What do you think of the way culture has changed with regard to political correctness?
I used to fear the right. Now I don’t. If I’m going to get [any blowback], it would be from rich, left, liberal students. Which, I’m a liberal, and I guess I’m rich — I mean, if you had to say it, I’m not poor. The only thing that the new politically correct generation does is they never make fun of themselves, and that’s a flaw. And that’s how you lose followers, that’s how people go and vote for the other side.
That sounds like something you could explore more. Is there any chance you’d make another film? It’s been nearly 20 years since A Dirty Shame.
There’s definitely chances. I have two possible things in the works and both my contracts say I can’t talk about it. So let’s just say, yes, it is a possibility.
That’s good news. A few years ago, you were saying, “I just write books now.”
Well, things change. Old chickens make good soup, I’ve always said it.
There’s a scene in Pink Flamingos in which a character mails a turd to Divine.
Little Richard used to mail people a turd. When I read his biography, it was in there. So Pink Flamingos was not the first instance of that. And I thought I made that up.
You recently hosted a Pink Flamingos screening. What is it like watching that again, 50 years later, with people who haven’t seen it before?
It’s scary at first, because we said in the beginning, “How many people have seen this?” and only about a fourth of the audience raised their hand. It’s usually 100 [percent] — they all have. And usually, it starts out and they say, “Mink Stole,” everybody cheers — but they were kind of quiet. They’re like, “Oh, my God, what is this?” And by the end, they’re laughing and cheering.
That’s nice to see, I’m sure.
It is. It just proves I won.