Blending a little filth with lots of funny

Posted: March 25, 2010

'Because I have survived with neurotic happiness for 40 years, I believe that I can guide other people to a life of happy insanity," John Waters bubbles by phone from San Francisco.

The moralist, mischief-maker, filmmaker, photographer, and performance artist refers to his one-man show, This Filthy World, which comes to Bryn Mawr College's Goodhart Theater at 8 tomorrow night.

It's always a gas to speak with Waters, 63, maker of cult movies including Hairspray (the 1988 original that inspired the recent Broadway musical and film adaptation), whose sense of fun is like no one else's.

Even better than a telephone one-on-one is to hear Waters live, to experience how the human stick figure and self-described crackpot induces giggles.

About 20 years ago, he tickled the audience at Philadelphia's Comedy Factory Outlet by confessing his longtime ambition to sing Barbra Streisand's "People" in pig Latin while making deep eye contact with everyone is the room.

About 15 years ago, the director of taboo-flouting comedies about transvestites, coprophagists, and serial killers convulsed the crowd at the Free Library in a talk on "Taste and Tolerance," explaining: "What my work has been about since the beginning is the testing of liberal limits." Pause. "No point in testing conservative limits," he added.

Since then, the onetime chain-smoker has given up the cigs, but retains the long-puff-between-sentences timing. And having created movie characters who break every commandment (Serial Mom), fashion dictate (Polyester), and taboo (Pink Flamingoes), he has given up the controversialism but retains the humor.

He has regularly updated This Filthy World since its inception in the 1980s. In 2006, Jeff Garlin filmed the show for a performance movie of the same title. While Mr. Filth is loath to give away his new material, he confides that he will discuss "my alternative careers."

Waters has longed to be the editor of an intellectual supermarket tabloid, "The National Brainiac." Roll over, Britney and Tiger. The Brainiac would publish exclusive photos of Susan Sontag's cellulite and the transcripts of Philip Roth's sex tapes. Can the outing of Camille Paglia's weight-loss regimen be far behind?

Ask the recovering controversialist and provocateur if he has moved toward the mainstream or if the mainstream has moved toward him, and he laughs heartily.

"A little of both," he replies. "I now have to admit that I've become an insider - isn't that the ultimate irony? Now that everyone wants to be an outsider." Among Waters' favorite contemporary outsider filmmakers are Todd Solondz (Happiness), Todd Haynes (I'm Not There), and Gaspar Noe (the rape-and-revenge tale Irreversible).

Still, on Waters' top 10 movies of 2009 - published in Artforum - he lists both Lars von Trier's Antichrist and Bobcat Goldthwait's World's Greatest Dad, starring Robin Williams. Waters' is the most catholic of tastes.

While working on a sequel (Hairspray 2: White Lipstick - alas, not optioned) and another film script, Fruitcake, "about a family of meat thieves who shoplift food and sell it to customers at half price," Waters found time to write the essays in his forthcoming memoir, Role Models. (The book hits bookstores in May, when he is scheduled for an author's event at the Free Library).

In the book, he discusses his many influences, including Johnny Mathis, Tennessee Williams, and painter Cy Twombly. One of Waters' offhand observations is that, for him, Alvin and the Chipmunks are bigger influences than the Beatles. And what do Alvin, Simon, and Theodore have that John, Paul, George, and Ringo do not?

"I am erotically attracted to Alvin - he's my type," says Waters, who admits that he's carried the torch for the squeaky-voiced rodent ever since he heard the hit song "Witch Doctor" as a kid. Walla walla bing bang, indeed!

Waters is nonplussed to hear that he himself is a role model for followers who appreciate that his tone tends to be one of enthusiasm and appreciation rather than sneering sarcasm and disrespect. As a writer of screenplays as well as of essays, he appreciates his characters rather than judging them.

"To the extent that I have politics, I believe that you don't judge people until you know their story," he says. "I was very lucky that my parents made me feel safe. They gave me freedom."

Perhaps the most shocking thing about Waters, the guy who wrote the book on Shock Value, is that, despite the fetish for naughtiness and "this filthy world," he is the opposite of a misanthrope.

Call this polymorphous perverse Pollyanna a philanthrope. It's not in the dictionary, but you know what I mean.

Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at


John Waters:

This Filthy World

8 p.m. tomorrow at Bryn Mawr College. Tickets $5-$18. 610-526-5210,

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