The not-so-silent nights of a John Waters Christmas

Director John Waters
(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

Provocateur John Waters skewers Christmas (which he loves!) in a traveling show that lands in Solana Beach on Sunday

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Over the years, John Waters has picked up quite a few nicknames. The 76-year-old filmmaker, author, photographer, actor and artist has been labeled everything from the “Prince of Puke” and “Sultan of Sleaze” to the “Baron of Bad Taste” and, perhaps most famously, the “Pope of Trash.”

While not completely undeserved — Waters spent the first part of his career not pushing, but bulldozing boundaries in his transgressive films — the last few decades have been a different story.

His 1988 movie “Hairspray” was adapted into a 2002 Broadway musical that won eight Tony Awards — including one for Best Musical. His memoirs have landed on both the New York Times and L.A. Times’ bestseller lists, his photographs and sculptures have been shown in galleries around the globe, and Waters is a two-time Grammy nominee for spoken-word albums.

Although not that much has changed in Waters’ overall messaging, his slow march into the mainstream has been bolstered by a dynamic and relentless work ethic. And for nearly 20 years, much of that has been anchored by a traveling show that skewers one of the most popular holidays of them all.

Since releasing “A John Waters Christmas” in 2004 — a compilation album of handpicked holiday oddities — the polymath provocateur has toured a Christmas-themed, one-man show of the same name.

Partially based on a holiday essay from his 1986 book “Crackpot,” what started as a one-off, stand-up act at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre has now become an ever-changing monologue that makes an annual trek through as many as 20 cities each year.

“I work harder than Santa Claus,” said Waters through a laugh from his longtime Baltimore home. “But I think Christmas is like everything else these days — does it work anymore? Nothing works anymore. Christmas is about despair and insane optimism. And insane optimism always wins in my shows.”

With past versions of the performance earning subtitles like “Filthier and Merrier,” “A Yuletide Massacre” and “Holier and Dirtier,” it’s hard to imagine that an overarching theme of hope is responsible for the show’s enduring popularity. But even without a provocative subhead on this year’s poster, Waters has a guess as to why fans continue to spend at least one night of their holiday with him year after year.

“Everyone has extreme feelings about Christmas,” he said. “And whether you hate it or love it, either audience is going to like my show. But it’s a traditional thing that everyone knows perfectly well. And they know that if I’m doing it, it’ll be the exact opposite of traditional. But secretly, I am traditional. I do love Christmas for real without irony.”

Waters’ love for Christmas used to manifest itself in an annual party at his iconic Maryland home. Complete with a sprawling guest list and full-tilt kitsch, decorations included an electric chair adorned with twinkling lights, an entry-way wreath intended to snag your clothes and a mantel proudly displaying the Unabomber’s birdhouse. It was a non-traditional tradition the director had continued for years.

That is, until COVID hit. And while the pandemic did inspire Waters to pen yet another stand-up show, “False Negative,” it may have shut down his annual Christmas party for good.

“It may be over,” he said. “Even this year. I’m just not comfortable having 200 people in my house with no masks, drinking and talking in my face. I know people who have gotten COVID recently. And they had the shots!”

Ironically, the Christmas show itself may also be in jeopardy. Not because of any kind of virus, but the impending barrage of demands that will soon be coming for Waters.

As soon as this current tour wraps up, Waters is set to start writing the screenplay for “Liarmouth: A Feel-bad Romance,” his debut novel that was published earlier this year. Now optioned by Village Roadshow Pictures, Waters is set to be back behind the director’s chair for the first time since 2004.

Also, after multiple years in the making, the Los Angeles Academy Museum of Motion Pictures is set to open an entire floor dedicated to Waters’ filmography — complete with a treasure trove of items from all of his films — next year. And somewhere in the midst of all that, the “Pope of Trash” is scheduled to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

It’s likely the Christmas show will live on in some form or another. But for an artist who has seemingly added the moniker of “hardest working man in show business” to his already long list of nicknames, Waters is all about keeping it in perspective.

“I’ve never been this busy in my whole life,” he said. “And as I say, ‘I’m so respectable I could puke!’ But it’s all exciting. I have no irony about it. I’m proud of it. But it’s like what someone wrote online when they heard about the Hollywood star: Good! He’ll be closer to the gutter! And that is so true!”

‘A John Waters Christmas’

When: 8 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 4

Where: Belly Up Tavern, 143 S. Cedros Ave., Solana Beach

Phone: (858) 481-8140

Tickets: Sold out

Online: bellyup.com

McDonald is a freelance writer.


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