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REVIEW: John Waters – This Filthy World

Doug Hill
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OKLAHOMA CITY – When I first heard that legendary director John Waters was scheduled to perform his one-man show “John Waters: This Filthy World” in Ada, Oklahoma of all places, I should’ve known not to expect a traditional evening. It only makes sense given that Waters has never been much of a traditional filmmaker, but in fact a man who injects every single one of his projects with touches of the bizarre and outrageous.

Generations have been raised on the work of Waters, a man dubbed the Pope of Trash by William S. Boroughs, the Prince of Puke by the Baltimore Sun, and the People’s Pervert by The Guardian. Even his more “family-friendly” films like Hairspray and Cry-Baby possess a certain subversive edge that’s made them cult classics for the freaks and outsiders of the world. And from the gross-out antics of Pink Flamingos to the suburban satire of Serial Mom, Waters has rightfully earned his reputation as one of the most transgressive voices to come out of American cinema. Waters puts it best himself: “People see my movies and say ‘You must’ve been on drugs when you made them’, and we were.”

Which is probably why the nearly sold-out crowd at the Ataloa Theatre were willing to brave tornado warnings and thunderstorm alerts for the chance to see their beloved idol Friday night. There were even a few times as I was driving down from Oklahoma City through pouring rain and flooded streets that I wondered if Waters was really worth the trouble. But even the weather alerts buzzing from the crowd’s iPhones throughout the evening weren’t enough to dampen Waters’ wit and the audience’s deeply-rooted admiration. 

It was worth the price of admission alone just to see Waters walk out wearing a gaudy, brightly-colored suit that looked like something the word “camp” was invented to describe. The Ataloa may be tiny, but the crowd in attendance filled it with the sort of energy and admiration you normally only see in arenas. 

It’s admittedly difficult to even recap a sprawling evening that was at times a one-man show, others a comedy routine, and often a showcase for sharing stories from his illustrious career. Much like his films, “John Waters: This Filthy World” was filled with a sort of madcap energy that had you grinning ear-to-ear when you weren’t buckling over in laughter or looking at the person next to you asking “Did he really just say that?”

But what else would you expect from a man who declared to the crowd that he felt like “Blake Shelton on poppers”? 

He got politics out of the way early, riffing on Trump and the way today’s political climate mirrors his own upbringing (“I have a nostalgia for riots”). Even if political discourse is no stranger to comedy today, leave it to Waters to find new targets in the form of Pelican 212, the kids band that played at Trump’s inauguration this past January. Waters’ mini-rant on his intense hatred for the group already had the audience in tears: “Musical taste is and should be an impeachable offense.” He perfectly set the tone for an evening that relished in politically incorrect humor: “People told me ‘we’re in a university, be careful of trigger warnings.’ My life is a trigger warning.”

From there, the evening followed a loosely chronological structure that traced various events in his life laced with random anecdotes and side-stories like his short time spent as a student at New York University (“I was thrown out of NYU during their very first drug bust!”). He even broke down in laughter at some of his own outrageousness, such as when he got on the topic of religion by discussing how he likes to stay in touch with his spiritual side: “I try to jerk-off and think of Jesus’s Apostles.” 

But even if Waters’ humor was the star of the evening, it also offered some creative insight into the mind of a master. He was all sincerity when discussing the influence William Castle had on his career, whom he recently portrayed on an episode of the FX series Feud: Bette and Joan. And even if you’re not completely familiar with his filmography, there was still plenty of joy to be had when he discussed the time he and his crew were arrested for indecent exposure while filming Mondo Trash or how Divine’s mother discovered his double-life as drag queen when she found a bloody Jackie Kennedy costume in his closet from Eat Your Makeup, a short film they made together. Divine’s response whenever his mother questioned him about it? “I am Jackie O.”

Ever the professional, Waters barely even budged when the power went out while he was talking about his idea for a contest where butch lesbians impersonate Caitlyn Jenner. The blacked-out theatre was suddenly lit up with the audience’s phone lights aimed towards Waters as he continued on with his set to great applause, projecting until the power came back on a few minutes later. Later on the theatre would be filled with the collective beeping of the audience’s iPhones receiving severe weather alerts. Without skipping a beat, Waters said “Is that a tornado warning? How exciting, what a way to go!” 

His stories about filming in the ‘70s were just as uproarious as you’d imagine (“What can we do that there isn’t a law against? That’s how we made Pink Flamingos”), as was his list of potential punk-band names inspired by real-life medical terms (Anal Mucus and Breakthrough Bleeding are the only printable ones). But it was the little zingers and actions peppered throughout that made the biggest impact, such as when he threw a travel-sized packet of anal bleach into the crowd or talked about the time someone suggested he take gravel, a drug that “lasts three days and costs $5.” 

That’s why his Q&A that happened immediately following the show was just as memorable as the performance itself. It was all just further proof that Waters doesn’t need a script to be funny because wit and humor are in his bones. When asked what television he currently watches, his revelation that he’s only ever seen three shows (Howdy Doody, Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, and The Wire) wasn’t even meant as a joke but still got a huge laugh because it felt like such a quintessentially John Waters response. 

Touching on everything from his feelings about Che Guevara (“He might’ve been able to wear a beret with a little flair, but he was an asshole”) to his thoughts on modern moviemaking (“We have to do something about these tentpole movies. Those trailers aren’t coming attractions, they’re warnings”), you’d be hard pressed to find something Waters doesn’t have an opinion on. His performance was a reminder that once you get past his signature pencil mustache and penchant for the repulsive, Waters has and always will be one of our culture’s foremost freethinkers.

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About the Author

Keaton Bell

Born in Minnesota but raised in Oklahoma, Keaton is a senior at the University of Oklahoma...

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Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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