Seasoned Greetings: A John Waters Christmas Comes to Denver

John Waters's Christmas tour comes to the Soiled Dove Underground on Saturday, December 4.
John Waters's Christmas tour comes to the Soiled Dove Underground on Saturday, December 4. Greg Gorman
Chapter twelve in filmmaker and author John Waters’s book Crackpot is titled “Why I Love Christmas.” Waters, the man behind films like Pink Flamingos, Cry-Baby and Hairspray, opens the chapter with “Being a traditionalist, I’m a rabid sucker for Christmas,” then spends the next eight pages proclaiming his deep and mad obsession with the holiday.

The book was originally released in 1986, and years later, a promoter from San Francisco's Castro Theatre asked Waters if he would do a show based on that chapter. The first A John Waters Christmas show took place in 1996 at the Castro, and Waters decided to make it into an annual tour. While his material has mutated over the past 25 years, this year’s tour, which stops at the Soiled Dove Underground on Saturday, December 4, is completely different.

“I think every comedy show that was ever written before the pandemic you can never use anymore, because everything is completely different,” Waters says from his Baltimore home before the tour. “And nobody wants to hear a whole show of COVID jokes, either. People are sick of talking about it. That's what every conversation is about — everything. So basically, it’s a thin line of how COVID has affected Christmas and everybody's life. I think that's where the comedy hopefully will come in.”

Waters says the pandemic lost him about forty speaking gigs. That meant he wouldn't see his fans in person, which he finds incredibly important. He says his first time back on stage was in June, when he emceed the Orville Peck and Yola show at Red Rocks Amphitheatre.

“I remember walking out there thinking, ‘Whoa, God, I haven’t done this in two years!’” Waters says. “And I had to think up a country-Western comedy act. That was something I had never done before, so that was a challenge. I think it went very well.”

Since then, Waters has been flying more, and jokes that he hopes he can get through his Christmas tour without being duct-taped to the airplane seat.

“Although I do want to see that happen once,” Waters says. “It’s a new phenomenon. … I have not been on a plane yet where anybody has shown bad behavior at all. But once I saw this woman say something like, ‘I don’t like it when somebody touches my bag’ to the flight attendant. I almost said, ‘Duct-tape that bitch!' just to see her expression. She would have gone so crazy if I'd said that.”

But Waters says when he’s on airplanes these days, he’s usually minding his own business.

“Usually I'm memorizing my shows on airplanes, mumbling to myself," he says, "and when people look over and see these legal pads filled with writing that looks like Cy Twombly’s on speed, they just leave me alone.”

Sometimes people recognize him on flights and in airports, he says, but he’s never had any problems.

“Somebody once said to me, ‘The only people who recognize you are the ones you’d want to,' which is kind of true, except people who think I’m Steve Buscemi, which happens a lot,” Waters says. “Once a flight attendant asked me if I was Ed Wood. That was a new one, but I get why they got mixed up, because Johnny Depp had played him, and they knew I’d made a movie [Cry-Baby] with Johnny.”

Waters, who released the A John Waters Christmas compilation album in 2004, says that even if people haven’t seen his films, they should still come to his Christmas shows.

“Even if I talk about my movies, I talk about them more in context of what's happening today and what has happened with those movies — how did we get away with this, and how did we get them made, that kind of stuff,” he says. “There’s hardly an anecdote I haven’t milked out of a movie speaking tour, eight books and everything."

Waters, dubbed “the people’s pervert” and "queer Confucius" in the press, has never been afraid to shock and offend in his movies or books. There's the infamous scene in Pink Flamingos where drag queen Divine (Harris Glenn Milstead) eats fresh dog poop, as well as scenes that deal with exhibitionism, masturbation, cannibalism and a whole lot more. He says there aren’t any trigger warnings for the holiday shows.

“I thought you went to college to have your values challenged,” Waters says. “I thought that was the point.”
When Waters was writing material for this year's tour, he was reminded of cancel culture.

“The censors who used to attack me were old, uneducated people, and now they’re the smartest younger people,” he says. “I see that on both sides. I’m not saying I disagree with them. I say this, and I’ve said this before: The only thing that's lacking is we did the same thing — we used political correctness as a weapon or to make our enemies feel stupid, but we made fun of ourselves first. Righteousness is the thing I find troubling.”

Waters adds that when people are angry, humor is a great weapon.

“And lecturing and standing on a soapbox sometimes makes you lose the battle,” he points out. “If it’s going to be a revolt, it has to be fun. I mean, people have fun at riots — I hate to say that — no matter which side you’re on.”

At a recent show, Waters asked the audience members, “What can I get away with?”

“I think I needed to see what young people would think,” he says. “My audience is all ages and not just young people. Most people would think it’s old people, but it's not [all] them, either. And for the ones that are there, I tell them to take LSD, like I did in my last book, even though I hadn’t done that in fifty years. I don't tell young people to take drugs. The only people I tell to take drugs are my age, at 75, [who] haven't done it in fifty years and never had a bad experience when they were young.”

A John Waters Christmas, 8 p.m. Saturday, December 4, Soiled Dove Underground, 7401 East First Avenue, $50-$150.
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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon