John Waters is a filmmaker, artist, actor, author and host who’s been crafting his unique brand of shock comedy for more than 50 years. His films Cry-Baby, Serial Mom and Pink Flamingos are cult classics—but he’s also found mainstream success with Hairspray, as well as his books and his artwork.
He’s also a hilarious performer—and he’s bringing his one-man show, False Negative, to the Cargo Concert Hall at 8 p.m., Friday, May 20.
“Mostly, the show is about everything,” Waters said during a recent phone interview. “It’s called False Negative, because after COVID, I had to rewrite my show completely—both my Christmas show and the regular show I do all year—because everything’s so radically different now.”
Waters said that during the pandemic, he did “the same thing everybody did”—nothing.
“I lost 40 jobs. I did travel some,” he said. “I went to the Rome Film Festival. I have three homes, so I would go to them sometimes, but mostly, I was in Baltimore. I write every day in my house, anyway, so that didn’t affect my life as much as it did many people … It affected me mostly because I didn’t get to be in touch with the fans.
“I travel so much that I bitch about it, but I bitched more about it when, suddenly, I wasn’t on a plane at least once a week. When I did fly, it was like The Twilight Zone. There would be two people on this giant jet plane going to Europe. It was really kind of scary; I thought I was in a David Cronenberg movie. I think it’s even weirder now. Where I go, no one wears a mask, anyway. I was in London, and it looked like the day after the Second World War was over; people were partying wildly in the streets.”
Waters said he’s excited to return to Reno, thanks to his history with the city. In 2014, Waters published Carsick, a half-true, half-fictitious tale of Waters hitchhiking through the U.S.
“There’s a whole chapter about me landing in Reno there,” Waters said. “A lovely man who owns Campo restaurant picked me up hitchhiking. I ate there, and he picked me up the next day. Then, maybe a couple of years ago, me and a friend drove across the country again. I love to do that; I’ve done it many times. We stopped in Reno, and it was good to be back there not hitchhiking and stuff. I did have dinner with the man who picked me up hitchhiking, so that was nice to stay in touch.
“Of all the people who picked me up hitchhiking, I am still friends with the Corvette kid; I went to his wedding. I’m still friends with the Kansas couple. I’ve lost touch with the band Here We Go Magic. Many of them, I don’t have their real names or know where they live or anything. I gave each person a little card with a thumb on it that said, ‘Thanks for the ride,’ so that’s the only proof. I don’t even know if everybody who picked me up read the book. I know one man didn’t, because he didn’t believe me. When I said I was a film director, he looked at me like I was a homeless person who thought he was a film director. When I got out, he made me take $20, and I gave it to a homeless person.”
Waters’ most recent book, released in 2019, is Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder.
”In my last book, I took LSD to see what that would be like at 70 years old, even though I hadn’t done it for 50 years,” he said. “So I’m always trying to challenge myself.”
While Waters has seemingly done it all during his varied career, he said that he’s first and foremost a writer.
“I’ve written every movie (I’ve directed). I’ve written all my books; I’ve written all my spoken word,” Waters said. “I’m a writer; that’s what I do, and I have many ways to tell my stories. To me, they’re all the same. The only thing you should never ever say is you have a hobby; that means you’re a dabbler, and you’re unprofessional. Never have hobbies; have careers.”
Waters said all of his “careers” are important to him.
“I never talked about my art career with my film career, because the art world hates it when outsiders come in,” Waters said. “But at the same time, each one is equally as important to me. The way I make my living is by telling stories, so it’s all the same to me, in a way. … I don’t do two at once. I’m not, like, writing a movie while I’m writing a book; I concentrate on one thing. I have to be able to go to sleep and dream about it, which often happens when you’re in the middle of writing a book. You think you’ve got the perfect thing, and you write it down in the middle of the night, and then you wake up and read it the morning, and it makes no sense. You just do it every day. … Otherwise, I’d have to go work for somebody else.”
Waters talked a bit about his first job—doing Gallup surveys.
“But I looked so insane that nobody would let me in the door, so I just made up all the results,” Waters said with a laugh. “Whenever you read a poll, read it with a grain of salt.
“That’s how I developed characters. Because the poll was for advertising, you had to take these magazines and iron in fake ads, then give it to people and ask them which ads they remember. The interview took an hour, if anybody would do it, and nobody would let me in, because I had long, greasy hair and looked like a hippie. I just made them all up, and I never got called out. It was like character development; it was a writing exercise. Every day, I had to be a different person. … I saw somebody worse, though: I had a boyfriend once who was a door-to-door knife salesman. This guy looked like a crazy game-show host at the time. He never could sell, and no wonder.”
Comedy has faced increasing scrutiny in recent years, but Waters said he remains confident in his bizarre humor.
“That’s the thin line you march as a comedian, and that’s why people come to see me,” Waters said. “I think the reason I get away with it is because I make fun of things I love. I’m not mean-spirited, even though I say completely ludicrous, outrageous stuff. I’m asking people to come to the world where I’m a tour guide, and they feel safe as long as I am. I will make you uncomfortable, but people come to see me knowing that they’re going to go to territory that is going to be a little peculiar or beyond. I always used to fear uneducated, old, dumb white people as censors—and now it’s rich young liberals, and if anybody’s going to give me trouble, it will be them.”
Waters points out that he’s always pushed the envelope with his work.
“I’ve always made fun of the rules of the outsider community that I live in,” said Waters. “Multiple Maniacs (1970) made fun of hippie rules, but hippies came to see it. You couldn’t exactly call Pink Flamingos a ‘peace-and-love’ movie; even for the people who love it, those wouldn’t be the first words that come to their mouth.
“Who would have ever thought that the National Film Registry would pick it last year as a historic cultural film in the United States? Even I am still completely shocked by that.”
John Waters will perform his one-man show, False Negative, at 8 p.m., Friday, May 20, at Cargo Concert Hall at the Whitney Peak Hotel, 255 N. Virginia St., in Reno.. Tickets are $39.50 to $149.50. For tickets or more information, visit www.cargoreno.com.