For decades, since his 1972 film Pink Flamingos earned him his first wide recognition (or notoriety), John Waters has held court as America’s paterfamilias of perversion, gradually injecting his distinctive camp sensibility and gleeful appreciation for bad taste (nearly always more fun than good taste) into corners of culture from art galleries to Broadway. This weekend he brings his annual Yuletide monologue, “A John Waters Christmas,” to the Neptune, chock-full of advice—how to celebrate it, how to survive it—and discoursing on his seasonal loves and hates, festively revealing everything you always wanted to know about Christmas (but were afraid to ask), such as: “Has Santa ever been nude?” I spoke with him over the phone—appropriately, on Halloween—about what audiences can expect.
Seattle magazine: I was wondering about your own Christmases growing up. Do you have siblings?
John Waters: Yes, I do. And we had normal, good Christmases. I was always a crazy kid, because I always wondered—I always got confused with Jesus on the roof, Mary Magdalene, the Tooth Fairy… I got all these mystical figures mixed up, and I thought, do they all hang around together? Why are they on the roof? Isn’t that illegal? But at the same time, I still liked it—it was interesting to me.
SM: Completely traditional?
JW: Yeah, we put up the stocking, decorated the tree—yes, it was.
SM: How religious was it? Was Midnight Mass part of it?
JW: No, we didn’t go to Midnight Mass, but we did have to go to Mass in the morning on Christmas, which I hated—I wanted to get that over with so we could open the presents.
SM: You had to wait until after Mass?
JW: Yes, we’d go early, then we’d come home and open the presents. I had to not look at the tree—they had to sneak us out so we couldn’t see anything until we got back.
SM: Oh, so you did the whole reveal at that point? I grew up Lutheran in the Midwest, and we put our tree up the weekend after Thanksgiving and then we opened our presents on Christmas Eve. Then on Christmas we’d just kind of sit around and eat…
JW: Well, we had the tree up, but it wasn’t decorated—we would decorate the tree on Christmas Eve. The presents were all put around that night when we went to bed.
SM: What sorts of Christmases, then, did you have later as an adult? Still family, mostly friends?
JW: As soon as I got an apartment, I had a Christmas party every year, and I’ve had one for 58 years, and I’ll have it again this year. In the last 18 years, at least, I work, because I do the Christmas tour. Every three years it’s my turn to have Christmas dinner here. This year I think it’s 12 people. So, yeah, I’m traditional in that way. My Christmas decorations are traditional but with a twist—I decorate the electric chair from [his film] Female Trouble. I have Christmas decorations with different writers on it, with porno stars, I have all different kinds of rock stars, soul singers…traditional decorations with something wrong with them.
SM: So, has Santa ever been nude?
JW: Probably in bear porno movies, because he is obviously a bear now.
SM: Yeah, kind of a bear icon.
JW: A sliver fox, or a polar bear, and Mrs. Claus is a chubby chaser—or a bear fag hag, that’s called a Goldilocks. Obviously Prancer is a gay reindeer. And Vixen, I guess, is the Russ Meyer star…All those old stories don’t translate very well today—home invasions, going into people’s houses and not being invited, chimneys are for rich people, kissing Mommy…I don’t know.
SM: It’s un-PC.
JW: It’s not advisable these days.
SM: No, in the era of #MeToo, you can’t go around kissing Mommy.
JW: Well, I think it shouldn’t be, especially if you have magic powers.
SM: Do you know what always struck me as invasive and creepy at Christmas? Do you know about Elf on the Shelf?
SM: Well, it’s this doll you can buy in the shape of an elf, and you just put him on the mantelpiece or wherever, and then you tell the kids that the elf is watching them and reporting back to Santa, so that they have to be good.
JW: It’s like a spy Santa sent!
SM: It’s surveillance!
JW: That’s a Christmas snitch! That would never catch on in Baltimore.
SM: And then every night when the kids are in bed you move the elf, and then tell the kids that the elf moved around by himself, so they think he’s real.
JW: They always lie. You know, some people say the first lie is God [that] they tell the child, and then Jesus, and then Santa, then the Easter Bunny, until later when they tell them that heroin’s bad, they don’t believe ’em! I remember they would always say Santa was coming, and then we’d see the Santa in the neighborhood, but I knew it was the man up the street—I could recognize him. There’s a picture of me sitting on Santa’s lap, but I don’t remember it fondly…All the stories in today’s political climate have a new edge to them in a way.
SM: Any other topics you’ll be discussing?
JW: I talk about crime, I talk about how to decorate—
SM: What decorating advice do you have?
JW: Well, I’m not going to give you all the new information—you have to come to the show!
SM: Oh, of course! It’s an interviewer thing—
JW: I’m giving you the subjects, I’m not giving you the jokes! [laughs]
SM: —it’s just reflexive for me to follow up on a question like that!
JW: I cover everything. If you love Christmas, if you hate it, I think I have new advice for you this year of how to get through it, in a very different political time than two years ago. Especially when you go home and try not to have fights with people in your family.
SM: That’s definitely a new thing.
JW: Both sides don’t want to hear the other. In the Civil War, did they all go home to their family?
12/2. 8 p.m. $38. Neptune Theater, University District, 1303 NE 45th St.; 206.682.1414; stgpresents.org/neptune