Somehow I Became Respectable


Arts & Culture

John Waters. Illustration by Ken Ingels.

Somehow I became respectable. I don’t know how—the last film I directed got some terrible reviews and was rated NC-17. Six people in my personal phone book have been sentenced to life in prison. I did an art piece called Twelve Assholes and a Dirty Foot, which is composed of close-ups from porn films, yet a museum now has it in their permanent collection and nobody got mad. What the hell has happened?

I used to be despised but now I’m asked to give commencement addresses at prestigious colleges, attend career retrospectives at both the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the British Film Institute, and I even got a medal from the French government for “furthering the arts in France.” This cockeyed maturity is driving me crazy!

Suddenly the worst thing that can happen to a creative person has happened to me. I am accepted. How can I “struggle” when my onetime underground movies are now easily available? Even Multiple Maniacs was rehabilitated music-rights-wise and is back in theatrical release from Janus Films, the original distributor of Godard and Truffaut movies, for God’s sake. Pink Flamingos has played on television! How can I whine about my films being hard to see when Warner Bros. now handles many of my titles and Criterion, the classiest of all DVD distributors, is restoring some of my rudest celluloid atrocities? Even the Museum of Modern Art now has in their collection the elements of my earliest 8mm movies that have never been formally released, and, jeez, seven of the books I’ve written are still in print and two of them became New York Times best sellers. How could that be? How?

I can’t even impersonate a damaged artist anymore. I have actually had friends for fifty years and some of my dinner dates are not tax-deductible for business—the sign of really having a successful personal life. Knock on wood, I’m in good health. Good Lord, I’m seventy-three years old and my dreams have come true. Couldn’t you just puke?

Success is not the enemy you may think it is when you’re young, but if it comes too quickly it can be a high-class problem. Yes, you should feel slightly panicked if your insane early work is taken seriously without any initial resistance, but know that being a starving artist is an outdated concept. There’s nothing wrong with making money from doing something you love. You can be happy and fucked-up and still triumph, I promise you.

But suppose you’re still failing, struggling unsuccessfully to find your voice? You should ask yourself, Am I the only person in the world who thinks what I’m doing is important? If yes, well, you’re in trouble. You need two people to think your work is good—yourself and somebody else (not your mother). Once you have a following, no matter how limited, your career can be born, and if you make enough noise, those doors will begin to open, and then, and only then, can you soar to lunatic superiority. Mr. Know-It-All is here to tell you exactly how to live your life from that day forward.

I’m never wrong—just ask Joan Rivers—well, you can’t, because she’s dead, but when she was alive, I introduced her to a date after we watched her perform in Provincetown and she said to him, “Are you with John?” When he replied yes, she advised, “Just do everything he tells you to do.” Joan knew I was infallible. She knew it raw.

First of all, accept that something is wrong with you. It’s a good start. Something has always been wrong with me, too. We’re in a club of sorts, the lunatic fringe who are proud to band together. There’s a joyous road to ruin out there, and if you let me be your garbage guru, I’ll teach you how to succeed in insanity and take control of your low self-esteem. Personality disorders are a terrible thing to waste.

Being crazy in a happy creative way begins and ends with your family. No matter how hard you try, as you get older, you turn into a twisted version of your mom and dad. No, it’s not fair. But too bad, you can’t choose the house you want to be born in, so just look at fate like a bingo card: sometimes you get a winner, other times you have to improvise, switch cards, and even cheat to not lose. That’s just how it goes.

Children can’t demand good parenting any more than their parents can expect to be made proud. I was lucky. My mom and dad encouraged my dreams right from the beginning even though they must have been scared of their firstborn, who arrived six weeks too early—a preemie. A teacup baby. A little boy slightly miswired, already not following the rules, ahead of his birth time and ready to roll. Maybe I was baptized too often, stripped of my inner coating of original sin. There’s only one thing wrong with the Waters baby—It’s Alive!

All I know is I was born with a screw loose. I realize now how hard it must have been for my parents to understand my early eccentricities. As a child in kindergarten I always used to come home from school and tell my mother about the twisted little boy in my class who’d only draw with black crayons and never talked to the other kids. I yakked about this unnamed friend so much that my mother eventually mentioned him to my teacher, who looked confused and then blurted, “But that’s your son!” I was creating characters early for myself and you should let your kids do the same. Having multiple personalities when you’re young is mandatory for a happy childhood.

A few years later, every morning I would slink down the steps of our family home on the way to school pretending I was the Nude Descending a Staircase painting I had read about in Life magazine. “What’s the matter with you, boy?” my dad would sputter, confused for good reason. “Haven’t you heard of Duchamp, fool?” I’d haughtily think without ever explaining out loud the roots of my fantasy behavior. My parents didn’t overreact; they just took a deep breath and opened their minds a little wider.

But suppose your mom and dad did freak? That doesn’t mean you have to punish yourself by repeating their humiliations for the rest of your life. Realize all childhoods are treacherous, followed by teenage years of further torture. Being an adult should finally be a relief. Don’t waste time spinning your wheels for the rest of your life trying to get back at your parents. Marvel at how they were even more neurotic then than you are now. It takes two to do an ass-backward tango, so why not dance?


John Waters’s books Role Models (2010) and Carsick (2014) were national best sellers, and his spoken-word shows This Filthy World and A John Waters Christmas continue to be performed around the world. “Indecent Exposure,” a retrospective exhibition of Waters’s acclaimed artwork, was recently shown at the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio. He is at work on a novel.

Excerpted from Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder, by John Waters. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on May 21, 2019. Copyright © 2019 John Waters. All rights reserved.