John Waters and me, we got some history. In the fall of 1973 I was a straight-off-the-farm freshman at SUNY Albany, and I got a mysterious invitation to a private film screening in the State Quad common room. Apparently the student-run State Quad Cinema group had rented Pink Flamingos and then decided it was too disgusting to show to the public. And this was a group that regularly showed raunchy porn films, in the name of, you know, free speech and stuff. For this, though, only people deemed weird and twisted would be allowed. I was honored to be invited. The movie blew my mind.
Some seven years later I found myself shaking Waters’ hand (and that of his 300-pound transvestite muse, Divine) at the world premier of Polyester at the Waverly Theater in the East Village. I still have my Odorama card around here somewhere.
Then 20-plus years later, I was a parent chaperone to two buses full of 8th graders going to see Hairspray on Broadway.
John Waters mainstreamed bad taste by almost singlehandedly inventing the notion that the right combination of filth, puerility and a big heart could be brilliant and in a strange way, redemptive.
Unfortunately he had neither of these qualities last Sunday at his Christmas show. He just wasn’t very funny, and certainly not nearly as funny as he seemed to think he was. I thought there might be some multimedia stuff, some tacky accouterments, and some sheer take-your-breath-away moments. Nope, just Waters on a bare stage talking fast and not being funny. The topics bounced around without reason, transitions were awkward, there was some stuff about Christmas, but too many unrelated things disingenuously dressed up to be about Christmas: “I’ve always wanted to open a (bar, amusement park, movie theater, etc.) and then on Christmas we’d . . . ” and then he’d describe something disgusting that had nothing to do with Christmas. What were obviously supposed to be laugh lines most often landed with a thud, or maybe a nervous laugh or two. His delivery was dreadful, talking either to the floor or the first couple of rows. He’d misspeak, then correct himself, at least once a minute. This sort of thing would throw speed bumps up for the best material. For this, it just made the already-too-slow clock seem to stop altogether.
There were tons of obscure pop-culture references, bad movie references, modern artist and author references, raunchy gay-sex references, all tossed around without a whole lot of purpose or form. After dropping Pink Flamingos on us 40 years ago, maybe Waters has helped engineer a world that even he can’t shock anymore.