Filmmaker John Waters talks art, the meaning of ‘filthy,’ and humor as ‘terrorism’

In tandem with the announcement of the Sachs Program for Arts Innovation’s first grant recipients, filmmaker and comedian John Waters will perform a 90-minute talk on April 24.

John Waters Portrait
Filmmaker, author, comedian, and visual artist John Waters will deliver a 90-minute talk on April 24 as part of an announcement program commemorating the first grant recipients from the Sachs Program for Arts Innovation. 

To celebrate alumni Keith and Katherine Sachs’ gift of $15 million to the arts at Penn—the largest-ever of its kind—and the resulting establishment of The Sachs Program for Arts Innovation, filmmaker, writer, visual artist, and comedian John Waters will deliver “This Filthy World: An Evening with John Waters” on Tuesday, April 24, at 5 p.m. at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. Chosen as a presenter because of his talents across multiple disciplines, Waters will prepare a free-to-attend, 90-minute rendition of his world-tour performance-talk, filled with life advice and social commentary—and plenty of laughs. 

The performance, presented in partnership with the SPEC Film Society and free with registration, will follow an announcement of the inaugural arts grantees, one of a variety of applications of the Sachs gift, and intended to recognize arts innovation among faculty, staff, and students. The grants, awarded to those with innovative approaches to teaching, making, and presenting art, link arts education with the Penn Compact 2020 principle of innovation. 

Additionally, $2 million will soon be allotted to fund a renovation project for public spaces at the Annenberg Center, enhancing its function as a gathering space for creative communities. 

Ahead of Waters’ performance and Q&A with the audience, he spoke with Penn Today about “filth,” how someone knows he or she is an artist, what he thinks of celebrity children’s books, and “humor as terrorism.” 

Do you know what you’ll talk about during your performance on April 24?

Oh my god, it’s completely written and rehearsed. It’s a 90-minute monologue that I use no notes on, so it’s constantly updated—because the news changes so much. So yes, I most definitely know what I’m going to say. I want to come prepared, you know? If I’m paid to come out and speak, I have a whole written presentation I do.

Will it be something “filthy”?

No, it’s about everything: Politics, fashion, movies, my career. What you should do with your life. Mental illness. It’s about everything. Every subject, in a way.

You keep your hands in a few different pots. Film, books, but also the visual arts. A lot of people may not realize you’re a visual artist.

That’s because I keep them very, very separate. I never mix because the only obscenity left in the art world is celebrity. Even though I make fun of that in my artwork, I never give art interviews—but I am having a big retrospective this fall at the Baltimore Museum of Art that then travels to the Wexner Center for the Arts in Ohio, so that is a big part of my life. I’m in a catalogue and everything, I’m in the middle of that right now. And I do keep that separate from my film career, very much. Always have. It matters in America; it doesn’t matter in Europe.


Because in America the art world is suspicious of anybody who doesn’t do just one career. And in Europe they don’t. There’s no issue at all, actually.

How do you think a person knows if he or she is an artist?

Oh, I never say I’m an artist. When people say, or when I say, ‘What do you do?’ and they say ‘I’m an artist,’ I silently think ‘That’s up to me—or better yet, history.’ 

I say I’m a photographer or use this or that [description], but you don’t know. Someone else has to call you an artist, I believe. Somebody, more than one person—who is not your family—has to say you’re an artist.

Do you think it’s harder to be “filthy” today than when you were hitting your stride?

Oh, I use that word as an embraceable word. It’s just about dark humor, really. 

No, it’s not. I think trying too hard is bad filthy, and I think that’s what most people do today. Most movies described in reviews as ‘John Waters-esque,’ they usually hate it because [the movie is] trying too hard. Hollywood makes $100 million gross-out comedies now, and most aren’t funny. A couple were in the beginning. 

So, I am—I don’t try to be filthy. My job is to spy on unfathomable human behavior and report that to the great unwashed public, which would be my fans.

What I was thinking is there’s so much less now that’s taboo, in a weird way.

I always try to surprise people; it’s easy to shock people. But surprising people and keeping their interest and making them laugh is how you get people to change their opinion. I’m not a separatist in any way, I believe that even your political enemies, in a way, if you can make them laugh, it’s the first step to changing their minds. I’m for humor as terrorism. To mortally embarrass the enemy with words and actions. Not violence.

Is that how we get through these seemingly dark times?

No! High-school students are saving us. College students are chickens. They don’t do anything these days, and I went to school when [lots of colleges] were rioting. Now it’s the honor roll in high school that’s going to save us. So, I feel bad for the real-bad kids in school who get detention. They don’t have a voice anymore. I think they should have one secret day when they walk out … 

Who right now, would you say, is doing good work as a filmmaker?

I thought ‘Baby Driver’ was my favorite movie of the year. I like foreign movies. I like the movie very much I saw the other day, called ‘Mom and Dad,’ with Selma Blair and Nicholas Cage, where the whole country, suddenly all parents decided to kill their children. That was a good black comedy.

How does someone reconcile doing work they like versus work for a commercial purpose? For money.

Well, you can’t think that way. You just do what you’re driven to do and then go to every art gallery and find one you like, all the artists they show, and if you think they maybe would give you a show. But you have to participate in any world you’re trying to get into. If you want to be an artist then go to all the art galleries in New York; if you want to be a filmmaker, go see every movie—the good ones and the bad ones. Especially the bad ones, to see what didn’t work. But nobody is going to just come knock on your door. People will say to me, ‘Oh, how do I become a film director?’ [and they] will not be one, because the answer is ‘I will be one.’ And they’re driven to do it because they are not afraid of rejection.

What would you recommend students take advantage of while still in school?

I don’t know because I never went to school. But certainly, anybody who inspires you or can show you the right way to go when you’re floundering—that’s the most important thing. Or somebody who you can share your doubts to. Everybody has doubts. Everybody in show business has low self-esteem. Somebody told me you wouldn’t [normally] go into a field to tell you how good you are for the rest of your life. Regular people don’t need that. People in the arts are damaged. You know? Me included. So, I’m just saying, if you’re in school, the most important thing is who you meet and what you get going and do on the outside of school. You go to school to learn, but at the same time you should be meeting people you’re doing different projects with and teaming up with. I think that’s most important, what contacts you make and what you learn maybe from teachers who can understand what you’re interested in and lead you in the right direction when maybe nobody ever did before.

Do you consider yourself fearless? If not, what do you fear?

Oh, I’m not fearless. I fear health issues. I’m 71, half my friends died from something. Am I fearless? No, I’m not fearless, I fear plenty of things. I’m ambitious, I guess—am I fearless? I hitchhiked across the country by myself at 66 years old. I guess that was kind of foolhardy. There’s a difference. 

Is there anything you approach differently in old age?

I’m not angry. I’ve said this before, but an angry 20-year-old is sexy and an angry 70-year-old is an a**hole. What do I have to be angry about? My dreams came true 30 years ago. This is all gravy. And that makes people puke when I say that, but it’s true.

Do you think it would be more shocking if you came out with something really G-rated today? Like a celebrity children’s book.

I would never write a celebrity children’s book. That is the most—it’s a genre of hacks, usually. If I wrote a children’s book, it would be for weird, bizarre children. I’m not going to do it because I believe that celebrities’ children’s books really are one of the lowest forms of literature. I’ve been offered that, too.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve overheard in conversation recently?

I do eavesdrop on people. Surprising? I wish I had been surprised. I saw at a Trump rally a sign. A little gay kid had one that just said, ‘I can’t even.’ That made me laugh. That’s a good one.

Does art need to be actionable?

I think art with activism—I went to all the art shows in New York last week, and I don’t know. I think in contemporary art when you—there’s a couple that’ve used Trump stuff, but it just dates it immediately. So, I don’t think it’s good for the long run. I think you can use activism, but I don’t know that it’s necessarily art. Can art become good activism? I’m sure it can. Certainly. When they put those things with Trump naked out; I think they’re hilarious. Sure. There are definite things they can do. My favorite is the new thing, what’s it called when you project something on a building? Like they put on Trump Tower. A projection that covers the whole building with a slogan or something. I think that’s great activism and it’s actually not illegal.

It feels like we’re in a different place with art lately, because there are so few things that are taboo but there’s also a collection of people waiting to pounce on anything too outrageous. Like with Kathy Griffin.

You mean the political correct movement and everything? Well, you know it’s only in rich-kid schools. It’s a class issue. I’m for most of it, but it is—when you hear my show, nobody ever gets mad and I don’t want them to. I think it’s all in how you say things. I say things that probably are politically incorrect; I try to come up with new questions that are, and I talk about that in the show and everyone laughs because I’m doing a comedy show. I know in some places, people tell me at work nobody speaks to each other because you can’t say ‘Nice dress.’ I think I could probably say ‘Nice dress’ in a workplace and nobody would think it was sexual harassment.

Because you’re fearless.

No, maybe because I’m gay. Maybe if I said, ‘Nice dress’ to a boy! [Laughs]