John Waters on His First Novel, the Death of Bad Taste, and Why Covid’s Been Bad for Perverts

Do you think fiction is suffering from a lack of humor these days?

That’s a good question. I’m trying to think. Is there a book that I’ve read that’s really funny lately? I’d have to go to the other room and look at the books that I’ve just read. Can you hold on a minute? Oh, I don’t know how to do this. Uh, no, I can’t bring the computer in the other room.

That’s fine…

But funny like, you know, Confederacy of Dunces, which I laugh so hard when I read. There are certain books that are really laugh-out-loud funny, and they’re hard because a lot of times, because novelists, like other artists, think to be funny isn’t serious. But being funny can be the most serious of all because it sneaks in what you’re trying to say. People will listen when they would never listen if you’re being serious and lecturing. So in this book, I’m making fun of myself. First, I’m making fun of myself being a novelist, then I’m making fun of all the rules of the societies that I live in, artists and people like that. My parents didn’t have that many rules I’d wanna run away from, but their generation had ones I wanted to run away from. Now it’s the art community. I wanna run away from the art community now instead of my parents.

But at the same time, I’m always embracing. I’m always making fun of stuff. That’s the big difference: make fun of yourself, and then you can laugh at everybody. But pick things that you know well! I’m laughing at the extremes of my own people that I know about what they believe in. And I say that no matter what this book is politically correct—if you can imagine such a thing. But at the same time, I’m not self-righteous. Many of the characters in my movies that say some of the funniest things take themselves so seriously. And they never question that their insane thoughts might be wrong in any way.

Part of what makes this book so fun is the main character, Marsha, is terrible, but you root for her. Do you remember the first villain you ever rooted for?

Oh, completely. The first one was the first movie I ever saw, Walt Disney’s Cinderella, and the stepmother in there. I loved her. And then of course the Wicked Witch of the West and The Wizard of Oz. I’ve never gotten over her to this day. I have never gotten over her. So I think those were the first two villains, definitely, that delighted me. And then there was The Howdy Doody Show.

But he was a good guy?

My parents took me to New York, and I don’t know how they got me on the show, but that’s when I saw that show business was a lie and everything that I believed was real was fake. But that just made me more excited about wanting to be in on it. So right from the beginning, I knew I wanted to be a writer, which is really what I am. I’ve never made a movie I didn’t write. I wrote a story for a summer camp I worked in—I don’t even remember what happens in it, but I remember reading it every night at the campfire and the kids had nightmares. The parents called the camp. I was in trouble and I had a career start right there. When I was 12, I knew what I was gonna do. I had fun telling stories that shook people up and made ’em laugh. Cause the kids that I would hang around with later, they loved it. They weren’t crying in their seats. They weren’t calling their parents. They were laughing and cheering it on.

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