CAs it is now for beloved figures to bring their life stories, gossip and opinions to the tour stage, rarely mistake these “An Audience With…” events for true stand-up comedy. So hats off to filmmaker John Waters, whose 90-minute Barbican performance in anything but name is comedy. It finds the so-called “sultan of sleaze” weighing in on waking culture, being wise about Covid, and imagining the ways he, at age 76, could reinvent himself. Considering he’s presenting it twice in one night, this show is a motorcycle mouthed and pointed performance to put many a professional stand-up to shame.
Admittedly, there’s more laughter than laughter — unsurprisingly, considering Waters claims to hate jokes. What we get instead is an attitude. Here’s a career provocateur with a finite respect for the sensibilities of our culture war moment. There isn’t a holy cow he won’t poke (“I wish Greta Thunberg would run off with Barron Trump”), no offense of good taste he won’t appreciate. He may worry about becoming a reactionary, but only as a pretext for some bull-in-china shop (and not remotely consistent) ruminating about gender fluidity, modern dating, and “respectable gays.” (“We are weakening the perverted brand!”)
There’s no danger of weakening Waters’ brand: he comes across as ever mindful, crowing about recent appearances in ad campaigns, hit TV shows and halls of fame. Self-congratulation is built into events like this, mind you — and Waters wears his lights. The second half is devoted to an inventory of his films, with generous anecdotes about his collaborators, including the recently deceased owner of the singing anus in Pink Flamingos.
You can discern behind the slick anecdotal a heartfelt commitment to delinquency — see his post-show laud in the post-show chat on a 2018 film about women masturbating until 9/11. And also regrets a climate that makes his early work feel more confrontational today than when it was first created. But Waters has very few regrets. Far more pro than anti, this lively show is a celebration of the values – trashiness, twisted and gleeful transgression – that have made its name.
John Waters’ debut novel, Liarmouth, is out now