Christmas Card

New York

John Waters at B. B. King Blues Club & Grill. (Photo: Samuel Roeck)

YULETIDE APPROACHED with its crazy caravan of characters: the reindeer, the elves, the suicidal Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life. The pitiful Tiny Tim in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. The disappointed Divine in Female Trouble, who hasn’t received her cha-cha heels as requested from her square, long-suffering parents. (“I better get them cha-cha heels!” “Nice girls don’t wear cha-cha heels!” Down comes the tree on top of Dawn Davenport’s mother during the ensuing hissy fit, one of the best Christmas scenes ever—at least, according to this Jew.)

In this season of glad tidings, last Tuesday, John Waters served himself up live onstage at B. B. King Blues Club & Grill on the formerly smutty but now eerily family-friendly Forty-second Street for an evening of Christmas-themed stand-up: dish about his “empire of filth” (“I’m overexposed. Is there a documentary I’m not in?”), sensible but controversial opinions (“Babies born with original sin? It’s the exact opposite!”), crèche humor (he confessed, when passing a nativity scene: “I’ve locked eyes with a shepherd. I’m cruising a shepherd . . .”). Most important was his Xmas wish list, delivered with the gusto of Veruca Salt from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: “I want a tabloid for intellectuals! The National Brainiac! ‘Nadine Gordimer Has Cellulite!’ ‘Renata Adler Weighs 300 Pounds Now!’” “I’d love to have my own religion. I’m tired of writing ‘Cult Director’ on my tax form. I want to write ‘Cult Leader’!” “I want free shrinks for everyone! You don’t need to be ‘even’ all the time—if I were, I wouldn’t have a career!” He also rued missed shopping opportunities, like Ingmar Bergman’s trash can “that he threw his bad ideas in” so “I could throw my bad ideas there, too.” Waters stayed up late to bid on it in Sweden but lost because “I was cheap. But it was just IKEA.”

For over an hour, a sold-out room of adoring fans (probably the queerest crowd ever at B. B. King’s) was assailed by a barrage of wit from Mr. Waters, who resembled Steve Buscemi and Don Knotts’s love child in an exquisite cadmium-red velvet Issey Miyake suit, glancing only occasionally at his notes behind an incongruously drab wooden lectern. Smuggling his jolly, freak-friendly brand of transgression into mainstream audiences via vehicles like Hairspray, he’s a fine role model for the young people. (“To many of you I must seem like Paul Lynde. And I accept that.”) He aims to please.

Coming out as an art weenie as well as a connoisseur of crime and kitsch, on the top of his Xmas list was Art: Waters longs for “real sticks and stones by contemporary artists like Paul McCarthy,” whose “Heidi smeared in fecal matter” and Santa Claus butt plugs he glossed for the crowd. Fischli & Weiss (his favorite artists) “should do sticks and stones out of rubber. Richard Serra [would be] cool, how butch and claustrophobic. [And] Mike Kelley shabby stocking stuffers—so grimy and pathetic for Xmas . . .”

Before the Cult Leader–wannabe appeared onstage, a slide show advertised tribute bands (Pink Floyd, Billy Joel, Led Zeppelin, Frank Zappa, Simon and Garfunkel) to the roomful of fans sipping drinks and eating dinner.

“Are you excited?” asked a youth at my table who was way younger than Pink Flamingos. Of course!

As we all chuckled and hooted, the Baltimore-bred raconteur dished about his leading ladies (Divine, Edith Massey, and Debbie Harry), his pet obsessions (anal bleaching, Peyton Place, and art books), and his career as a professional crackpot. I had the uncanny sensation that I was watching Waters’s tribute to himself, like a dapper, queer Lola Montès doing the dinner-theater recap of her fabulous life. Instead of a circus with Peter Ustinov as ringmaster, it was B. B. King’s blues-themed restaurant. Like a human sacrifice of entertainment, the famous auteur had volunteered for the dangerous high-wire act of stand-up with all the vulnerability and defensive virtuosity that the genre requires, though we were all rooting for him. His shtick polished to a shimmer by decades of self-promotion, he was like the most self-aware animatronic figure ever—spewing anecdotes on demand during the Q&A—and an apt avatar for the formerly raunchy and now Disneyfied Times Square (finally “wholesome” as Hairspray), where, just across the street, a gigantic effigy of Whoopi Goldberg menaces passersby from the creepy, bland facade of the Madame Tussauds wax museum.

After the set, fans who paid “VIP prices” lined up along the bar area for a meet-and-greet with Waters like they were waiting to see Santa. Instead of getting presents, they were bringing him stuff to sign. I was hoping everyone could sit on his lap for a photo op. In his plush red designer duds, with his avuncular and urbane vibe, he was part Cult Auteur, part Celebrity Theme Park Character, wishing everyone “a scary, merry, biracial, bisexual Christmas!” And to all a good night.

Rhonda Lieberman