In 2015, the Rhode Island School of Design needed a commencement speaker, someone it could trust to inspire its graduates and send them out into the world to make a positive impact, while honoring the principles of the institution. Its choice? John Waters, the director of the infamous cult classics Hairspray and Pink Flamingos, the latter a film Roger Ebert refused to rate, reasoning that if the notorious "events in this film were only simulated, it would merely be depraved and disgusting." What could go wrong?
As it turns out, everything went right. What did the self-proclaimed "Filth Elder" have to say? Stay subversive, but participate and don't be a jerk. Respect your elders (filthy and otherwise, one assumes), reject rejection, and stop whining. Be an outsider on the inside. His speech went viral, and is now available as Make Trouble, a gifty edition jacketed in his signature fuchsia and illustrated with line drawings by Eric Hanson (the New Yorker, McSweeney's, Vanity Fair, etc.).
Recently I spent about 10 minutes on the phone with Waters discussing Make Trouble. The following transcript of our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity. He's hard to keep up with; I did my best.
Amazon Book Review: How's the weather treating you out there?
John Waters: Ah, I never notice weather unless it stops me. And I guess it could've today. Although it's not as bad as they said it was going to be. You know. It's like two inches and ice, but they said it was going to be 500 feet. I don't know. They always make it just so people always run and buy toilet paper, which I never understood, because blizzards never gave me diarrhea.
Naturally I'm curious about how it came about that you, a self-described "Filth Elder," were invited to give the commencement speech at the Rhode Island School of Design.
Well, I speak at colleges all the time. I have a spoken word show called This Filthy World, then I have a Christmas show called A John Waters Christmas, and I've been doing the college circuit for 50 years. But that was the first time I was ever asked to do a commencement. So I did. I had no idea that it would go over this well ... Online [it] went crazy. So that's how the book came to be.
I do like it. I've seen a number of these commencement speech books....
I never saw one! Who else did another one?
Vonnegut did one, and I think maybe Mitch Albom?
I'm the only one who does it for damaged college students. I always say the ultimate person that should get this is someone who took six years to get through a four-year college.
Putting your speech together, what was your guiding principle?
To make trouble ... People come to see me to get their sensibilities rocked a little bit. Nobody ever gets mad at what I say anymore, because I'm not mean. This book, when it was written, was before Trump. But weirdly, it looks like I wrote it in response to Trump (which I couldn't have done that quickly).
I did want to ask you about that, if there's a message, a specific message, inside that might help people who might be struggling with what's going on right now.
If you're preaching on a soapbox, no one listens ... I have friends that voted for Trump - not many, but I have some. I'm not a separatist; I listen to everybody. And if we can make each other laugh, that's the first step in changing their opinions ... Liberals are just as much fascists as right wing people. And I am a liberal! I've seen them, they never imagine that someone doesn't agree with them, which can get on my nerves, too.
So you said that your message is for "damaged"art students....
No! I didn't say "damaged" art students. I said people that took six years to get through four years of college [He did say "damaged"; see above.]. Anybody that has struggled in college or fought the rules and still wants to change things and is open to listening to how other people think - and they don't judge other people, that's the whole thing. As I say in this book, everybody's goal in the world should be to never be around assholes. That's the hardest thing that you can ever do with your life. And I have achieved that.
Oh, it's horrible! It took a long time.
You mentioned that you've been doing the college circuit - would you like to do more commencements?
Sure! It's a speaking racket! I'm good at it. I could do another one - I guess that'll be the sequel. It's funny, once this happened, no one else asked me to do it. I thought I'd get a run, you know? I did get another Doctor of the Arts from Maryland Institute, so that was great. Because of this - no matter how wide it went - not one other school asked me to do it. I thought I'd get 10 requests!
Not even from Wharton or Harvard Business School?
No! I was looking for a bidding war! I did it in prison once. It didn't go viral.
Is there a message for parents in your speech?
Oh, definitely! It was funny, when I got to the part with the parents, I said, "These entitled brats. Do they think you're made of money?" The parents really cheered... because nobody talks to the parents that much. They've gone through hell, too. First of all it costs a fortune. They have to put up with all the stuff that you say, they have to accept everything... Like if you just had horns implanted in your head.
I think we covered it in under 10 minutes.
I speak fast like a speed freak, even though I don't take speed. One of these days, maybe I'll start! Then I'll write another book quicker.
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- Ghosts of the Chelsea Hotel
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