John Waters: The End of the World | The Carolina Theatre, Durham  |  Friday, Feb. 3, 8 p.m.  |  $47+

This week The End of the World, John Waters’s apocalyptically titled new standup special, lands at the Carolina Theatre—though the world should also be worried about the general state of things if the acclaimed director ever stops touring. 

Waters’s standup specials are as reliably consistent as a calendar.

“I’ve been doing this for 50 years,” he says, over a slightly static-filled phone call from his home in San Francisco. “I always rewrite my show. This one’s called The End of the World, which I think very much reflects how everybody feels.”

But Waters is here to charm his way through that feeling.

“Everybody’s despairing,” he says, “but I’m bringing that insane optimism of how we’re going to overcome and become ‘half-full’ kind of people.”

Exactly how he’s going to drag us along with him into insane optimism though, Waters declines to say. “You’re going to have to see the show to get that,” he says. “If I tell you in this interview, I won’t have any material left.”

Waters has been making films since he was kicked out of NYU for smoking pot in the 1960s. While some are tame enough to be universally beloved (think Hairspray), many more are what Waters himself calls “trash epics” (think Pink Flamingos, which features as its finale a scene of Waters’s friend and longtime collaborator, Divine, eating dog poop). Many of his films are set in Baltimore, where Waters grew up, and are intentionally provocative. The punk, gay ethos of his work has made Waters a cult figure for decades, especially among the LGBTQ+ community. He has also written several books, most recently his first novel called Liarmouth; exhibited fine art in prestigious museums and galleries; hosted an annual adult sleepaway camp since 2014; and written and toured a new standup special at least once a year for decades.

Over his decades as a filmmaker, Waters has consistently made fun of himself and his community, which he believes opens doors to making fun of others. “If you have a good sense of humor about yourself, you can make fun of everybody else,” he says. “But you have to make fun of yourself, which I certainly have.” By dubbing his own films’ as trash epics, he says, he beat his “critics to the typewriter.”

But Waters’s critics and fans at least pay him the shared compliment of taking his jokes seriously. Just a couple of months ago, Hairspray was added to the National Film Registry of the U.S. Library of Congress and—perhaps even more surprisingly—Pink Flamingos was also added in 2021. (“Who would ever have imagined that happening?” Waters says.) 

In a recent much-debated list of the 100 Greatest Movies of All Time, Variety ranked Pink Flamingos at number 92, noting its original review, which Waters has more or less memorized, which describes the film as “one of the most vile, stupid and repulsive films ever made.”

Recently, Waters attended a screening of Pink Flamingos and realized the young audience was seeing it for the first time.

“It was great because they started out really laughing, then they got quiet, and then they were like ‘oh my God,’” he says, gleefully. “So it still worked. I did win. I am the filthiest person alive. Even though Johnny Knoxville is pretty close. I share my crown with him.”

Waters thinks Pink Flamingos is more shocking now because of “political correctness,” which perhaps seems a conservative take for a filmmaker like Waters, though the opinion opens itself to nuance with more discussion.

Unlike some entertainers who have spoken out against political correctness, Waters doesn’t miss being able to use racial slurs. And while he does think anybody should be able to make a joke about anybody, although it is “much harder,” he’s not mean. Waters believes in a twisted humility: “If you have a good sense of humor about yourself, you can make fun of everybody else,” he says. “But you have to make fun of yourself first.”

To this end, in his work, Waters typically makes fun of liberals, himself, and the way he responds to political correctness, as much as “the other side,” noting that “conservatives gave up on me long ago.” Though he’ll go on Fox News whenever asked, Waters says, this is in order “to sell books, to go into enemy territory, and to stay sharp.”

“Never make the enemy feel stupid, even if they are,” he adds. “Make them feel smarter by thinking something you said is funny, and then they’ll listen.”

Waters also grants that things have changed for the better in many ways, including the darkening of American humor.

“Lenny Bruce went to jail for saying ‘fuck’ and now everyone says it all the time,” Waters says. “So things have radically changed that way, and I think for the better.”

Another sign of progress is “to admit there is such a thing as a bad gay movie,” Waters says, although he was not willing to name any in the interview. “My job is to praise what others despise, not the other way around,” he says, with the exception of Forrest Gump, which he does not like (but knows it’s won enough Oscars that nobody cares). While I’m confident that attendees of Waters’s upcoming special will learn about plenty of things Waters is and isn’t into at his show, Waters didn’t want to spoil exactly what he talks about in the special.

The most I could get were broad strokes: “It’s about politics. It’s about movies. It’s about fashion, but it has to be up to date, certainly,” he says. “So I changed the title just to let people know that I have rewritten it.”

We will simply have to wait until The End of the World to get our full lesson in optimism.

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