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Mondo Trasho: John Waters’ ‘False Negative’


By Owen Bryant

Well, the Pope visited Reno over the weekend. Yes, I am talking about that old guy who kind of dresses and talks funny. The little man who seems sweet enough, but you’d love to pick his brain and see what really makes him tick. That guy who tours around giving inspirational speeches to his religiously devout followers. The one with the holiest connection to all things Divine. 

Yes, that’s right, the Pope of Trash himself, John Waters, paid the Biggest Little City a visit last Friday and he couldn’t have been more welcome.

The cult film king turned comedian, public speaker, actor, writer, hitchhiker—he really does it all—appeared for one night only at Whitney Peak’s Cargo Concert Hall in a one man show that was more inspiring than you’d expect a comedy show to be, and more profane than you’d expect a talk from an accomplished filmmaker and writer to be. 

His diehard fans know well enough to expect this, but even from them one could sense pure surprise and elation throughout the entire talk.

Waters started making films as a teenager in the mid-1960s and by the early 1970s, he produced some of his first films that saw theatrical releases. 

However, these weren’t your typical weekend drive-in movies. They barely even made it into the midnight movie circuit due to their outrageousness. The censor boards deemed them obscene and perverted, and Waters is the first to admit that they were right. 

John Waters signing the jean jacket sleeve of a fan at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston, 1990.
John Waters signing the jean jacket sleeve of a fan at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston, 1990. Image: David P Henry / CC4.0

He is famous for the 1972 cult classic Pink Flamingos, starring the legendary drag queen Divine. 1988’s Hairspray shot him into the mainstream. Films like Cry Baby and Serial Mom took a noticeably more marketable approach with higher production value and less obscenity, but still just as much sardonic humor and absurdity as in his earlier works.

On this tour, called “False Negative: An Evening with John Waters,” the dapper Waters takes an empty stage and gives an uproarious talk about literally everything. He opened by comparing the COVID pandemic to other worldwide health crises he lived through like polio and HIV/AIDS, and then smoothly worked his way from topic to topic. 

Things like growing up gay in the ‘60s, turning holidays on their heads, making movies, writing books, hitchhiking cross-country, religion, sex, drugs, love, death – and all of it with absolutely no filter whatsoever. 

Then he talked about his films chronologically, giving a little anecdote about each one until he reached the end, concluded the talk, and stayed for about a half-hour Q&A with the audience. There was a mutual respect and adoration between Waters and his crowd that felt truly special to experience.

“False Negative” is not a comedy act, because there is no “act” about it. Waters isn’t a comedian who contrives witty buildups and punchlines. He’s just a wry 76-year-old gay dude from Baltimore who has lived through some wild times, has a lot to say and has a hilariously filthy sense of humor. 

But at the same time, he’s never trying to be shocking or crude, even with his earliest films. He just gets the ironies of life and likes to point out how crazy it all is, and just wants people to not take things so seriously. Have a laugh. Smoke a joint. Get laid. Or not. But don’t be little bitches because this is all we have. 

He’s surprisingly middle-of-the-road about a lot of things. As extreme as his humor is, he is skeptical about extreme ideologies. He’s just as critical of “wokeness” as he is about religious zealotry, for example. 

The man is honest and intelligent way beyond his years. He’s curious and creative. He made films in his 20s that made stars out of society’s most hated misfits. He put his life into strangers’ hands hitchhiking across the US in his 60s. And at 76 he shows no sign of stopping. 

“Maybe I’ll go into academia next,” he quipped, and honestly, I bet he would be great at it.

It goes without saying that “False Negative” probably wasn’t a show for everyone. You must be very comfortable with the topics Waters discusses and the language he uses. But I do feel there is a lot of anticipation by some that he will be much bawdier than he really is. If you can tolerate some obscenity and taboo topics, his outlooks and philosophies are quite amusing and inspiring. 

Despite being the Pope of Trash, he actually keeps things pretty classy. After this, I am dying to know what he’s going to do next. He’s been writing and touring but hasn’t made a film in almost 20 years. 

During the Q&A someone asked if there were any plans for another. 

“Maybe,” he smiled. “But I can’t talk about that.” Keeping people on their toes, as usual.

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