Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Live your filthiest life with John Waters’ Mr. Know-It-All

Image: Natalie Peeples

John Waters might be America’s most honest celebrity. Waters talks about Hollywood and the film business with the candid attitude of someone who truly does not give a shit if his phone ever rings again, and Waters speaks with the same frankness on subjects ranging from “teen tragedy” novelty records to the racial politics of the Yippie movement in his new book, Mr. Know-It-All. Like most of Waters’ books, Mr. Know-It-All is composed of freestanding chapters that are part memoir, part personal essay, and part stand-up comedy routine. They’re a lot like his live shows, which Waters brags he’s done so many times that he can let his mind wander while his mouth keeps moving onstage. As he puts it in the book’s introduction, “I’m seventy-three years old and my dreams have come true. Couldn’t you just puke?”

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The subtitle of Mr. Know-It-All is The Tarnished Wisdom Of A Filth Elder, and Waters does devote significant space in the book to delightfully specific advice. Some of it is freestanding, and some is interwoven with Waters’ ruminations on life and memories of shooting his later films—including Polyester, Hairspray, Cray-Baby, Serial Mom, Pecker, Cecil B. Demented, and A Dirty Shame, each of which gets its own chapter. With great clarity of vision, Waters outlines his personal tastes as well as his rules to live by; giving away all of the latter would be counter to Waters’ unabashedly commercial mindset, so we’ll just cite one tidbit from the introduction, which is that one should eat sensibly during the week and excessively on weekends, and only weigh oneself on Friday mornings.

In Waters’ personal lexicon, “filth” doesn’t necessarily mean actual dirt and grime; in fact, in one of the book’s more surprising peeks behind the puke-green curtain, he comes across as a bit of a germaphobe. (Then again, Divine is the one who actually ate the dog shit in Pink Flamingos.) In Waters’ mind, “filth” is both a lifestyle and a philosophical framework for understanding the world, a general disdain for convention and a commitment to aesthetic ugliness and casual transgression, as he lays out in speculative chapters like “Gristle,” where he describes his vision for the world’s most repulsive-yet-sublime dining experience. It’s Waters’ sincere faith in these principles that gives him the leeway to poke fun at not only square society but also his fellow rebels. When Waters says that the future of queer sex is heterosexual acts between non-heterosexual people, he does so with an affectionate wink and a knowing nudge to the soldiers on the front lines of the gender wars.

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Waters’ candid love of what some might call “sin” also keeps the chapters of Mr. Know-It-All that essentially read like transcribed stand-up comedy routines from veering into Jerry Seinfeld territory. The chapter on airplane etiquette would be intolerably hokey in nearly any other hands, but Waters’ observations, like his confession that he used to huff “those chemically treated cum-rag-like so-called hot towels” to see if they get you high (they don’t) and declaring that “the main goal of your entire life should be to be able to somehow fly first class one day,” make the journey somehow—gasp!—fun. Not a word one usually associates with airports.

Someone with Waters’ level of fame—about which he says in the book, “there is absolutely no downside to being famous. None at all”—gets interviewed a lot, which leads to the inevitable consequence of Waters repeating himself sometimes. Hardcore fans may recognize some of his stories, particularly in the memoir chapters, from earlier interviews, and he admits to holding back other anecdotes for the book. And although on a line-by-line basis, the book always sparkles, Waters relies heavily on rhetorical questions as framing devices, particularly in the chapter about his experience taking LSD at 70. Still, it’s practically a dare; you’re going to ding John fucking Waters, who counts William Castle among his many idols, for indulging in a little showbiz artifice? He knows exactly what he’s doing, and is completely honest about it. In fact, his complete lack of shame may be the greatest lesson Waters has to teach: Whether you’re discussing rim jobs or show-business paychecks, it’s impossible to be embarrassed if you have no shame to begin with.

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