John Waters Says the Era of the Gross-Out Comedy Is Over

The "Hairspray" and "Pink Flamingos" filmmaker admits that excessive sex and violence no longer make for great entertainment.
John WatersNew Museum Annual Spring Gala, Cipriani Wall St, New York, USA - 04 Apr 2017
John Waters

While crass films have existed for as long as cameras, few directors have taken as much pleasure in their campy tastes than John Waters. The filmmaker behind “Pink Flamingos” has devoted his life to pushing the boundaries of decency, seemingly because he could. Nobody else has found as much hilarity in the campy, the exploitative, and the generally gross.

With so many outlets to distribute explicit content, and an industry hungry for anything that can be streamed, one would think Waters would be having a field day right now. But it’s just the opposite. In a new interview with Vulture, the director admits that the formula he perfected is no longer effective.

When asked about mainstream attempts to shock audiences, he said, “The easy way doesn’t work anymore. Just sex and violence. Hollywood does that and does it badly. They make $75 million gross-out comedies that nobody thinks are that funny. So, that’s over. You have to think of a new way.”

He added, “And it does involve political correctness of all the things you can and cannot do in comedy today. But I think that makes it even more of a challenge to pull it off and startle people today.”

While Waters made a career out of showing sex and gore, he did it with a point of view. But when everyone has seen everything, and studios are playing in the sandbox that was once reserved for underground filmmakers, he thinks it’s time to move on.

He may not be happy with the way Hollywood handles his genre, but Waters is far from an old man shaking his fist at the world. He had lots of praise for progress that’s been made to make entertainment more inclusive. He loved the Broadway revival of “King Lear” that turned the famous king into a woman and incorporated sign language and a deaf actor. And he spoke fondly about diversity in high school productions of the “Hairspray” musical.

“In public schools, you can’t cast by weight, race, anything,” Waters said. “So I’ve seen ‘Hairspray’ with a skinny black girl playing Tracy. It makes no sense, but what’s better, the kids don’t notice. So that’s progress.”

In the wide-ranging interview, Waters comes across as a man extremely content with his life. Just don’t expect him to make a gross-out comedy anytime soon.

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