Episode 504: John Waters, The Kids in the Hall, Befriending Frank Zappa

Air Date:
Heard On BETA
(L to R) Dave Foley, Bruce McCulloch, Mark McKinney, Scott Thompson from Amazon Prime Video "Kids in the Hall" series
(C) Jackie Brown

Today, director John Waters, joins us to discuss his debut novel, ‘Liarmouth,’ Also, Scott Thompson and Dave Foley of The Kids in the Hall stop by to talk about their hilarious reunion series for Amazon Prime. And author Co de Kloet talks about his unexpected friendship with the one and only Frank Zappa.

Featured in this Show

  • John Waters' debut novel is as filthy, perverse and hilarious as you would expect — maybe even more so

    “The Orson Welles of Obscenity,” “the Prince of Puke,” “the Titan of Transgressive Film” — these are just a few of John Waters’ many nicknames.

    Waters is best known for writing and directing such films as “Hairspray,” “Pink Flamingos” and “Serial Mom.” He’s also the author of best-selling nonfiction books like “Role Models,” “Carsick” and “Mr. Know-It-All.”

    But being John Waters means all about exploring unexplored territory, which leads us to his latest project — his debut novel. It’s called “Liarmouth: A Feel-Bad Romance” and it’s every bit as filthy, perverse and hilarious as you could imagine. Maybe even more so.

    “I decided to write a novel because I wanted to challenge myself,” Waters told Wisconsin Public Radio’s “BETA.” “I had never written one, even though I had written a lot of movies, which are fiction, of course.”

    The protagonist of “Liarmouth” is a 40-year-old woman named Marsha Sprinkle. She’s a suitcase thief and her fake chauffeur — Daryl Hotchkins — is her partner in crime.

    Hotchkins agrees to work for Marsha provided that he’s able to have sex with her one day every year. As luck would have it, one day Marsha and Daryl get caught while trying to steal suitcases at the airport so they have to split up and escape.

    “It’s about three generations of women that are sort of hostile to each other,” Waters explained. “But I’m asking you to make them the heroines of the book. All the women in this book I love and I think the readers do, too, even though they’re kind of nasty and they would not be heroines in real life at all. But all my work is like that. So my readers won’t be surprised that I have a villain as the main character that I hope you like.”

    Adding, “I’m not sure she’s ever sorry for her behavior. Ever. As most of my feminine characters who might be considered villains are never sorry for their behavior.”

    Waters sent “Liarmouth” to a sensitivity reader. We here at BETA didn’t even know there was such a thing.

    “I didn’t know there was such a thing either,” Waters replied.

    He learned about sensitivity readers from his friend and fellow writer, Bruce Wagner. Wagner told Waters that his publisher sent his last novel, “The Marvel Universe: Origin Stories,” to a sensitivity reader.

    “And the sensitivity editor would not let him use the word ‘fat,’ even though the character was purposely trying to eat as much as she could,” Waters explained. “She would be the largest human being living on the earth. And he got so furious. He just published this novel for free.”

    Waters’ sensitivity reader seemingly ghosted him: “Never would return phone calls. So she quit or dropped dead. I don’t know what happened.”

    Instead, his editor Jonathan Galassi; agent Bill Clegg; and the three generations of women that work for him became his own sensitivity editors. They discovered that anything that could be considered a touchy subject could be made even “more ludicrously politically correct.”

    “So the threat of it maybe made the book better, even though I made it probably more crazy at the same time,” Waters said.

    Waters compared the idea of sensitivity readers to intimacy coordinators who are on film and TV sets when there is a sex scene.

    “I always hated filming sex scenes because it’s so embarrassing, but I did have scenes in ‘A Dirty Shame’ where extras had never met each other, had to make out for like hours in the background for a scene. I’m saying, ‘Cut.’ They start laughing,” he recalled. “But today you’d have to have shrinks there practically to advise them how to do it.”

    “It’s more complicated these days definitely. But … I’ve always made fun of the rules of whatever supposed outsider community I live in, whether it was hippies to political correctness,” Waters said. “I make fun of the rules, but I have to live up to in the world I’ve chosen to live in.

    In keeping with his reputation as an equal opportunity satirist, “Liarmouth” includes a trampoline park led by Marsha’s daughter, Poppy Samuels.

    Waters said that with the trampoline fanatics, he’s attempting to find a minority that is very serious and feels they are discriminated against.

    “I’m trying to find new minorities that don’t exist and have fun with them,” Waters explained.

    He also included dogs and cats that are dealing with gender and species identity disorders.

    “The grandmother in the book (Marsha’s mother) is a plastic surgeon for pets,” Waters said. “She is so crazy that she has lifted and changed her dog so many times that it begins to believe it’s a cat and is trapped in the body of a cat and so is transitioning into a cat through facial surgery as a pet.”

    Although “Liarmouth” reads like a novel, it is also very cinematic. So does Waters have any plans to turn it into a film?

    “Well, my agent told me there’s been nibbles on film rights, which is kind of hilarious. If somebody actually had to buy the film rights for me to get me to make the movie, that would be adding an extra pay level. So I am all for it. It is very cinematic. I can’t help it, I think that way.”

    2022 marks the 50th anniversary of Waters’ 1972 film, “Pink Flamingos.” The self-described “exercise in poor taste” was banned in several countries but has acquired a reputation as a cult film in recent years.

    “I just watched it a lot because Criterion is putting out this beautiful new version of it. Wait till you see the extras,” he said. “It’s even kind of nastier and ruder. But more ironic that the National Film Registry named it as one of the historic American films this year. I never thought that would happen. And I’m very proud, without any irony, that that did happen.”

  • 'The Kids in the Hall' break new ground in Amazon Prime revival

    One of Canada’s greatest comedy exports, “The Kids in the Hall,” is returning with a new season for Amazon Prime, 27 years after the original series aired. Wisconsin Public Radio’s “BETA” was fortunate enough to talk to two members of the ground-breaking comedy troupe — Scott Thompson and Dave Foley.

    In the fall of 1983, Thompson’s friend Darlene Harrison took him to the Poor Alex Theatre in Toronto to see The Kids in the Hall sketch comedy troupe in action.

    Thompson had been drifting around. He attended acting school, and he wanted to be a serious actor. Then he tried his hand at stand-up but found the atmosphere was so homophobic he couldn’t deal with it.

    “And then the moment I saw ‘The Kids in the Hall,’ I went, ‘That’s what I’m supposed to do.’ And I remember saying to Darlene, ‘Oh, I’m going to be in that group.’ And she was like, ‘But you don’t even know them.’ And I’m like, ‘Well’ — and this is how arrogant I was — I went, ‘Well, they need me.’”

    The Kids had taped doughnuts underneath all the theater seats for a gag that they were going to do later in the show.

    “And so I took the donuts and I started throwing them at them in the middle of their show, and I ruined their show,” Thompson recalled. “I was so adamant that they notice me. These are punks — they’ll like it if I trash their show. And they did.”

    Thompson’s calculated risk allowed him to become the fifth and final member of The Kids. Since he came from an acting background, it took Thompson a while to figure out how to navigate the writers’ room.

    “I didn’t have a clue what to do,” he said. “Honestly, no idea. I had no idea how to write sketches or monologues or anything.”

    But over the years, Thompson learned how to write a sketch and how to craft jokes.

    “I also learned how to subsume my personality to the group,” he recalled. “And that’s very important. Like, I was always a shiner, and I really wasn’t a good listener, and I wasn’t a good team player. But the troupe broke me down until by the end of it, I became a real team player. You have to be.”

    It might’ve been a Canadian thing, he said, but the troupe was adamant that no one member would stand out among the rest: “There was not going to be a star; the group was the star.”

    For his part, Thompson was a big influence on the way The Kids portrayed women.

    “There was never any question, like, ‘Will I play a female character? Will I play a male character?’ he said. “They always seem the same to me, like, oh, it’s just a character.”

    Thompson’s most famous Kids in the Hall character is undoubtedly the gay icon Buddy Cole.

    Foley talks about ‘The Kids in the Hall’ new series

    Foley described the reunion with his fellow Kids as a mixture of making each other laugh uncontrollably and being a bit awful to each other.

    He said if you’re a fan of the old “The Kids in the Hall’ series, you’ll like the new Amazon Prime series.

    “It’s very much true to the nature and spirit of the original,” he said.

    But apart from that, describing the series is difficult for Foley.

    “All we’ve ever tried to do is make the other four guys laugh,” he said. “And as an extension of that, it seems to make other people laugh. And that’s kind of the model that we’re still following.”

    Foley has said that the new series will have “a very low quotient of nostalgia.” But is it possible that this nostalgia could include the return of two very memorable characters from the original series — Dean Deen (played by Kevin McDonald) and Lex Hair (Foley)?

    “I kind of wish it had. I love those characters,” Foley said.

    But he said The Kids were very conscious of not using their most memorable characters too many times.

    “I think there was probably like, I don’t know, maybe five or six Simons and Hecubuses (sketches) over a five-year span,” he said. “Another show might have done five or six and a season.”

    It’s worth pointing out that certain live shows might have featured five or six recurring characters in a single season and actually turned them into major motion pictures, as well.

    In their book, “Mondo Canuck,” Geoff Pevere and Greig Dymond wrote of “The Kids in the Hall”: “That so many people didn’t get what The Kids were doing simply confirms the troupe’s validity as something legitimately innovative and subversive.”

    “Oh, that’s nice,” Foley said in response. “It was unintentional. When we first got our TV show, we thought we’d be a breakout hit. We thought the masses would swarm to us because we were young and arrogant.”

    “It wasn’t subversive to us. It was just telling the jokes that were funny to us. It was just doing comedy that wasn’t boring to us.”

  • 'Relax': How a Frank Zappa fan became friends with his idol

    If you’re a music lover, at some point, you likely had the fantasy of becoming friends with your idol. Hanging out, talking on the phone and long serious conversations about music, art and life over a cup of coffee at the kitchen table.

    That’s what happened to Co de Kloet after he met his musical hero, Frank Zappa. de Kloet talked with Wisconsin Public Radio’s “BETA” about his book, “Frank & Co,” which chronicles his meetings with Zappa from 1977 to 1993, using transcripts of conversations and descriptions of events in de Kloet’s life that had him and Zappa crossing paths during that time.

    It all started in the early 1970s when de Kloet heard the album “Freak Out” by Frank Zappa and Mothers of Invention.

    “I played that record repeatedly at the age of 12,” he said. “My musical life changed instantly, and I said, ‘What is this? I don’t get it. I don’t understand it. But there’s something to it that I must explore.’”

    A concert in 1973 sealed the deal, and de Kloet became a dedicated fan of Zappa’s music.

    “I went home, and I was shocked because it was a mainly instrumental show. I was bewildered, and I said, ‘If ever I get to meet this man, I’m going to tell him what an impact this show had on my life,’ not knowing that four years later, we would become friends,” de Kloet recalled.

    As luck would have it, de Kloet’s father was a renowned radio personality in the Netherlands and, through his connections, made arrangements for de Kloet to meet Zappa while on tour in 1977.

    “I was very nervous. The sliding door of the little hotel lobby opened, and a guy walked in with hair like an Italian businessman. Small mustache, tiny goatee, an extremely expensive jacket, and a business suitcase. An Italian manager, CEO-type looking guy,” de Kloet said. “I was so baffled and nervous, and I said, ‘Are you Frank Zappa?’ And he looks at me like, who is this? And where’s my bodyguard?

    He said, ‘I sure am,’ and he went into the elevator. I thought, ‘Oh, I blew it.’ The Warner Brothers guy comes in and says, ‘Come with me.’ So we go up, and he says, ‘Frank, can I introduce you to somebody? This is Co, and he is probably one of your biggest fans in Holland.’ And Frank looks at me and says, ‘And you still had to ask if it was me when you saw me in the lobby?’ I said, ‘Oh, I, I, I, and he said, ‘You were being careful, huh? OK, relax,’ and we had a very nice talk.”

    That would be where the story ends for most of us, but not for de Kloet. He went on to a successful career as a producer and interviewer on the radio and had the opportunity to talk and work with Zappa later on.

    In 1979, during one of their conversations, Zappa handed de Kloet a note with his home address in Los Angeles and told him: “At this address, there’s always a cup of coffee waiting for you.”

    In 1980, Zappa asked de Kloet to supervise the audio mix of a live concert for broadcast in the Netherlands. And so their professional relationship began, which materialized in several projects over the years. Mostly though, they talked about art, politics and, of course, music.

    During one long phone conversation in 1989, Zappa, seemingly as an aside, told de Kloet he had cancer.

    “I was shocked, and I said, ‘Can it be treated?’ Frank said, ‘We’ll see,’ and that was it,” de Kloet recalled.

    de Kloet and Zappa worked together again in 1990 on a project for Dutch radio detailing Zappa’s career in celebration of his 50th birthday. Their last project came in 1992 when Zappa offered de Kloet the opportunity to broadcast a concert of Zappa’s, “Yellow Shark.”

    The two men met one last time in the summer of 1993. Zappa was frail. de Kloet could only stay for a short time, but even so, Zappa still managed to surprise him.

    de Kloet remembers Zappa saying to him: “You came for that cup of coffee.”

    “That was one of the most intense moments of my life,” de Kloet said. “I said, ‘How can you remember that?’ A person who meets 500 people a day, handing me a note in ’79 inviting me for a coffee and referring to it as, ‘that cup of coffee.’”

    “He said, ‘Relax,’ (and) we stood up, and I hugged him,” de Kloet continued. “I didn’t know what to say, so I said, ‘OK, I got to go now. I’ll see you next time.’ ‘Yeah, sure,’ he said. That was it.”

    That was the last time de Kloet would see Zappa, who died of prostate cancer in 1993. He was 52 years old.

    The music of Zappa is still as vital as it was when he was alive, maybe even more so. de Kloet thinks there’s a good reason for that: “It’s the honesty. It’s honesty without compromise.”

    And he should know because he was, after all, Zappa’s friend.

Episode Credits

  • Doug Gordon Host
  • Adam Friedrich Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Technical Director
  • John Waters Guest
  • Scott Thompson Guest
  • Dave Foley Guest
  • Co de Kloet Guest

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