9 Takeaways From John Waters' Graduation Speech

June 10th 2015

Baltimore native and screenwriter John Waters recently delivered a powerful, hilarious commencement speech to the 2015 graduating class of Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), and he had many words of wisdom for the graduates. Having lived a full, sometimes tumultuous life himself, he emphasized at the beginning of his address that he was the ideal choice to be keynote speaker.

"I should say right off that I am really qualified to be your commencement speaker. I was suspended from high school, then kicked out of college in the first marijuana scandal ever on a university campus," Waters said at the beginning of the speech. "I’ve been arrested several times. I’ve been known to dress in ludicrous fashions. I’ve also built a career out of negative reviews and have been called 'the prince of puke' by the press ... Somehow I’ve been able to make a living doing what I love best for 50 years without ever having to get a real job."

Waters, whose notable works include "Hairspray" and "Pink Flamingos," had plenty of other gems in his commencement address. Here are the eight best takeaway lines from his speech:

1. The real benefit of being your own boss.

"'But how can you be so disciplined?' friends always ask when I tell them my job is to get up every day at 6 a.m. Monday to Friday and think up insane stuff. Easy! If I didn’t work this hard for myself, I’d have to go work for somebody else. Plus I can go to my office one room away from my bedroom in my own house dressed in my underpants if I want to."

2. Persistence pays off.

"Remember, a 'no' is free. Ask for the world and pay no mind if you are initially turned down. A career in the arts is like a hitchhiking trip: All you need is one person to say 'Get in' and off you go. And then the confidence begins ... Remember: You must participate in the creative world you want to become part of. So what if you have talent? Then what? You have to figure out how to work your way inside."

3. Living at home isn't so bad.

"Never be like some of my generation who say, 'We had more fun in the ’60s.' No, we didn’t! The kids today who still live with their parents who haven’t seen them in months, but leave food outside their bedroom doors are having just as much fun shutting down the government of foreign countries on their computer as we did banning the bomb."

4. Sneak important messages into the world through art.

"You need to prepare sneak attacks on society. 'Hairspray' is the only really devious movie I ever made. The musical based on it is now being performed in practically every high school in America – and nobody seems to notice it’s a show with two men singing a love song to each other that also encourages white teen girls to date black guys. 'Pink Flamingos' was preaching to the converted. But 'Hairspray' is a Trojan horse: It snuck into Middle America and never got caught. You can do the same thing."

5. Don't get isolated.

"Refuse to isolate yourself. Separatism is for losers. Gay is not enough anymore. It’s a good start, but I don’t want my memoirs to be in the gay section near true crime at the back of the bookstore next to the bathrooms. No. I want it up front with the best-sellers."

6. Not all rich people are awful.

"Don’t hate all rich people. They’re not all awful. Believe me, I know some evil poor people, too. We need some rich people: Who else is going to back our movies or buy our art? I’m rich! I don’t mean money-wise. I mean that I have figured out how to never be around assholes at any time in my personal and professional life. That’s rich. And not being around assholes should be the goal of every graduate here today. It’s OK to hate the poor, too, but only the poor of spirit, not wealth. A poor person to me can have a big bank balance but is stupid by choice – uncurious, judgmental, isolated, and unavailable to change.

7. Karma doesn't exist.

"I’m also sorry to report there’s no such thing as karma. So many of my talented great friends are dead, and so many of the fools I’ve met and loathed are still alive. It’s not fair, and it never will be."

8. Listen to your political enemies.

"Listen to your political enemies, especially the smart ones, and then figure out a way to make them laugh. Nobody likes a bore on a soapbox. Humor is always the best defense and weapon. If you can make an idiot laugh, they’ll at least pause and listen before they do something stupid – to you."

9. Finally, stop blaming mom and dad.

"Young adults, maybe today is the day you stop blaming your parents for every problem you’ve ever had. Yes, it’s a drag. You were kept locked in a cardboard box under their bed and daily whipped with a car aerial, but it’s time to move on. We’ve all been dealt a hand. Deal with it ... And, parents, vice-versa: You don’t get to order up your kids, either. Maybe your daughter did tattoo her entire face. Well, work with that you got. Think positively. Maybe she’ll open a fancy tattoo parlor in Paris."

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