Polyester, John Waters, Divine, drag queen
Polyester, John Waters, Divine, drag queen

How John Waters Inspired “Arrested Development” Writer Richard Day

Every week on Matt Baume’s podcast, The Sewers of Paris, he talks to different gay man about the entertainment that changed their lives. This last week, he chatted with Richard Day — a TV writer on shows like Ellen, Drew Carey and Arrested Development — about being inspired by director John Waters. Day also made the films Girls Will be Girls and Straight Jacket, two films that embody Waters’ wild visions of drag and suburban life gone awry.

So many of us grew up in a “sub” to some city’s “urb.” Close enough to know that there’s life beyond the split-level ranches and strip malls, but not close enough to know what that life actually is.

Even as a kid, Day could detect a mismatch between himself and the nice, normal, heterosexual world he’d grown up in. It’s a gay cliché to find the suburbs boring, or oppressive, or hostile, but Day discovered that the suburbs can also be funny; you just have to pull back the veneer — sometimes way back.

When I asked him what entertainment changed his life, he answered instantly: Polyester, the John Waters film.

John Waters was notorious for a few seconds of film — Divine the drag queen eating dog shit at the end of the 1972 film Pink Flamingos — but that was far from the most interesting thing about his work, which at the time had only appeared in obscure theaters. Waters’ films certainly never showed up in cinemas in small towns like Novato where Day grew up.

Polyester had a bigger release, though. “It opened up whole new vistas,” Day said. He was 17 and knew he wanted to be a comedy writer, but shows like Saturday Night Live just didn’t speak to him.

“As a gay kid,” he said, “it was just so heterosexual.” He compared Polyester to Animal House, which was a movie very much about the ordinary heterosexual world. It didn’t challenge conventions like marriage or straight culture or the suburbs. But, he said, “John Waters, being gay, rejects all of it.” John Waters films challenge every institution we can think of, and Richard loved it.

“I want to make movies like that,” he remembers thinking.

What he loves about John Waters movies is that they make fun of audience members that take movies too seriously. For example, Waters put Edith Massey — his favorite thrift store clerk, a woman who could barely say lines — in his films. “He puts these huge roadblocks in your way,” Day said. “He’s making fun of the idea that movies are worth respecting. In the same way that he’s making fun of the idea that society is worth respecting.”

Waters was also particularly drawn to drag for its camp aesthetic. The humor isn’t specific jokes — “it’s all vibe,” Day said. “And it’s hard to put your finger on why you’re laughing.”

Long before he was a TV writer, Day was a kid growing up in a suburb of San Francisco. “Off-the-rack suburbia,” he said. Seeing John Waters made him realize that his kind of humor had a place in the world. (Monty Python and SCTV helped too.)

At some point as a teenager he realized he could make people laugh, and he had to have more.

“Comedy is an outsider looking in,” Day said. “And you’re being told by the country ‘you should want this, but you can’t have it.’ The person that’s told that, whether it’s women or Jews or gays or blacks, anyone outside the sweet spot, develops a comic reaction… it’s half ‘fuck you’ and half ‘please I really do want in.'”

As a teen, Day and his friends made little comedy sketches and amateur movies. There was a local TV station in San Francisco that put weird art and comedy on the air, and he sent some tapes to them and they appeared on broadcast television on Sunday night at midnight. “It had that same gonzo vibe as John Waters.”

It was a dream come true. He and his friends started making music videos, but then moved to Los Angeles and took a turn towards writing sitcoms.

His first job was It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, a very strange meta-fictional sitcom where the whole premise was that comedian Gary Shandling had a sitcom that his friends would regularly watch and appear on. The host, Shandling, would talk to the audience; you’d see cameras and studio crew; he’d walk from one set to another.

“In a way I guess it was camp,” he said. There was a delight in the artifice of the format that shared a sensibility with Divine, an obvious man, dressing up as a woman.

Getting the job was surprisingly easy. “There were sitcoms all over the place, and they all needed writers in excess of what there actually were, so you just get yourself noticed,” Richard said. “Some show will hire you.”

As a brand new writer, he found he was the least funny person in the room. Some of his coworkers went on to create The Simpsons, and he felt like he was completely out of his depth. By the end of his time there, he’d gotten some jokes in and wrote some scripts. At his next job, he found that his trial by fire had prepared him to be far funnier than he’d ever been.

He eventually found himself writing for Ellen, putting the star in bizarre situations because of the her resistance to doing dating scenarios. They’d have Ellen go to a dance class, or become a spy to avoid heterosexual storylines before she came out.

And then came Arrested Development. Like so many of his past influences and most successful scripts, “there was nothing that was not on the table. Everything was mock-worth on that show and it’s even using its form as a comic tool.”

Often, Richard said, a network would be watching their shows too carefully for them to do anything daring. But Fox gave the show creators a lot of freedom because executives were distracted by the novel format. By the time anyone in charge noticed that the storylines were incredibly strange, the precedent had been set.

Once again, Richard was writing for a show that exploded reverence for suburbia. And it hopefully won’t be his last: he still has more scripts he wants to write, movies he wants to make. He’s currently working on a sequel to the movie Girls Will be Girls — a story of zany women, all played by drag queens; he relishes the opportunity to make a film that is purely his own vision. Not too surprisingly, his movie is a chaotic parody of suburban life, and not all that different from something you might emerge from the mind of John Waters.