I’ve mentioned this before, but in my youth, I attended a Southern Baptist church (I still do, actually). My relationship with my church was love/hate. I loved God, but I hated the rules strictly enforced upon me. I’m not talking about the rules regarding murder and adultery. I’m talking about wearing a tie and dress shoes. If I was carrying a stack of books, my Bible had to be on top. Then the ban on long hair, rock music, and rated R films left me wondering exactly which commandment I was breaking. I had the pleasure of sitting through a 90-minute lecture on how heavy metal came from Satan himself. Should I go on?
Roughly around the birth of Evangelicalism in the late 70s, was born the counter-cultural, counter-religious phenomenon known as The Church of the SubGenius birthed by its founders Ivan Stang and Philo Drummond (Steve Wilcox). Documentarian Sandy K. Boone lays out the history and controversy of this “church” in her film, J.R. “Bob” Dobbs and The Church of the SubGenius.
“If you can’t take a joke, go fuck yourself” is, for the most part, the motto about the seriousness of this church. Stang and Drummond were two acquaintances from Fort Worth, Texas who had a mutual disdain of politics and religion in their conservative Texas community. Together they published a small pamphlet in 1979 called the Sub Genius Pamphlet #1. It announced the impending end the world almost ten years later and satirized God, religion, and spirituality. With no budget, the pamphlet was pieced together from public domain clip art images (akin to the origins of Film Threat), including the iconic face of an average, white, businessman, J.R. “Bob” Dobbs, who would become the church’s “diety” and fake figurehead.
“… a whacked-out explanation of the fall of society and the impending end of the world and then asks its readers to send $1…”
The pamphlet presented a whacked-out explanation of the fall of society and the impending end of the world and then asks its readers to send $1 to their offices in Dallas in hopes of making enough money to make a second. And miraculously, people did. They saw the humor and its earnest attempt to be that strange unique voice warning of the dangers of the “conspiracy.” Word of The Church of the SubGenius spread like an underground wildfire (yes, I’m mixing metaphors) and more and more people sent them money to continue. One day a postage-due package arrives at their mailbox. They would have to spend over $2 to open it. Reluctantly, they pay it and find $1000 in small bills inside the package.
As time passes, the joke of the church becomes a “reality.” The church has local gatherings at local bars/diners. They get their own “religious” radio show, “The Hour of Slack” on KPFA. They are soon invited to put on their first public event at San Francisco’s Victoria Theater. This little “church” starts to get local news coverage and attracts the likes of Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh and Pee Wee Herman. You can see the image of “Bob” in the background of Pee Wee’s Playhouse. Director Boone interviews Nick Offerman, Richard Linklater, and Penn Jillette about the influence of the Church of the SubGenius in their lives.
Over the years, the church has found itself in a bit of controversy. As the movement grew, everyone knew this church was a joke from the start…well, not everyone. Things got scary when some people showed up to events believing all this was real. A mother’s daughter was taken away from her because she was a member of this church. After 9/11, The Church of the SubGenius was classified as a dangerous cult in the eyes of the “pinks” and legal authorities. The final moments of the doc examine its satirical look at religious and politics against today’s climate, and you wonder if this fake church could compete with the fake world we live in today.
“…created solely for those people, who don’t feel normal…questions why we have to do things/live life a certain way.”
Sandy K. Boone has a fascinating documentary on her hands. She’s essentially following a 35-year prank, and throughout you get a true sense of the attraction and popularity of this church from its members. The Church of the SubGenius was created solely for those people, who don’t feel normal. This large sub-section of humanity that questions why we have to do things/live life a certain way. A place where we’re free to be different. As a child, we’re handed a yellow crayon to draw the sun…why? I think back that if I knew about this church, I may have become a member because it’s against my nature to take life too seriously, which was frowned upon during my early Christian days.
J.R. “Bob” Dobbs and The Church of the SubGenius is a wonderfully produced documentary. It captures the no-rules spirit of the church. The film’s narrative is intercut with clips of B-movie sci-fi and industrial films. Also, founders Stang and Drummond kept extensive archives of every pamphlet, radio program, and film footage of all their public events. By the end, you feel great sympathy for the docs editing team led by Lauren Sanders and an obvious example of why editing is the most important role in a documentary. I think I’d go crazy if I had to go over all this material in one sitting.
J.R. “Bob” Dobbs and The Church of the SubGenius (2019) directed by Sandy K. Boone. Featuring Ivan Stang, Steve Wilcox, Nick Offerman, Richard Linklater, Penn Jillette.
8 out of 10 stars