Long before the internet invaded every aspect of culture, a pair of friends who first bonded over their love of comic books and Captain Beefheart dreamed up “a weird fringe cult specifically for weirdos” that would walk the line between sincerity and parody. Thus, the Church of the SubGenius was born.
For those who have never heard of the Church of the SubGenius—or even those who can instantly identify its most iconic image, the clip art that purportedly depicts pipe-chomping founder J.R. “Bob” Dobbs—Sandy K. Boone’s new documentary J.R. “Bob” Dobbs and the Church of the SubGenius has arrived. Using contemporary and older interviews, animation, vintage VHS footage, and stock clips, the film offers a fun window into a realm of the counterculture that spawned (mostly) good-natured chaos in the golden years just prior to social media.
“We loved the range of ridiculous things that human beings can convince themselves of,” recalls Rev. Ivan Stang (a SubGenius pseudonym, which most members seem to have), who met Dr. Philo Drummond (also a pseudonym) in late-1970s Texas. They shared a fascination with extremist literature and “kook pamphlets,” like Jack Chick’s religious tracts, and for fun they did things like pull CB radio pranks, pretending to be alien invaders, and generally aiming to confuse whoever just might happen to stumble upon their broadcast.
In that irreverent spirit, they put together a small pamphlet of their own. The biggest headline screamed “The World Ends Tomorrow and YOU MAY DIE!”, with smaller sections asking big questions like “Do people think you’re strange? Do you?” and “Are alien space monsters bringing a startling new world?” As the leaflet began to circulate and find an audience, a community of people who shared Stang and Drummond’s decidedly offbeat sense of humor began to grow.
As the Church of the SubGenius expanded, so did the teachings of J.R. “Bob” Dobbs, which more or less boil down to an idea (delivered by alien space gods) that normal, boring people are involved in a conspiracy to deprive members of “slack” (a vague but valued commodity among the SubGenius crew; it’s basically whatever brings you joy outside the expected way of doing things). A rapture date, set in the then-far-flung year of 1998, promised those aliens would return to spirit the SubGeniuses away to slack paradise. All this pageantry became even more theatrical when the SubGenius group began to hold conventions styled as tent revivals and, eventually, raucous live performances for paying audiences. It was sorta performance art, but also sorta not, with a deliberately blurry border running down the middle of everything.
While certain free-thinking celebrities were excited and even influenced by the Church of the SubGenius—Nick Offerman, Penn Jillette, Richard Linklater, and Devo’s Jerry Casale are all interviewed in the doc, with famous faces like Paul Reubens and Matt Groening popping up in older clips—the mainstream press wasn’t sure what to make of it. “In the absence of the internet it was kind of a meme for media,” the founders recall, and the doc shows us the kind of coverage the church received in its heyday; some outlets understand this was a tongue-in-cheek situation, while others worried over the cult vibes, especially considering all the actual dangerous doomsday cults in recent history, like Jonestown, Heaven’s Gate, and the Branch Davidians.
A lot of that misinterpretation could be laughed away via the group’s motto—“Fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke”—but the group’s leaders began to realize that some of their own followers were also becoming confused. When the media didn’t “get it,” it was funny. When it was someone who fervently believed J.R. “Bob” Dobbs was a real person, a real religious figure, it was not so funny. “I drop character now because there have been so many crazies,” Stang says in the documentary. “The real message is, think for yourself. Be a leader,” Drummond adds at one point, admitting that wasn’t always clear to everyone who was attracted to the group.
That’s not the only uncomfortable subject that comes up in the documentary; after 1998 came and went without the promised rapture, and the internet began to make things like mail-order fringe religions feel outdated, the Church of the SubGenius’ identity floundered a bit. That wasn’t helped by an unfortunate SubGenius-branded event that seemed to snark on the Columbine shooting in 1999. But eventually, the Church of the SubGenius was able to evolve into its current (and still profitable, according to Stang) iteration as a sort of a time capsule dedicated to its own odd existence; it includes a podcast and a retro-styled website that preaches Bob’s message and sells his pamphlets and other wares.
But these days, as the founders point out with more than a hint of sadness, the Church of the SubGenius’ ethos is kind of out of step with our current reality, considering the way the internet has flattened every aspect of culture, and how we’re at the mercy of a president who exists in a fantasy world of his own making. As Drummond puts it, “There’s not really room for a playful ‘us versus them’ when the news makes it real.”
For the curious, though, J.R. “Bob” Dobbs and the Church of the SubGenius captures a period in history when rebelling against the boundaries of reality could still be a positively charged, life-altering experience.
J.R. “Bob” Dobbs and the Church of the SubGenius is in virtual theaters October 16, and on demand October 20.
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