Inside the Craziest, Most Conspiracy-Filled ‘Church’ in America
Filmmaker Sandy K. Boone, director of the new doc “J.R. ‘Bob’ Dobbs and the Church of the SubGenius,” writes about the titular trollfest.
The Church of the SubGenius may have originated from the minds of two good ol’ boys living in Texas, but it’s more of a “universal thang” than a “Texas thang.”
The future founders of the Church of the SubGenius, Reverend Ivan Stang (Douglass St. Clair Smith) and Dr. Philo Drummond (Steve Wilcox), were born into the suburban world of the 1950s. As young boys, they experienced the “duck and cover” strategies taught in public schools in the event of nuclear war, watched on television the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963, and witnessed firsthand the UFO folklore surrounding Area 51, the highly-classified U.S. Air Force base. They came of age during the 1970s—a time of unprecedented social and political tumult with the rise of deafening consumer culture, the tarnishing of the “American Dream,” and the violence of the Vietnam War abroad. Their experiences from young life into adulthood spurred a maelstrom of creativity and cynicism. What later develops is the primordial soup of the “Church’s” satirical dogma, derived from conspiracy theories and eccentricities. There is no “sacred” or highly “secret” material that is not integrated into the “joke.”
In its earliest days, the Church of the SubGenius was a “boys’ club,” so to speak, and was initially about members devising ways to “crack each other up.” Many who had considered themselves outsiders had finally found a place to belong. They prided themselves on being collectors of anything outside the norm. They would say or do most anything to be heard, just as in the punk movement. This nonconformity in punk music and the tongue-in-cheek humor of the “Church” was a form of inventiveness and spontaneity that drew in fellow disgruntled folk.
Many of the early members of the SubGenius entered the workforce during the Reagan era. Despite being young and well-educated, they found themselves with no choice but to work assembly lines or do construction. It was very much reminiscent of the line in Sidney Lumet’s 1976 film Network: “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” The Church of the SubGenius became their outlet for expression.
The “Church” originated in the United States, but it has subgroups (known as clenches) throughout Europe and other parts of the world. There are also radio stations that broadcast “The Hour of Slack” across the United States and Canada, as they have been doing for nearly four decades. I believe the “Church,” and this film specifically, can be used as a vehicle to approach serious topics in a humorous way. A conversation about our different political views does not always have to be hostile. The “Church” offers universal symbolism for all persons that, for whatever reason, feel like they do not fit in, or have a sense of humor that is a bit offbeat from the norm. Anyone desiring a platform to be heard on most any subject will appreciate the undiscerning approach of the Church of the SubGenius. These rebels against conformity and religion are men and women of various faiths, including atheism. While filming my documentary, J.R. “Bob” Dobbs and the Church of the SubGenius, I found that for all their “yaking about slack,” a majority of members are the hardest-working, clever, creative, witty, generous, and kind people one would ever want to meet.
J.R. “Bob” Dobbs and the Church of the SubGenius is a venue for the founders of the “Church,” Doug Smith and Steve Wilcox, to tell the true and unabridged story of the Church of the SubGenius for the first time. It was important to them to get the story down in their own words so that after their passing (or as Doug Smith would say, “Upon boarding the pleasure saucers”), the world would not turn the tongue-in-cheek con job and joke of the Church of the SubGenius into a real cult, like Scientology.
The documentary deconstructs the way SubGenius have used cult tactics and an “us vs. them” mentality, though often in jest. The film also examines a humorous but effective mode to speak out—especially now in the age of Trump, with fake news and cult practices being used in our politics and government today. Viewers of the film will be more aware of how others in power harness these same tactics to encourage isolation and devastation across humanity. It is my hope that there is a resurgence in Church membership and its “think for yourself” mentality as this film makes its way around the world.
“Pulling the wool over your eyes” with satirical tales based on conspiracy theories, uproariously laughing when all their audacious proclamations are proved to be false, and proclaiming loudly, “Fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke”—all as they are inwardly beaming that you were smart enough to call them on their hoax—is the true meaning of being a SubGenius.