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SXSW review: 'J.R. "Bob" Dobbs and The Church of the SubGenius' is a true tale of Texas weirdos

Joe Gross
J.R. "Bob" Dobbs and the Church of the SubGenius (photo: J.R. "Bob" Dobbs and the Church of the SubGenius)

In the 1980s and ‘90s, among various American undergrounds, knowledge of the Church of the SubGenius, the teachings of J.R. “Bob” Dobbs or the doctrine of “Slack” was a pretty good way to identify like-minded dorks.

As chronicled in Sandy K. Boone’s canny doc “J.R. "Bob" Dobbs and The Church of the SubGenius,” the Church was started in about 1979 by a couple of bored, nerdy Fort Worthfellows (think comic book collecting and Frank Zappa fandom) who go by the names Ivan Stang and Philo Drummond. (This is a very, very Texas story.)

As the values of the 1960s “were being flipped on their head” during the Reagan 80s, Stang and Drummond welded together every fringe belief (and the notion of us-vs-them conspiracy itself) televangelist fanaticism, a hodge-podge of clip art and rants that almost mean something (but never quite) in a zine called the Sub Genius Pamphlet #1.

Their “prophet” was a 1950s-dad-looking piece of clip art they dubbed “J.R. "Bob" Dobbs. (Trust me, some time in the past 40 years, you have seen this image.) They sent the zine hither and yon and, like the memes of today (but slower), the satirical ideas found purchase.

A bit like the Grateful Dead codifying Deadhead culture when they asked their fans to write to the band, Stang and Drummond, in the zine, requested a dollar from the like-minded. “If Jim Jones could talk 900 people (into suicide),” Stang says. “We could talk 900 people into sending us a dollar.” Thus, a fake church (or satire of one) was born and boy, did these folks have fun.

Stang and Drummond soon found that not only were were people like themselves who got the joke but some folks out there were pursuing the same ideas. The Famous Potatoes zine used clip art in a similarly semiotic way; the “Puzzling Evidence” (which folded in Subgenius content) and “Over the Edge” radio shows took similar views toward audio collage.

Like any real faith, SubGenius was a way of looking at the world. The Conspiracy was anything you wanted it to be, from pressure to conform to the suburban middle class to "the fact that it was too hot on the bus." Slack was that which should not be stolen from us, from literal free time to thinking for one's self. SubGenius was vague but potent and often very, very funny. 

Some of the whole shtick has not aged well. There’s a libertarian streak in there that serves a good reminder that, in spite of their bohemia, this was very much a movement of middle-class white dudes. And dudes they were (though, to her credit, Boone interviews plenty of women involved). "It was kinda this Loony Tunes fraternity, says "Nurse Kelly," "and you kinda had to enjoy guys to be a part of it."

Or as the late, great Austinite Margaret Moser puts it, “It was a boys club and I wanted to meet the boys.”

But Stang and co found Famous folks in other fields had a similar outlook (Penn Jillette, Paul Reubens, Alex Cox, Richard Linklater and Matt Groening are just a few). David Byrne’s wonderful movie “True Stories” contains a song called “Puzzling Evidence” that’s essentially a SubGenius tribute.

Eventually there were books ("Book of the Subgenius" and "High Weirdness by Mail" were essential text for a very certain type). Then a convention. Then live shows. Then an apocalypse date (X-Day) that came and went.

All the while, a lot of people took it WAAAY too seriously. When you set out to attract weirdos, you are going to...attract weirdos. In 1999, one such follower decided to promote the live show on the back of the Columbine shooting. Not a great look.

But then again, as the doc notes, the rise of the Internet made everything both more and less SubGenius-ish. It's now much, much easier for freaks to find each other and everything in general became much less mysterious. As SubGenius artist Paul Mavrides puts it, “As a medium, (the internet) flattens everything out. An inconsequential event is the same as the horrendous calamity or a staggering triumph of humanity.”

At the same time, people’s ability to distinguish between real and fake seems to be falling through the floor. The film ends on the somewhat grim note that, what with his ability to create his own reality and seeming conviction that facts have no meaning, our current President is, in a deeply negative way, “the most SubGenius world leader that’s ever been.” 

Which means X-Day is any minute now. Right?