Most likely, if you have ever heard of J. R. “Bob” Dobbs and the Church of the Sub-Genius you are either are a member of the satirical “religious” group or you had probably seen the group’s smiling, pipe-smoking 1950s clip art mascot but not given it too much thought. If you, like myself, have fallen into the latter group, or if this review is the first time you are hearing about them at all, than the documentary J. R. “Bob” Dobbs And The Church of the Sub-Genius is a pretty good primer as to what this particular weird little subculture is about.
The Church of the SubGenius started off as a private joke among two Ft. Worth, Texas artists and pranksters by the name of Douglass Smith and Steve Wilcox working under the pseudonyms of Ivan Stang and Philo Drummond. The pair cobbled together a rather ridiculous pamphlet advertising a new “religion” that was equal parts 1950s Americana/paranoia, UFO conspiracy and just plain outsider performance art. On almost a whim, the pair began mailing out copies to various publishers, and while no one seemed interested in actually publishing something like what they were proposing, word spread around, and son other like-minded folks were sending Smith and Wilcox a dollar to receive back copies of the pamphlet and subsequent “church publications” that they could dream up.
The Church of the SubGenius quickly grew in underground circles, at least in part as a reaction to the conservatism of the Reagan `80s. It appealed to those looking to let their freak flag fly and were ready to fight against the “conspiracy of normalcy.” Even though, the Church came up with doctrines, an Armageddon myth and even actively encouraged schisms in its ranks, all was done with a sense of tongue-in-cheek satire that may have gone over the heads of the uptight normal people most in need of getting the joke. If anything, the Church of the Sub-Genius was something of an anti-religion, with the film pointing out that religion doesn’t always unite people with something they like but rather unite over mutual hatred of things. It certainly was not a cult as some of it’s detractors tried to make it out to be, because the “leaders” of the Church never wanted any control over people. If anything, they encouraged Church “members” to do their own thing.
Director Sandy K. Boone tracks the Church’s rise through its prime years in the 1980s and early 1990s. But when the “prophesied” end of the world date in 1998 came and went without the revelation of UFOs and all else that was foretold, interest started to wane before it was shocked back to life by the emergence of the internet.
Like any religion, real or outright satirical, the Church of the SubGenius has over the years attracted a few weirdos who may have taken the joke a bit too far or who may have been outright mentally ill. It was time for the those at the head of the joke to maybe start toning things down somewhat. But even more so, tenor of the country has changed and an increase in tribalism has brought a nasty edge to public discourse. As magician Penn Gillette points out at one point, “I don’t know how you carve out a place for that kind of playful us verses them in a place where the news is filling so many of those roles.”
So why after all this time are the two men behind the whole Church of the Sub-Genius are dropping their act and telling all? While noting that the movement had over the years attracted some individuals, ok “crazies,” who maybe took things a bit more seriously than intended, Smith states, “[I]t is important for me to not leave behind another Scientology or Mormonism.”
But even for that candor, it should be noted that director Boone is the wife a former prominent Church of the Sub-Genius member who had previously passed away. This would certainly explain the film’s access to the leaders of the movement and the film’s obvious endearment to all things SubGenius, but it also waves a warning flag that perhaps some more unflattering things have been left out.