J.R. 'Bob' Dobbs and the Church of the Subgenius
2020, NR, 85 min. Directed by Sandy K. Boone.
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Oct. 16, 2020
You couldn’t escape his ubiquitous mug back when Austin was truly weird. It appeared on bumper stickers, bulletin boards, telephone poles, streetlights, bathroom walls, and more: A perfectly coiffed and lantern-jawed 1950s dad, his perfectly straight teeth clenching a pipe in an ear-to-ear grin worthy of Ward Cleaver. Although his face archetypically evoked white, middle-class, heterosexual Christian conformity, J.R. 'Bob' Dobbs (note the mandatory quotation marks) served as the symbol of something completely different from post-war homogeneity. He was the appointed figurehead of the Church of the SubGenius, a somewhat wacky “religious” (more quotation marks, but subjectively imposed) organization formed to counter the “conspiracy of normalcy” pervading American society. Initially hatched in the playfully demented minds of two Dallas-area merry pranksters, Reverend Ivan Stang and Dr. Philo Drummond (née Douglass St. Clair Smith and Steve Wilcox, respectively), in the late Seventies, the Church was intended as a dogmatic antidote to a re-emergent mediocrity, embracing an aesthetic in confluence with evolving new wave sensibilities and tropes in music, film, and pop culture. It was an in-joke with a half-serious punchline.
The image christened 'Bob' first appeared in a 1979 DIY pamphlet that asked readers questions like “Are You Abnormal?” and announced “The World Ends Tomorrow AND YOU MAY DIE!” before soliciting a dollar subscription fee for this new fringe theology masquerading as performance art and satire. (Or was it performance art and satire masquerading as fringe theology?) Afterwards, non-conformists everywhere (including the band Devo, magician Penn Jillette, film director Alex Cox, and actor Paul “Pee-wee Herman” Reubens) began to jump on board and the Church ended up becoming, inexplicably or not, a phenomenon of sorts, making the indefatigable 'Bob' the first piece of clip art to lead a world-wide congregation.
The deftly executed documentary J.R. 'Bob' Dobbs and the Church of the Subgenius demonstrates great affection for Bob and his acolytes, many of whom enthusiastically relate the Church’s mythology, history and doctrine here with a nostalgic sentimentality usually reserved for reckless-youth silliness. (Full disclosure: the film was executive produced by Chronicle co-founder Louis Black.) Their monikers set the tone – Reverend Susie the Floosie, Nurses Vicki and Kelly, Papa Joe Mama, Dr. Howland Owll, and Reverend Dr. Onan Canobite, among others. Special mention must go to a delighted Arch Doctor Saint Margaret, the late and sorely missed Margaret Moser, Austin Chronicle music columnist and legendary Texas Blonde. These eager talking heads – including the aforementioned Messrs. Stang and Drummond—discuss the early anarchic gatherings of the SubGenius faithful at so-called “devivals”, attempt to explain the undefinable zen of “Slack” that all church members strive for, recount Bob’s infamous assassination onstage at San Francisco’s Victoria Theatre (catlike, he has many lives), and recall the prophecy of the Rupture, when (7 a.m., July 5, 1998, to be exact) Church members would rise up against the norms who’ve robbed them of Slack and ascend to pleasure saucers piloted by alien sex goddesses. (Like most patriarchal sects, the Church skewed towards a boy’s club mentality.) It all sounds fantastic. And it is, in every meaning of the word.
Director Boone and her crew make good use of those interviews, as well as grainy film footage and subliminal imagery, to document the story of Bob and his Church, which still thrive albeit to a much lesser degree, despite challenges that include competition from the internet, cult-related tragedies like the Columbine massacre, and some negative press (deserved and undeserved) over the years. While some question whether there’s any room left for relatively benign organizations like the Church of SubGenius in this hardcore conspiracy-driven world, the documentary ends with the hope there will always be a place for nonthreatening weirdos to worship. To those naysayers who disagree, I quote from the Scripture of Bob: “Fuck 'em if they can’t take a joke.”
J.R. 'Bob' Dobbs and the Church of the Subgenius will be available as a virtual cinema release starting Oct. 16, and via VOD from Oct. 20.
Want to learn more about your inner subgenius? Read our interview with the Reverend Ivan Stang and Sandy K. Boone, The Power of Slack Compels You!, March 8, 2020.