J.R. ‘Bob’ Dobbs and the Church of the SubGenius (2019)

Director: Director: Sandy K. Boone

Featuring: Penn Jillette, Richard Linklater, Nick Offerman, Gerald V. Casale

“Fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke!”

Trailer

I do have some memory of the Church of the Subgenius and alt.slack when I first went on the internet in the mid-90s but had never really looked into it that much. I did however end up hanging out with a slightly similar group on alt.religion.kibology until well into the 2000s that had some people who I am sure where part of the same group.

After the documentary I talked to Paul Elliot of the now closed Polyester Books who used to distribute Church of the Subgenius and showed everyone the Dr Bob background on his phone.

The documentary follows a group of friends who decide to set up their own religion as a joke to appeal to other marginalised people like themselves. They never expected it to last hence 1998 being set as the year of Armageddon in their religion as it seemed far off in the future at the time.

I did enjoy the parts about sending pamphlets to random people and connecting with other people such as the writer of the Famous Potatoes zine. They also started broadcasting over CB radio and were surprised when other people started talking back.

The “pinks” were born representing the normal people and there was a conspiracy by them to supress your SLACK. Exactly what slack is, is not really explained but then again people do not ask that core concepts of other religions are explained.

The figure of the famous pipe smoking Dr Bob was from a public domain clip art library and its original source was lost to history.

After sending the original Subgenius literature to over 150 publishers in the USA a chance find by a book publisher in someone’s car leads to a publishing deal and they bought an artist on board to lay out the book properly in line with their beliefs.

As the founders say themselves you never know where references to Church of the Subgenius will pop up as it was an underground cult that never wanted that many members. It is good having the celebrity interviews and would have helped the Kickstarter funding and getting it screened but I think it would have worked without it.

Due to the popularity of the book an event is booked in San Francisco over two nights in a 900 seat theatre. Again the founders are surprised to the reaction to their show including the part with the smashing the watch and other people offer up their real watches to be smashed. After the success of the show they get correspondence from a church member saying they are not taking it seriously even though they wrote in the founding document for the religion that the entire point is to not take it seriously.

The pipe smoking Dr Bob was an easily indefinable meme before that was even a thing and it the group was popular with the media whenever they wanted a weird story to cover.

As with any church there will be splitters in fact they encouraged it. This did come back to bite them on the arse when people started talking out on their behalf after disasters and in particular the Columbine massacre. This had consequences for them in that their venue booking was cancelled and another church that tried to help them out was threatened.

9/11 is what changed everything as hate groups and religious extremists are now targeted as a national security threat. There is more us vs them in real life so having a religious group based hating the “normals” does not seem as relevant. As one of the interviewees said Donald Trump is the most Subgenius president ever.

It was a great documentary and managed to fit a lot in its short running time. It could have been a mini-series easily and they would have had to leave a lot of things out. The clips were entertaining but I am not sure they were all meant to have been played on a big screen as they were pretty low resolution.

That was a lot of people to wrangle for interviews and I was surprised they were still talking to each other after some of the things that have happened. Sometimes it is better not to meet the people you know from online but in this case it seems the people in the group have life-long friendships.

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