During the ’80s, anyone who sent a dollar bill to PO Box 140306, Dallas, Texas, 75214 would eventually receive a weird black-and-white pamphlet filled with stark graphics and apocalyptic text that looked like it was cobbled together by UFO-obsessed John Birchers.
Upon further investigation, recipients might have discovered that the source of the pamphlet—Church of the Subgenius—was some kind of cult with a figurehead known as J.R. “Bob” Dobbs, a white suburban dad smoking a pipe. Most people dismissed this pamphlet as nonsense, a farce, or a stupid joke.
Some people, however, including my friends and I, took the next step, and sought out more Subgenius propaganda. This includes the group’s bible Book of the Subgenius and High Weirdness by Mail, which was a guide to getting cranks and kooks—some of whom were actually dangerous—to send you weird stuff in the mail. After going this far, many eventually realized that they had been lured into a dark forest filled with conspiracy theories, underground comics, weird music, religious quackery, dodgy characters, and extremely ironic humor.
It’s been many years, perhaps decades, since I’ve had anything more than fleeting thoughts about the Subgenius. Thus, my curiosity was piqued when SXSW booked a new documentary from Sandy Boone called J.R. “Bob” Dobbs and the Church of the Subgenius. Boone’s film is an illuminating trip down the Subgenius rabbit hole.
The documentary covers the group’s entire history from their origins in Dallas-Fort Worth to the Waco shootout to the Columbine massacre to 9/11 to present day. Sandy Boone gathers many of the group’s mostly pseudonymous prime movers—co-founders Ivan Stang (Doug Smith) and Philo Drummond (Steve Wilcox), Puzzling Evidence, Paul Mavrides, Papa Joe Mama— to provide their takes on the group’s bizarre history. Fans and adherents such as Gerald Casale, Penn Jillette, Richard Linklater, Nick Offerman, and the late Margaret Moser, offer their thoughts as well.
At its core, J.R. “Bob” Dobbs and the Church of the SubGenius is a film about the strange undercurrents that run throughout Texas. Birthed from the sprawling metroplex that gave rise to the greatest and most tragic conspiracy theory in modern history—who really shot J.F.K.?—the Church of the Subgenius is one of many examples of the cultural reaction to the conservatism that’s often associated with Texas.
J.R. “Bob” Dobbs and the Church of the SubGenius is directed in a style that reflects an identifiable Subgenius aesthetic that embraces collage, cartoons, news footage, appropriated imagery and halting synthesizer music. Footage from old videos like The Night of Slackperformance in San Francisco and the Subgenius commercial created for MTV are tossed into the mix. In one sense, the aesthetic is a bit of a retro throwback to an 80s-90s’ DIY video sensibility that’s more recently come back into vogue.
J.R. “Bob” Dobbs and the Church of the SubGenius captures the important role that this klatch of weirdos in played in the American subculture. Despite the doc’s exhaustive coverage of the group’s history, those who come in blind might still end up puzzled, confused or even dismayed by much of what’s depicted there. I say this: so what?