J.R. "Bob" Dobbs and the Church of the SubGenius [Fantasia International Film Festival Review]

I'd never heard of the organization mentioned in the title before seeing the documentary J.R. “Bob” Dobbs and the Church of the SubGenius. And yet, it turns out, I had. The group – which could be called a religion or a cult, depending upon your point of view – had significant influence in pop culture. The members of Devo were fond of it, as was magician Penn Jillette. David Letterman once had a drawing of the group's pipe-smoking figurehead incorporated into his set. Bob has always been right in front of us all, whether we knew it or not. The film, which screened at the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival, provides an entertaining overview of this intentionally wacky underground phenomenon.

Bob Dobbs is not real. He's the invention of two men from Texas, Rev. Ivan Stang and Dr. Philo Drummond. (Probably not their real names.) These kindred spirits met in the '80s and discovered a mutual fondness for free-thinking, especially when it bordered on the eccentric. Together, they began publishing parodies of the religious tracts often found in public restrooms or near payphones, back when payphones existed. Their work, which mixed satire of religion and politics, implored people to mail in one dollar in exchange for guaranteed salvation. The humorous quality of these tracts quickly earned them a following.

J.R. “Bob” Dobbs and the Church of the SubGenius features Stang and Drummond explaining in detail how the “church” came to be, how it evolved into a book deal and stage shows, and how people all over the world joined to express their weirdness. The official motto – “Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke” – is meant literally; none of what the SubGenius does is meant to be taken seriously. Their higher purpose, after all, is “slack,” i.e. complete relaxation. Celebrity fans like Jillette, director Richard Linklater, and actor/comedian Nick Offerman also appear, discussing the impact it made on their work.

As with any cult, real or satiric, there are bound to be some who take things to the extreme. The SubGenius was no different. One of the most mind-boggling parts of the documentary focuses on how the joke became all too real for some members. A fairly high-level member dedicated to pushing boundaries did a radio interview connecting the SubGenius to the Columbine massacre, for example. This left Stang and Drummond in a bind, as the statement was both exactly the conspiratorial provocation they originally intended and exactly the kind of too-serious-to-be-joked-about subject that flew directly against the silly ethic of the SubGenius.

Hearing about the creation and growth of the group is fun. Beyond that, J.R. “Bob” Dobbs and the Church of the SubGenius works as a study of how cults grow and evolve, as well as the pitfalls they face. The SubGenius may have started as a celebration of the strange, but it also became kind of a real thing after a while. It was, and still is, a place where outcasts can feel accepted, where thinking outside the box is encouraged.

This funny and insightful documentary gives you the whole fascinating history of the SubGenius. Footage of its members holding their doomsday event nicely sums it up. They know the world isn't really going to end, because Bob is fictional and therefore didn't actually make the prediction that it would on a specific date. The gathering is an occasion for like minds to socialize. One suspects they'd be gravely disappointed if Bob had been proven right.

J.R. "Bob" Dobbs and the Church of the SubGenius is unrated, but contains adult language and some drug references. The running time is 1 hour and 24 minutes.