Dear Straight Dope:
I consider myself pretty hip. I'm fairly in tune with my generation of fellow twenty-somethings. I know the difference between Beck and Montovani. So why is it that, when everytime I run into one of these "Church of the SubGenius" sites on the web, I have absolutely no clue as to what the hell its getting at? What's the deal with these kooks? I can fathom the put-up of sci-fi doomsday cults, but the overall tenor of weirdness just boggles me. You've managed to debunk Dungeons and Dragons for us. Now how about putting these specimens under the microscope?
SDStaff Eutychus replies:
If you’re just running into this kind of stuff on the web, you haven’t been paying attention. Ever watch “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse?” Take a look at his bulletin board usually right before he hops on his bicycle at the end of the show. You’ll see a black and white picture of a grinning, pipe smoking man, That’s Bob. Watch “Rugrats?” Catch the repeated references such as “as Bob is my witless” or “children are a gift from a Bob.” It’s much more prevalent than you may think.
If the church doesn’t have a real leader, it at least has a logo, and that logo is the face of “Bob.” His full name is J. R. “Bob” Dobbs; the “J.R.” was dropped later because, as the church said, they didn’t want to get in any trouble with Larry Hagman. And it has a mission; the pursuit of “slack.” Slack is difficult to define. In a way it’s like what Louie Armstrong said about jazz, if you have to ask what it is, you’ll never know. It can be interpreted in the same way as the term “slacker,” but to the Subgenius it’s more of a way of getting through life without being brought down by the “normals.”
The Church is full of doomsday prophecies, endless rants, and shameless appeals for your money. And it’s all pretty much a joke.
The Subgenius foundation was actually begun back in 1979 by a Dallas filmmaker named Douglas St. Clair Smith, who now goes under the name Ivan Stang. He, along with Philo Drummond (possibly also a pseudonym) put together the first pamphlet announcing the Church and then published the “bible” of SubGeniuses “The Book of the Subgenius.” Stang had always been interested in fringe and weirdo groups, a lot of which he lists in his book “High Weirdness by Mail.” Although it’s unclear as to whether this is what he had in mind at the time, eventually, the Church began to become a clearinghouse for a lot of these groups. Thus, the rather unspecific theology of Subgeiuses; that one must merely be “abnormal” to be a member.
Philosophically, the church owes it’s origin to the Discordian movement of the late 60’s and 70’s. The first pamphlet of the Church (“The World ends tomorrow and You may Die!”) reads a lot like the “bible” of Discordianism, “The Principia Discordia.” In fact, as Stang wrote in an e-mail to this author, “The only difference I’ve been able to see between Discordians and SubGeniuses, is that SubGeniuses get laid.”
Sadly, though, there are some who believe that Stang has gone around the bend and has started really believing his own joke. To be fair, he does state that he really didn’t ever believe that the Church would ever have gotten as big as it has. He figured on a shelf life of a couple of years and it would have all been over. But these things do have a way of taking on a life of their own.
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.
STAFF REPORTS ARE WRITTEN BY THE STRAIGHT DOPE SCIENCE ADVISORY BOARD, CECIL'S ONLINE AUXILIARY. THOUGH THE SDSAB DOES ITS BEST, THESE COLUMNS ARE EDITED BY ED ZOTTI, NOT CECIL, SO ACCURACYWISE YOU'D BETTER KEEP YOUR FINGERS CROSSED.