The Church of the SubGenius
April Baer–So what better place than Cleveland for an itinerant preacher on the run from an angry flock to settle?
Reverend Ivan Stang–Well, the lynch mob in Dallas was hot on my heels! The tar was bubbling, the feathers had just been plucked, off the chickens...I had to go to a more tolerant place. A more loving city. A city like Cleveland!!!
AB–But seriously folks...
IS–Why did I come to Cleveland? I'm trying to remember, why the hell did I come to Cleveland? I had this perfect setup in Dallas–it was this whole cult, this immense empire and now I'm working out of this tiny little room - (at this point the Reverend gets a mite weepy-AB) I moved to Cleveland on the heels of a divorce that I'd really rather not talk about. That was why I left Dallas, but the reason I came to Cleveland was because this town was the other hotbed of SubGenius creative activity. There are more bands and fellow preachers–not necessarily in Cleveland but in this part of the country, and we get a lot better response. It may simply be that my accent in Texas sounds too much like my next door neighbor. And that's why nobody watches King of the Hill in Texas: it's just a documentary to them–or us! But for some reason the Yankees seem to think that all I have to do is say "Hello," and "Praise Bob!" in a southern accent and they think it's just hilarious.
AB–What are the hallmarks of the bands who have the glorious fellow feeling–how do you know when you've seen a fellow traveler?
IS–Usually you can tell by the scarification, tribal scars on them, that's usually how you can tell a band is a real SubGenius band! Like Einstein's Secret Orchestra here in Cleveland–no longer a secret, but fully scarred, and with every scab appealing!
How did you meet up with those guys?
IS– E.S.O. has had a radio show on WCSB here in Cleveland for umpteen zillion years, and every time that I've been here–which is two or three times a year since 1990–I've gone down to WCSB and done the show with Lonesome Cowboy Dave and Professor Smith. And in fact in the last three or four years it got to where I was phoning into the shows every Thursday night. I was a regular on it. I was integrating the tapes from that show into my Hour of Slack show and it's just a lot more fun to be right there in the studio with those wacky zane-o's.
AB–So you met them through WCSB?
IS–Actually I met them through my other friends here in Cleveland this group called ACE, or Association for Consciousness Exploration, who had originally started bringing me in to preach at their pagan devivals, to offset the deadly seriousness of so many of our dear pagan brethren. Which worked. About half of Œem hate the Church of the SubGenius, Praise Bob...
AB–Only half of them?
IS–And the other half have a great sense of humor, like most people. Those are the ones we're looking for–we're looking for people who like to draw gut laughs out of their own guts! And if they can get a little bit of that kind of help from the preachers of Bob, then great. The other thing that we're trying to do it destroy all human reality as we know it. The conspiracy of the Normals has got to be not necessarily completely eliminated from the earth, but at least put into a special place where they won't bother the rest of us.
AB–Tell us the story of how you found Bob.
IS–Well, like so many SubGeniuses, before being saved I was really a slackless wretch. I wasn't making any money at all. I had trouble getting jobs even though I had a lot of skills–especially in the media. I didn't have a diploma. This friend of mine came along and after he got to know me and see the depths of my desperation, he started telling me about this mysterious character named Bob who eventually I came to see the truth of Bob and he, Doctor Philo Drummond, and I, together put out the first SubGenius pamphlet in 1980, in order to recruit believers, or dis-believers, or those who would believe anything. And it works! You know the thing is I'm no longer slackless and miserable. Now I'm helping others slackless and miserable types to spend their time and money on Bob. Heh-heh-heh. I think the moment when I knew that I was hooked was when I heard the name–SubGenius. It wasn't really even part of the name of the Church then it was just the term to describe why a person could have their act together, and be on top of things, you would think but...not have that big break, not have that easy money come. "Why aren't we rich?"--was the question, and the answer was: because we're not geniuses like the great Trump and Gates and the Sultan of Brunei. We're merely--SubGeniuses. Which of course if you think about it–that covers a lot of ground. It covers anything from IQ 139 and a half–down! And it covers anyone who spends thirty dollars buying their ministership.
AB–So what sets the Church of the SubGenius apart from any other gang of slobs?
IS–The church of the SubGenius is a great conglomeration of all those ne'er-do-wells and slobs. It's where the slobs can get together and go "Ahhhhhh!!! That other person is just as messed up as me–probably a lot worse and a bigger slob!! By comparison, I feel positively glowing with slack and ability!" That's one way to look at it. It's just like any other religion! It gives you a place where you can go and hate everyone you've always hated with great impunity and be told that's right and good. And that's the other difference between us and other religions. Most other religions insist that you like you fellow religionists. We don't. We don't expect ANY SubGenius to have patience with any other SubGenius for more than the length of time it takes to experience one of our shows.
AB–Could you talk about how the church has developed over the years...how it got as big as it did?
IS–Well we tried to keep it small but the relentless, vicious truth of Bob rips its way through those titanium steel doors of secrecy. And people just came flocking. Actually, April, there was a point when I called Philo up and said, "Man, you're not gonna believe this, but somebody actually sent in the ten dollars for the subscription! So now we're gonna have to do with a magazine! So, yes, there was a time when that happened. You know, the only disappointment for me is that we haven't taken over the entire planet on Bob's timetable. You know at this point I was supposed to be ensconced upon some planet of my own making–emperor of an entire heaven. And so was every other SubGenius. But Bob's prophecy was somewhat like the ones in the Weekly World News, didn't all pan out exactly. So like the Jehovah's Witnesses and so many other Millenial-ist cults before us, we know that there's a plot. It's not really the date that they say it is. It's probably sometimes in the 1950s, still.
IS–There's an explanation for everything, ya know! In our church you get to pick which is the right one.
AB–COULD YOU DESCRIBE WHAT HAPPENS AT THE DEVIVALS AND HOW YOU CAME UP WITH THAT?
S: Well, the devivials kind of developed on their own. There was no real–we were ripping off the televangelists of the Deep South--of course, they're the best! They are the most effective. Jimmy Swaggart, for instance, was our Mick Jagger, and I did used to study Swaggart, and everything he did, but at the same time there was a rock and roll element, of course. We wanted our congregation to feel that they had an excuse for their sins, and we wanted to give them a good dance track, something they could dance to while they were thinking about that. There's an element of chaos that was introduced by the Arkansas group–Doctors for Bob–that has never left the SubGenius devivals. We never know what's gonna happen. For the most part they're a combination of preaching, rock-and-roll, and stand up comedy all mixed in one. But there's an audience participation aspect. We're careful about who we let up on the stage, but usually after the "name" preachers are done, that's when it's amateur hour. For that matter, it's amateur hour the whole time. I dunno if you've ever been to one of the Cleveland shows, but they are so drunk here, that every single member of the audience is preaching louder than I am the whole time I'm preaching. Which doesn't bother me–I'm a SubGenius I'll keep preaching after I leave this place and get in my car and drive home, I'll still be yammering maniacally. And so will all those audiences from our shows.
AB–At one of the shows have you ever just got to the point where you felt this is just getting completely out of control?
IS–Only the best shows. There have been several times when I have had to stand in front of the crowd and say, "I did not know this was going to happen. I am not responsible nor is the church of the SubGenius responsible for the actions of its members. And I do not own that video that is showing on the screen. There's been a few times that I've had to make a little disclaimer, but like I say, all too few and far between.
AB–What do you think it is about them that speaks to people? I mean this is probably a crowd that is not also going to church on Sundays...
IS–No, but they're going to a job on Mondays, and that's why they need the slack. In some rare cases they might have a job they like. Like I do. We have this slogan, "Quit your job for Bob" or "Repent, quit your job and slack off." But you can only do that if you have a job to begin with. People have the wrong idea about slack. We preach slack and this anti-work thing–that's the way it appears on the surface. But if you look a little deeper, and give the preachers such as myself a chance to explain it, slack is actually doing whatever you like to do the most. And some of us like to work. I'm never happier than when I've got too much to do and am totally concentrating on a deadline.
AB–So slacking is actually a penance for you?
IS–No, no. Slacking is whatever a person gets slack from. In some cases that may be sitting there watching MTV with a beer in your hand, and there's nothing wrong with that. Although that's a pretty common one for the normal humans, I gotta admit. Slacking for a SubGenius could be anything. My friend Dances with Rockets of Einstein's Secret Orchestra –his idea of slack is to get his rocket as high into the atmosphere as he can. He's an amateur rocketeer. That's his idea of slack. He works as a professor of Rock and Roll and he does a radio show in the evenings and such, but his real slack is the moment that rocket takes off and doesn't explode on the launch pad. Humans love to make the Church look like a cheap joke devoted to sitting around, getting high, and reading comic books. It can be that, but why can it not also be all of the other things that we've promised it will be? And one of the most important things the church is–is a pep talk to remind people to not lose track of what they really want out of life. Y'know do you really want to sit around watching Beavis and Butthead smoking joints all day? Maybe what you really want is to become–Bill Gates!!! Bob has saved winos by turning them into millionaires, but he has saved many millionaires and world leaders by turning them into winos! Guess where John F Kennedy and Elvis Presley are right now? Together–drinking–in what South American country, and praising Bob the whole time!!!
AB–Talk a little more your style of preaching, you mentioned that you'v studied Swaggart, you've studied the greats...
IS–Actually I started into this to be a writer. I had terrible stage fright and I did not want to get up and preach. But there was a guy in Dallas who started doing it. And I could no bear the idea of this particular guy representing the church of the SubGenius. He was the first SubGenius preacher, and he had some great ideas. We owe a lot to him. But he was terrible, overall and he drove people nuts, and it was by default that I took on the preaching job. There are many other SubGenius preachers that are much better than me. My personal heroes in the preaching world are not guys like Jimmy Swaggart, but guys like Bill Hicks and Lenny Bruce. And whenever I listen to–particularly Hicks, the late Bill Hicks, I'm kind of ashamed of myself that I'm not as good. Lenny dies for some of our sins, and sometimes, I wonder if Hicks, might, who knows. They were working on the Js for a long time, John, Janis, Jimmy...GG, then they made it up to the K's with Kurt...
AB–Were you raised in the church?
IS–In the Church of the SubGenius? No, it didn't exist in the fifties.
AB–Were you raised in a church?
IS–No, not really when my parents left their home town when I was about four, they quit going to the Methodist church. And I was raised more or less what you would call scientific rational humanist. However I rebelled against that, of course, being a SubGenius, and became a little religious nut of every kind of religion I could get my hands on personally. I studied religions, beginning in high school. I wrote a book about fringe religions called High Weirdness by Mail, which is out of print. It's pointless because of the Internet now. The internet IS that book, brought to life without the sarcastic comments.
AB–I used to have this job where I was commuting between Columbus and Dayton and at these godawful hours, and sometimes I would flip over the hard-core Christian frequencies just to listen. There was something so–
IS–Oh, well, Swaggart used to save me every time I'd listen. Of course the minute I'd turn the TV off Bob consciousness came right back. I know what you mean. I personally have always been fascinated with all he great bibles of the world–not just the Old and New Testament but the Hindu cosmology and Islamic beliefs and Buddhism and Taoism and the whole range of human belief has been every bit as interesting to me as science fiction and monster movies–probably more so. In fact I kind of dropped out of a career in science fiction and monsters to begin a career in what you might call science fiction and monster religion. A lot of our members are people who were burned by their childhood religion. We have some very angry ex-Catholics and really angry ex-Baptists, and ex-Jews all kinds.
AB–Some of that really comes across in the shows...
IS–Oh, some of these people really hate religion. I don't. I think that religion is a wonderful thing, and the more a person reads and learns about their own religion the better they'll understand it. We don't just put things down, our humor doesn't make sense and isn't funny unless you know something about world religion. They may not understand what we're doing they might get the wrong idea. They may think we're working for Satan. You've gotta be a Christian to believe in Satan. We make as much fun of Satanists than we do–a lot more fun actually...God, Satan, give me a break! (starts yelling) Bob can beat Satan!! Bob can whup Satan's butt any day! You Satanists come on out, I'll meet you behind the old church in Jonesboro! Any throw you wanna make! Satanists, meet the SubGenius, come on out!! We've got bigger spikes on our funny clothes than you do! How about death metal, can we talk about SubGenius has better death metal than the Satanists have!!!
AB–Are you a fan of cable TV?
IS–Well yes and no I don't have cable, and I only watch the cartoons on Sunday nights.
AB–Have you ever watched any public access cable?
IS–oh yeah, sure!
AB–Because it seems like SubGenius is really interesting marriage of two of the bedrocks of public access programming: the religious programming, and the fringe element.
IS–You mean the insane collage of monster movie soundtracks elements?
AB–Sure. Things that people do in their basements where they're taking lots of public domain material and putting it together and putting themselves into the movies with a blue screen...
IS–That's exactly what we're trying to inspire people to do–well we're not trying to we just do that. We're so low budget that we "Mystery-Science-Theater" everything to begin with. We always have been. Those guys are old SubGenius fans, by the way-- But I've been doing this radio show for fifteen years now–more or less syndicated to college stations. It's all done on cassette decks. Almost all the material we run is originally produced by the people who send us the material. We don't play a lot of commercially available music unless it's for an effect of some kind, or some kind of obscure thing that I happen to really like. We do encourage people to realize that if they're bored with what's on TV, the show is in their hands, they can be the show! We thought about doing cable TV but it's so much work just to put on a one hour radio show I'd hate to have to shave for it.
AB–That's exactly why I went into public radio (laughs)
IS–There you go isn't it great you know, we look so glamorous on the radio and the special effects are so cheap!!! You can have bob rise up out of a volcano and jump into a spaceship. All you need is some cool Bernard Herman music in the background and you've got it.
AB–You use a lot of found sound in the show. Where you find this stuff?
IS–Well, a lot of it is other people besides me taping and making collage tapes and re-mixing stuff they hear that catches their ear. I will admit that I spent a year taping Dallas radio preachers. And we did grab some great sound bites off of that. You know it's sad...you can only appropriate material if the judge is on your side. The judge is usually gonna be on the side of Polygram or Sony, chances are. So we've had to be more and more careful. Usually, so now when we use found sound on anything that we sell, we have to find it ourselves, if you know what I mean. (laugh) If we find it, we'd better make sure weren't finding it on ABC or NBC or some hot record album, we have to find it on a the Hong Kong action movie.
AB–There's a lot of good public domain stuff out there.
AB–I imagine you've gone through most of it in 15 years of radio shows.
IS–We've turned it into trademarks, actually. There is no more public domain left the Church of the SubGenius trademarked all of it, or copyrighted, depending.
AB–What effect are you trying to go for, when you're editing those shows together? How are you trying to get people to react.
IS–By being entertained. That's all. That's the first thing is to keep it entertaining and fast. It's tricky-we started out cutting thing that way but then MTV came along and now everything is chopped and collaged so fast that the SubGenius stuff, which originality was startlingly choppy and jerky, now it seems kind of almost slow and sedate, and carefully organized. We're--we're...(old man voice) I guess we're just being left behind by these new kids, and do they ever give us credit? Hell no! I–I–(coughs, hacks)
AB–Stupid information superhighway!
IS–Well, the Internet kind of saved us in a way. The big conspiracy media was moving away from we'd done as much as we could with mainstream publishing and gotten as close to real radio as we could. Then the Internet!!! And it wasn't really working, but then the Internet came along, and suddenly, General Motors had no more clout than I did sitting at my little Macintosh at home. And that's really what's kept the Church going. We're probably doing more Internet-wise than anything else.
AB–Is it true the Church made a hundred thousand dollars last year?
IS–Yeah, well, no we didn't make a hundred thousand dollars we did a hundred thousand dollars worth of business, we didn't clear a hundred thousand dollars profit. Most of our advertising is our website. Which is kind of hard to find, you'd have to know how to spell the word SubGenius and spell it out on that browser.
AB–It's totally amazing that people will cough up bucks for something that prides itself on being a sham!
IS–Well, we don't even ask for ten percent of all worldly goods, we're just asking for a thirty dollars up front membership registration fee. And you get a subscription to a little Œzine for that, it's not like and beautiful suitable for framing documents that excuse you from every crime you've ever committed. Lot of lawyers go for that. We do actually sell a lot of the memberships to people like doctors and lawyers, who appreciate a priesthood of bull, if you understand what I'm saying. They themselves are part of a priesthood that exists because they have their own line of bull that is impenetrable and everybody else just has to take their word for it. Well, doctors and lawyers recognize that we have done the same thing. We've created self-validating philosophy that no one can exactly argue with because it doesn't make any sense to them to begin with. Religion in general is much like the medical profession and the legal profession.
AB–In all the years you've been doing this you must at times have had people coming up to you and being very hostile...
IS–Oh, not nearly enough, oh, God I'd give my right little pinky to have that kind of confrontation . Unfortunately the people who you most think would be upset about us never even hear about us, because they only watch their own shows and they only read their own books. To them, if they don't see that one real basic difference between the Church of the SubGenius and all the other ones, they think we're just like any bizarre kooky cult. Now to me they all make perfect sense within their own framework. I think it's a shame that some of them don't ready the others' comic books.
AB–You once shared a stage with brave combo at the 1984 G.O.P convention...
IS–Yeah, and the Dead Kennedys.
AB–Did you know that brave combo is signed to Cleveland International Records now?
IS–I'm not surprised, they've always done really well. They were like the other Dallas mutant group. I never had a whole lot of contact with them but they were always friendly with me. Some other Dallas mutants–John Blim or Joe Bob Briggs is another Dallas cult that started. We've always been on each other's news letters. I've never spoken to him. We miss each other at the conventions, it's funny.
AB–Well, the world would probably fall apart if you two ever actually stood in the same room together anyway.
IS–You know we'd probably end up talking about our computer software.
AB–[The infamous underground comic book artist] Robert Crumb reprinted the SubGenius pamphlets, and that was a big watershed. Did you ever meet the man?
IS–Oh yeah, yeah. I can't say I'm really tight with the Crumbs but I've had several dinner-type conversations with them–
AB–What's that like?
IS–Well, Robert and Aileen Crumb depict themselves in their comics perfectly accurately. I couldn't believe it. And they hate all music that was done since the 30's or 40's. It's funny , you know every weirdo has their own slight eccentricities, but I thought the Crumbs actually seemed like a very normal couple in that their biggest concern seemed to be their teen-aged daughter who was giving them a lot of trouble. Just like any other set of parents dealing with their attitudinal [sic] teenager.
AB–What qualifies as trouble in the Crumb family?
IS–Oh, you know just whining and boredom and back-talk. Teenage stuff.
AB–What is the ultimate goal in this for you? I mean other than getting filthy stinking rich.
IS–At this point that is the goal, because we've achieved most of our other ones. I would like to see a SubGenius big Hollywood movie some day that wasn't screwed up. I'd like to see that happen and I'm kind of working on the treatment myself just in case there might be one. It does come up every year some yo-yo wants to make a movie but nothing ever comes of it. They're never going to let me do it. We know that for a fact. I think that the next big step, the most artistically fulfilling thing we could do with it would be to get filthy stinking rich. That would tie up all the lose ends, it would provide a punch-line...Why not? I'd like to see a Saturday morning animated kids show, a SubGenius soap opera–
AB–Now what would that look like? I do not think this market is ready for that.
IS–Well some shots would have the best art you ever say and then the next would have this stick figure drawing. It would be like South Park mixed with Disney.
AB–Could you give me the standard pitch? I want you to convince me to become a member. (long pause)
IS–Well, it's very simple, April. Either you pay up or this July 5th or you'll be left behind when the saucers come and save the SubGeniuses. You can either believe it or not. We really don't care whether you believe it. We would like to see the donation, for obvious reasons, and personally, because you seem like a nice person, we'd like to see you join us on the escape vessels. But you know we're no going to try to force our beliefs down somebody's throat. Not everybody can be saved, and slack comes first. So if you want me to be hard sell-[Up until this point, Ivan Stang's demeanor was quiet, humorous, and rational. At this point, he began to get "het up". --AB]-I'M NOT GONNA BE THAT HARD SELL ABOUT IT!! I AM NOT GOING TO TRY TO FORCE SOMEBODY TO BELIEVE THE OBVIOUS TRUTH OF BOB!!! THE TRUTH THAT'S STARING THEM IN THE FACE!!! THAT'S SCREAMING OUT OF THEIR SPEAKERS RIGHT THIS MINUTE!!! EITHER YOU LOOK INTO THE EYES OF BOB AND YOU SEEEEEEEEEE!!!! OR HEEEEEEEEEAR!!!!--[Reverend Stang's voice returns to normal]–or else you don't. That's it. We just say we'll wave goodbye from the saucers.
AB–Have you ever considered becoming a fundraiser for public radio?
IS–That's sounds like a lot of work! That's a 24-hour a day job isn't it?
AB–I think you've got the touch.
IS–Isn't that non profit or something? That's against our religion. NON PROFIT? THAT'S THE ONLY SIN IN BOB'S CHURCH!! NON PROFIT??? WHY WHAT A LIE!!! We insist upon profits (prophets?) and only the highest profits (prophets?) possible. High on Bob that is, friends--don't get the wrong idea.