After nearly forty years as one of the most charming put-ons to hit the counterculture, SubGenius founder Ivan Stang and filmmaker Sandy K. Boone reveal the true story of the long con.
In 1980, two smart, goofy nerds in Dallas decided to start their own religion. Their names were Doug and Steve, but in the grand tradition of charlatans everywhere, they invented new names for themselves as apostles of the deity of their made-up belief system: Reverend Ivan Stang (born Douglass St. Clair Smith) and Dr. Philo Drummond (Steve Wilcox), ready to educate the masses through the Church of the SubGenius about the great J.R. “Bob” Dobbs and to spread his gospel of “Slack.”
Somehow, against all odds, the Church of the SubGenius became a real thing, if not exactly a real religion. It spread well beyond Dallas, capturing the imaginations of a number of important counterculture figures of the era. Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh, actor Paul Reubens (known for his role as Pee-wee Herman), Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, cartoonist R. Crumb, gonzo bluesman Mojo Nixon, and more all claimed a SubGenius affiliation. All of them sought Slack, an unspecified philosophical state that the church maintained as its answer to enlightenment.
To be clear, all of this was something between a con job and an inside joke. But the people involved took perpetuating that joke seriously. The Church of the SubGenius published five books. One of them, The Book of the SubGenius, has remained in print for decades. People who wanted to play along with the gag launched radio shows in the 1980s (including The Puzzling Evidence Show in Berkeley, California, which has run for more than thirty years) and their own websites in the ’90s. But as a group that was defined by its arch sense of humor and its nesting-doll-style approach to playing with layers of facts, the true story of the people who defined the SubGenius was never told.