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The Wizard of Ass Has Spoken! 

Hal Robins - erudite comic of the absurd, underground cartoonist of note,co-host of the world's strangest radio program, early member of the Church of the SubGenius - has a new hit with the "Ask Dr. Hal Show." But he really could use a paying gig. Really

Wednesday, Jul 30 2003

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Others know Robins as Dr. Howland Owll, from the Church of the SubGenius, a dada-esque art project and fake religious sect started in the late 1970s. A cross between a club and a movement, SubGenius pokes fun at organized religion and authority through books, videos, pamphlets, and performances. It has devotees in cities all over the country.

Some insomniacs are familiar with Robins from his work on Puzzling Evidence, arguably the most bizarre radio show on the airwaves. Airing from 3 to 5 a.m. each Friday morning on KPFA-FM (94.1), the show is a schizoid montage of music, seemingly random noises, and stream-of-consciousness ramblings by Robins and two friends.

A live performer with a unique -- some may say peculiar -- vision, Robins has held one-man shows in which all he does is recite poetry. (He's particularly fond of the English Romantics.) He's spent an entire evening showing slides of Hollywood B-movie monsters while talking over them humorously. Most recently, Robins has forged an unlikely artistic partnership with the bellicose Chicken John, a performance artist and vintage car mechanic-turned-bar owner. After a string of chaotic performance art pieces that established Robins as a fixture in the underground scene, the duo hit on what is -- undoubtedly -- the most cerebral bar act in San Francisco: the "Ask Dr. Hal Show."

Constantly on the brink of financial collapse, Robins has somehow -- to the surprise of himself and others -- always pulled through. Many of his friends worry that his brilliance is wasted on esoteric performance art that doesn't pay and few will see. Others fear he'll be fully appreciated as a genius only after he dies. Robins kvetches about money, but only during breaks in his full schedule of nonpaying artistic commitments. In an age when artists often market and package themselves as strategically as fast-food restaurants, Robins makes career decisions based mainly on whether a project interests him. And the things that have interested him have been very odd indeed.

If you're awake at 3 o'clock on a Friday morning, it generally means that something is dreadfully wrong. Yet it's the hour when Hal Robins goes each week to the KPFA studios in Berkeley to do his live radio show, Puzzling Evidence.

Robins' partners on the show are Steve Wilcox, more often known by his Church of the SubGenius nickname, the Rev. Philo Drummond, and Doug Wellman, who calls himself (like the show) Puzzling Evidence. They're neatly dressed, normal-looking guys in their early 50s. On a recent Friday, Robins reads from an article on insects he clipped from a magazine, while Drummond launches into a stream-of-consciousness patter in a Southern Cracker accent.

Robins: In my 30-plus years in the bug business, I've seen some incredible bug infestations ...

Drummond: That little place where we had coffee and rhubarb pie ... could be next weekend ....

They talk over and around each other with competing nonsense, while Wellman -- a former radio DJ for U.S. forces during the Vietnam War -- layers strange noises behind and on top of them: a lighter striking; breaking glass; a snippet of dialogue from an old television program. His fingers constantly fiddle with knobs, buttons, and switches, playing with the mix. First he drowns Robins out, then Drummond. It's impossible to follow any one thought to its conclusion. Then everybody is drowned out by the ghastly wail of a theremin.

Drummond: Is that vampire music?

Robins: Vampire movies are too overwrought.

Drummond: What would vampire music be ...

Wellman: Cello slots.

Drummond: Jell-O shots? Off the coffin?

Robins: Vampires can't eat jelly, and if they can, it's not good for them.

An acquired taste, the show nonetheless has its fans and even groupies, many of whom call in. Those who prove themselves to be expert ranters are allowed to ramble, sometimes for the entire program. Dumb or boring callers are either verbally tormented or ratcheted down so low in the sound mix by Wellman that they register as little more than a murmur.

One fan, San Francisco neon sign repair shop owner John Law, once called in and was patched through to another caller. It was San Francisco performance artist Michael Pepe, who was on the other line fictitiously threatening to commit suicide. Law talked Pepe out of it on the air, with Robins officiating. Others have called pretending to be lunatic stalkers, which was encouraged by the hosts, until Robins attracted a real stalker.

For many, the appeal and explanation of Puzzling Evidence lie in its connection to the Church of the SubGenius. The hosts are core members, and Drummond was one of its founders. Much of their obscure humor is lifted from Church "doctrine."

The Church began in Dallas, in 1979, when Drummond and his neighbor, Doug Smith (aka Ivan Stang), dreamed up their own religion for fun. It was conceived as a giant spoof of organized religion and a way of poking fun at mass consumer culture. They chose as its figurehead and "Personal Savior" a fictional salesman named J.R. "Bob" Dobbs, an everyman type represented by a clip-art image of a 1950s Dick Van Dyke-lookin' guy smoking a pipe. The sect's first fire-and-brimstone-style tract read in part:

"If you are looking for an inherently bogus religion that will condone superior degeneracy and tell you that you are "above' everyone else

--If you can help us with a donation -- then The Church of the SubGenius could save your sanity!"

SubGenii were encouraged to reject the 9-to-5 work ethic and instead acquire more "slack," the part of your life outside your job, where interesting and creative things happen. Similarly, the consumption of low forms of art -- bad movies, TV, and pulp fiction -- was encouraged at the expense of "high" culture. SubGenius blessed eccentricity and sloth, and deplored the earnest overachiever. In the Church of the SubGenius, anybody could be an ordained minister. It both advocated, and was itself, art for art's sake.

About The Author

Lessley Anderson


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