DAVE TOMAR: Alright, so stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A priest, a rabbi and an immortal meat-body space-alien Thetan spirit walk into a bar . . . well, you know how the rest goes. Long story short, the Thetan says, why would I want a 3 inch pianist?
I have to say, it’s always a bummer to find out that a celebrity you respected from afar has been taken in by the Church of Scientology. Frankly, I could give a shit if John Travolta, Juliette Lewis and Kirstie Allie hang out in oxygen bars auditing each other with E-Meters. Famous people are generally supposed to find stupid ways to redistribute their excessive earnings back into the economy. And I also think that as a general rule, cult recruiting far too often targets the desperately poor, lonely or unhappy. It’s almost refreshing that this particular cult is so devoted to exploiting the wealthy, socialized and unhappy instead.
But those of us who will recall the most ignoble demise of Chef on South Park do understand that something is at stake in this approach. To refresh you on the saga briefly; Isaac Hayes was a longstanding and brilliant installation as the wise and womanizing Chef on the iconic animated series. After actively participating in any number of episodes which reveled in the unflinching portrayal of Jesus getting punched in the face, Cartman drinking semen ‘from a hose,’ a giant pile of naked men screwing and live footage of a vaginoplasty operation (to name just a few) Hayes balked at the release of an episode featuring fellow Scientologists Tom Cruise and John Travolta as poorly closeted homosexuals who were clearly hiding from their true identities.
When creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone ultimately decided to air the episode, Hayes quit the show. South Park responded with a blistering episode in which Chef, brainwashed by a ‘fruity little club,’ becomes a child molester who is subsequently chewed apart by a pack of wild animals before soiling himself. I assume the now deceased Isaac Hayes did not find this amusing.
As point of fact, Scientologists find nothing amusing. As a Jew, I view idea that you can’t make fun of your own ‘religion’ as preposterous. If I had a penny for every Jew joke I ever told. . . well you could be sure I’d be frugal with them.
You have to assume that there is a fundamental insecurity that comes with subscription to a religion that defends its realness by way of its tax exempt status. Incidentally, this is a status which it gained only by undertaking the longest lawsuit against the IRS in U.S. history. I would take a wild guess that the massive legal fees amassed were paid through the tuition that is required for members of the religion to achieve enlightenment, or through the empire of books and tapes composed by L. Ron Hubbard which are driven by the primal command that thou shalt not purchase any alternative texts, secondary readings or other sources that don’t have a cash relationship with the Church of Scientology.
The bottom line is that you really do have to be a rich, famous person to afford the best scientology. Many of the secrets of observance are quite closely guarded until one has spent the requisite sum of money to be enlightened. I presume these secrets are the funniest of all of them. But when you look at the Isaac Hayes situation, or when you consider individuals like Beck, Jason Lee or Nancy Cartwright (voice of Bart Simpson), it seems almost as if scientology has the capacity to take our celebrities away from us. Not that we’re not grateful for the loss of Tom Cruise. But the Beck of Odelay is truly dead. In its place is the super-serious and surprisingly bland guy that Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips identifies as a substance-less jerk. I have no proof that it’s scientology’s fault, but it does follow a pattern of empty-headed scriptural indoctrination that deprives its members entitlement to personal interpretation.
That’s a shame because even the slightest personalization might reveal scientology to be hilarious in concept, practice and principle. But maybe it’s a reciprocal thing. Maybe scientologists are naturally humorless people who have found refuge and resonance amongst a bunch of defensive, litigious pricks. I always thought Jason Lee was hilarious in Kevin Smith’s films. But it doesn’t make him bright. He can deliver a scripted line but I bet in person, it’s all Xenu-this, the Path to Total Freedom-that. I don’t know. Maybe they’re not dumb, maybe they’re brainwashed like Bob Dylan and his short-lived superlove for Jesus.
Allegedly, Fox News talking head and rotting corpse, Greta Van Susteren is also a scientologist. Can anyone afford to be that ugly and, simultaneously, that stupid. When Bijou Phillips tells you she’s a scientologist, at least you can say, “you’re lucky you’ve got looks, kid.” I guess we’ll have to wait until they pull somebody in with real and undiluted talent to know.
At the moment though, I think scientology has a real PR problem on its hands. I’ve personally never heard a successful sermon that didn’t have a golf joke or an allegory about chafing in the desert for 40 years. If Scientology wants to make that leap from cult to religion like, say, Mormonism, it had better get handy with the one-liner. Joseph Smith was oft-reported to quip to a friend, “take my wives . . . please.” Hell, they say Jim Jones was a stitch around the punch bowl.
If scientology doesn’t change its attitude, it is doomed to spend its future preying on celebrities that we find easy to dismiss. Go out and brainwash me a David Letterman or a Larry David, then we’ll talk. Until then, the only way to interpret the degree to which the Church of Scientology openly, aggressively and often in court settings will take pains to prevent all jokes at its expense is to presume that its creators and beneficiaries wish to avoid the type of reflection, discourse and scrutiny that well-played humor will thrust upon its target.
HOWARD MEGDAL: While Dave makes important points regarding ways the Church of Scientology can improve its image through responding to its critics with humor, this doesn’t really address the heart of the problem. Ultimately, Scientology is held back by a simple inability for most to take its tenets seriously.
However, there is little reason to believe that it is simply basic beliefs that keep people from either buying in or respecting those that do. Let’s face it: if realism was required for ideas to be taken seriously, we wouldn’t have seen the mass appeal of Christianity, supply-side economics, or Ashlee Simpson.
Instead, what Scientology needs are some who will vouch for it with gravitas. In much the same way Barack Obama’s campaign had white people reach into communities that would otherwise have been susceptible to the Muslim smears and old-school racist appeals, Scientology needs people who seem thoughtful and not crazy.
As such, the celebrities brainwashed are all wrong for the task. Sorry, but Tom Cruise and John Travolta aren’t getting it done. The former is best known for jumping on a sofa and singing in his underwear. The latter is known for dancing in a disco and antagonizing Gabe Kaplan. Are you going to buy a prevailing view of the universe from either man?
The shame of Alec Guinness’s death in 2000 is that he’d be absolutely perfect for the role. He has authority, he was Carrie Fisher’s only hope back before she passed her sell-by date… he’s a knight, for goodness sake! Still, there are Guinness-esque sorts still out there. Sidney Poitier is still alive, I’m pretty sure. Who wouldn’t trust The Man Who Came to Dinner? He won over Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn!
Of course, there’s the Sidney Poitier of the political world as well, and that’s Barack Obama. While the fact that he’s always been a Christian could be a problem, it could also be win-win. Scientology gets the greatest political leader of our generation, and Obama gets to completely repudiate Reverend Wright once and for all. One can easily picture the advertisements- a man walking hand-in-hand with an extra-terrestrial under the banner “Aliens We Can Believe In”, or the radio tagline, “Yes we can punch psychiatrists in the face.”
Of course, if Obama won’t bite and you want to reach across racial barriers, there’s always Wesley Snipes. I understand he’s very susceptible to financially irresponsible decisions.