By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
The answer isn't simple--which is just what you'd expect from anyone as complex and enigmatic as John Bloom: A tangle of material and spiritual motives keep him attached to his bubba-esque alter ego. But you could argue that if Bloom on TNT still bears the brand name Joe Bob Briggs, he has begun to wriggle out of the crusty shell of that lucrative hibernation. Talk to the man, read his old stuff, and watch him on TV as both MonsterVision and "Godstuff" showman, and you might draw this conclusion: Joe Bob Briggs is slowly morphing back into John Bloom before your very eyes.
When John Bloom recalls his early days in Dallas as a reporter, he is devoid of any affection. "I was never cut out for that life," he says of his stint as a general assignment reporter and then investigative journalist. "I didn't like talking to grieving widows and having people hang up on me and slam doors in my face. It was tough for me to make that tough phone call, but I made myself. It's a lot more fun to make up stuff and make people laugh."
Born in Dallas, Bloom spent part of his childhood here and then settled with his Southern Baptist parents in Little Rock, Arkansas. One intimate who attended Vanderbilt with him said he took after the "gentle intellectualism" of his schoolteacher mother and was, early on, alienated by his father (who, this former associate claims, also happened to be exactly like Joe Bob Briggs: an opinionated, bigoted redneck).
Skip Hollandsworth, currently a Texas Monthly writer but once a co-worker of Bloom's at the Dallas Times Herald, described him thus: "He was quiet and didn't really socialize much with the others. But when he got going on a subject, he could hold forth like a great humanities professor. He was always smart in a way most of us weren't."
The Herald snapped up Bloom in 1978. He spent three years there variously as the night-desk reporter and on assignment as something called "The Texas Ranger," for which he was ordered to drive around the state with a mobile phone, find material for features, but above all not come back to Dallas. Texas Monthly editors noticed some of the Texas Ranger pieces ("They said they hired me because I'd used a quote from T.S. Eliot in an epigraph to an article for the front page of the Times Herald; they thought it had never happened before and would never happen again") and wooed him into a period of intense investigative pieces that won national awards, awed his co-workers and superiors, and were, Bloom claims, sometimes very difficult to produce. The highlight of his Texas Monthly days was an amazingly cinematic first-person piece called "The Italian Connection," in which Bloom and his friend (and later Trinity Foundation spiritual mentor) Ole Anthony followed an alcoholic hothead money launderer from Highland Park named Barry Wilson on a route from Milan to Bulgaria to Istanbul to Syria to Beirut to Paris on a quest to purchase stolen art from drug-dealing professional thieves. Bloom's clean, sharp, vivid prose makes this convoluted tale as easy to follow as a movie; were it written in 1998, you can bet Miramax and Sony Pictures would be in a tussle for the rights.
"You gotta be passionate about a subject to do these Texas Monthly takeout pieces," he says. "And there was nothing worse than being handed this assignment that you were only half-interested in. The writing and transcribing is very sedentary, methodical work, and the only reason you're doing it is for the moment when someone reads your article."
"I think John Bloom is like a lot of bright people," says Jim Atkinson, a Texas Monthly compatriot and the co-author with Bloom of Evidence of Love, a true-crime novel published in 1984 about the infamous North Texas axe murderess Candace Montgomery. "He has a short attention span. I think the realm he has now moved into [the Joe Bob Briggs comedy shtick] allows for people who get bored easily, because every day [as a comic] is a fresh pot of potential materials."
In 1981, Bloom returned to the Dallas Times Herald to cover a considerably safer but more beloved subject: films. He wrote passionately about foreign film, especially, drawing sensitive and insightful parallels on the tragic life of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and the ragged nihilism of his movies. His adjectives fairly salivated when describing Latina siren Sonia Braga's subtitled screen presence. Peruse his thoughtful and prodigious output from this period (he was for a while seeing every film that opened on Friday), and you notice that John Bloom, the film critic, was as fearless and funny (but adroitly so) as Joe Bob Briggs, slamming such critical favorites as The Right Stuff ("think of it as one big football game, in which the home team sets out to trounce the Russian Flyboys") and Gandhi, in which he offered this critical gem: "There's a point at which Gandhi's fanaticism, while serving a righteous political cause, calls on the less intelligent and less famous to make sacrifices that Gandhi is too famous and too important to make."