By Stephen Young
By Stephen Young
By Stephen Young
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
With about 15 crew people and fans standing in the darkness at the edge of the studio lights, Rusty saunters into camera range, entering the set in black high heels, a mail bag slung over her shoulder. She sits in the lawn chair opposite a black-haired man in a vaguely Western getup, with bolo tie and cowboy boots. Behind the two are the elaborately messy props and flats for the side of a trailer home, with tiki torches and a rusty old refrigerator and a TV tray with a beer can on it. The two performers rehearsed this scene only seconds before the shoot, and will wrap it in one take. The dialogue, written by the man in the vaguely Western getup, includes exchanges like this:
Joe Bob: "Rusty, can you read my mind?"
Rusty: "I'm thinking you want to see me naked."
Joe Bob: "How did you know that?"
Rusty: "Because you always want to see me naked."
Joe Bob: "Rusty, would you like to go out sometime and have a soda or a glass of milk?"
Rusty: "You like milk?"
Joe Bob: "I love milk. I was breast-fed until I was 14."
After flubbing a line in another segment, Rusty gamely admits to a crew member: "Well, I wasn't hired for my line readings." That's right, she was hired to be ogled by Joe Bob Briggs every Saturday night between such American film classics as Phantasm II, Maximum Overdrive, and The Fog.
Most of the Advice to the Hopeless skits shown during movie intermissions are, to be fair, the unfunniest segments of the six or so bits Joe Bob tapes for each MonsterVision flick. In two-minute helpings, the man can make you laugh with his surgical fusion of highbrow and lowbrow, arcane movie knowledge, and offhand riffing about the criminal-justice system and the concept of male feminists. But he always takes time to say why every MonsterVision movie is special using a rating system more imaginative than the Motion Picture Association of America has ever doled out. Maximum Overdrive, for instance, features: "Twenty dead bodies, one possible breast, one dead dog, six quarts of blood, 12 exploding trucks, little leaguers massacred for no reason, vending-machine fu, bazooka fu, garbage-truck fu." And, of course, the inevitable Briggs endorsement: "Check it out."
But spend a few hours hanging around the MonsterVision set, and you're plagued with one overarching question: Who is this man? He calls himself Joe Bob Briggs for the camera, but you have to wonder if the columnist who began syndicating Joe Bob nationally in 1984, toured with his own one-man show, and hosted nudity-laced trash films for The Movie Channel hasn't thrown his fans for a loop with this version of his creation: He doesn't wear a cowboy hat anymore, his accent has softened, his observations on life in these United States have gone from crude diatribes to philosophical mini-treatises, and he plugs some fairly highfalutin references--for a loudmouth redneck, anyway--into his shtick: Aristotle, the film career of Edward Dmytryk, the Dorothy Parker biopic Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, performance art, and the sometimes controversial off-Broadway house Manhattan Theatre Club. Are these allusions that your average MonsterVision viewers can hip to?
Those who know that Joe Bob Briggs' real name is John Bloom, and that this Dallas native, now age 45, wrote brilliant investigative pieces for Texas Monthly in the late '70s as well as peerless movie criticism and "Metro" columns for the Dallas Times Herald and D Magazine through the mid-'80s, are burdened with even more confusion. Stand at the sidelines and watch him tape those MonsterVision interludes, and you see this man channel-surf among identities. Witness him between takes on the set, solitary and poring over the pages of his script, and you get a sense of the soft-spoken, somber-eyed, insular literature major who graduated first in his class at Vanderbilt. Notice him pace quietly and intensely with a pronounced limp inflicted by a childhood bout with polio, and you see him as the humble, sage-like member and teacher of the nondenominational Christian group Trinity Foundation, for whom he also serves as national spokesman every week in the "Godstuff" segments of Comedy Central's The Daily Show.
For many who remember John Bloom and the compassionate eye and eloquent voice he brought to his journalism, the question has long been this: Have the fat paycheck and national attention made him cling so long to Joe Bob Briggs, who is entertaining at best and bruisingly repetitive at worst?
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."
Bloom claims that film writing was difficult for him: "It was a struggle to find expressive visual imagery." In late 1981, he contacted Vicki Eisenberg, who had an advertising agency that handled B-movie companies and would eventually become his literary agent. Roger Corman, legendary trash auteur, was among her clients. Bloom said he wanted to set up screenings for the kind of movies that these producers went to great effort not to screen in advance. Eisenberg recalls him saying, "Tell them I'll have a pseudonym. Tell them that I'll like these movies."
Joe Bob Briggs' column--complete with his now-legendary blood, breast, and dead-body counts--debuted in January 1982 with an essay by John Bloom introducing Briggs, a 19-year-old truck-driving movie fan who had already been married five times. Shortly afterward, formerly reluctant trash-film companies now lined up to beg for a review by Briggs. Eisenberg credits a Wall Street Journal cover story about Briggs, heralding him as "the aficionado of trash," as the seminal event that brought Joe Bob into the national consciousness. Syndication offers poured in, but it was two years before reluctant Times Herald editors would approve any deal. This, in turn, led to live appearances on Carson and Letterman and paperback collections of Joe Bob's best columns.
Nearly two and a half years after Joe Bob Briggs was birthed, a quieter, more measured, but equally sensational voice began to appear in the Times Herald "Metro" section three times a week: John Bloom. At this point, Bloom had dropped his own byline as a Friday "Living" section film critic and devoted himself to the columns of Bloom and Briggs. From June 1984 to April 1985, Bloom became what Morning News "Metro" columnist Steve Blow has called "the greatest columnist Dallas will ever have." Bloom's beat seemingly was the whole world, outer space, and most important, his own intensely reflective inner space. He wrote political commentary, personal remembrance, satirical letters and dialogue, angry rants, and compassionate laments. His subjects included the difference between grace and graciousness; Dallas' "New Bigotry," in which the first question in every singles-bar conversation is "What do you do?"; a poignant visit with the washed-up lead singer of the Platters, singing to empty chairs at a late-night Dallas dive; a paean to a black shoe shiner who was robbed and stabbed repeatedly, only to have his attackers flee the city before apathetic police began an investigation; and a pre-McMartin-trial outrage piece over the assumption that children are incapable of lying when the subject is molestation. All were crafted with a sense of quiet drama and carefully chosen literary, artistic, and historical allusions--not unlike the open-ended rants about the criminal-justice system or little white lies with which Joe Bob begins each MonsterVision segment--except the drive-in-critic persona didn't get in the way.
John Bloom may have been crafting prose inside the ephemeral world of journalism, but it was Joe Bob Briggs that people wanted: "I'd get phone calls asking me for freelance pieces. I'd say, 'Do you want Joe Bob Briggs or John Bloom?'" Bloom recalls. "They'd say, 'Who's John Bloom?'"
The safari jacket of testosterone that Joe Bob Briggs pulled on for his forays into sniggering at blacks, Hispanics, women, and gays is woven with two philosophical threads: no exceptions and no mercy. John Bloom explains the Joe Bob Briggs attitude: "Joe Bob is like a machine gun on a swivel. He swings and fires and hits this target and this target and this target at random until, finally, one of the targets screams. When a target screams, you've found the sacred cow. Then you go back and shoot it 20 more times. You identify the sacred cow, and then you set out to destroy it. Joe Bob hates everything."
On April 11, 1985, the sacred cows, wounded but undeterred, stampeded and nearly killed Joe Bob Briggs. The story is legendary in Dallas media circles: On that day, the drive-in movie critic had written a Times Herald column lampooning the superstar starvation benefit single "We Are the World." Joe Bob called it "We Are the Weird," and included references to the grossness of dying Africans' stomachs and the idea that the problem could be solved by serving them a baked goat's head, since the "Meskins" eat that. Proceeds from the single would go to the United Negro College Fund, dedicated to educating "stupid Negroes." Since Bloom had been disparaging practically every group on the planet, he saw no reason to spare African-Americans.
DJ Willis Johnson, however, read the column aloud on his KKDA-AM radio show, and John Wiley Price stepped in to help organize call-in protests and live demonstrations. The latter culminated in an April 16 meeting that Times Herald editor Will Jarrett had with Price, Johnson, and hundreds of black protesters in which Jarrett, with trembling hands, repeated the paper's front-page apology and announced: "As of this moment, Joe Bob Briggs is dead." All parties agree on two points: Bloom was asked to stay on and continue his "Metro" essays, but he, outraged that he received little support for a column that had, after all, passed through the editorial checkpoints, resigned in protest.
"I can remember the night of that meeting," Bloom recalls, "being on the phone with an editor for two hours just raging about how they sold me down the river, and what're you gonna do about it. There was an insinuation of more money. Somehow, it seems like what they wanted was my approval for what they'd done; it seemed like a betrayal of principle, even though what I did was financial suicide. There was a voice that said, 'Don't put yourself in financial poverty for the next five fuckin' years.' When I saw that clip, 'As of this moment, Joe Bob is dead,' that just made me want to ensure that Joe Bob would live."
Roy Bode was associate editor of the Dallas Times Herald in 1985 and describes himself as the "damage control" guy for the "We Are the Weird" fallout.
"Satire is a difficult thing for any writer to execute," Bode says, "and it was often easy for the reader to miss John's intent as Joe Bob Briggs. John always said that column was intended to satirize rich entertainers, but if that's where he wanted to go, he didn't take us there. Satire is not generally directed at starving Africans and the poor and downtrodden."
Notwithstanding the issue of racial sensitivity, Bode says, "I think the column should've been killed for practical reasons. Every time John sat down to write he would feel constrained, and every time an editor sat down to edit it, they would feel constrained. Joe Bob Briggs would've lost his edge."
Agent Eisenberg made sure, however, that Joe Bob Briggs didn't skip a week in syndication, hopping immediately from the Los Angeles Times Syndicate to Universal Syndicate. One byline, however, was fatally wounded that day: John Bloom. He wrote about a dozen columns for D Magazine as Bloom, but the combination of financial strictures (he'd just purchased a condo) and the promise of quick cash from national offers spurred him to wear Joe Bob's shitkickers full time.
Bloom insists his abandonment of a career in daily journalism was already on the horizon before he quit the Times Herald. He notes that he'd been writing for newspapers since he was 15, when he began doing sports coverage in Little Rock, and that what he calls "the daily grind" was already taking its toll.
Yet as late as 1990, there was some lingering sensitivity when someone reminded him that Joe Bob Briggs could be funny, but John Bloom could be brilliant. Steve Blow, then a fresh face on The Dallas Morning News' "Metro" cover, wrote a column that began: "A friend will call me when he really likes a particular column [of mine]. 'That was almost up there in the John Bloom category,' he will say. We laugh, I feel highly complimented, and we shake our heads once more at the sad, strange death of John Bloom."
Blow conducted the interview in Bloom's Preston Tower office. At that point, Bloom was about to publish his fourth Joe Bob collection, had just begun Joe Bob's Drive-In Theater on The Movie Channel, and had been given bit parts in Great Balls of Fire! and Hollywood Boulevard II. Blow declared that the John Bloom transformation was "the only known case in nature of a butterfly turning into a worm" and quoted Bloom as saying of his calamitous Dallas controversy, "It hurts a little."
A few weeks later, Joe Bob Briggs wrote in his nationally syndicated column: "A guy from The Dallas Morning News came to my office just last week, sat in a chair grinning for two hours, listened to everything I had to say, acted like he was a fan of my work, and then went back to the office and took shots at me in his Sunday column. It wasn't so much that he took the shots. It was that he grinned for two hours. He lied." Briggs finished by declaring Blow "not much of a writer." Bloom, a longtime critic, obviously had no stomach for being the object of criticism.
To this day, Bloom refers to the "We Are the Weird" episode in Dallas as "traumatic." And the two people he credits most for helping him through it are Eisenberg and Ole Anthony, founder of the Trinity Foundation, a nondenominational spiritual group that expounds first-century A.D. Christian principles. Anthony, who has been friends with Bloom since they worked in the same office building in Oak Lawn back in 1979, urged Bloom into a religious conversion in 1984. Trinity teachings also provide a key to the mystery that has been pondered by many of John Bloom's ex-colleagues and fans: Why he has hung on to Joe Bob Briggs for so long, and why he has incorporated more John Bloom into the recipe.
The address on John Bloom's driver's license is an apartment among a group of houses and condos near Lakewood where members of Ole Anthony's Trinity Foundation live. Currently, an otherwise homeless woman and her child live in Bloom's place; when John flies into town from his Greenwich Village apartment, he almost always stays in a hotel. Trinity Foundation's program for housing and feeding the homeless is less famous nationally than their work with the media to investigate and expose fraudulent televangelism. Some call this nonprofit public foundation a community, others an esoteric sect for their expressed desire to take Christianity back to its Jewish roots. One of its stated purposes is to defang Christianity of its bureaucracy.
"These weren't beliefs I previously had," Bloom says. "But it was the first thing that ever made sense to me. My father flirted with going to the Baptist seminary, but he dropped out when his mentor in Oak Cliff was discovered to be having a homosexual affair and was drummed out of the church. He never entered the Baptist church again. But my mother kept taking us on Sundays. When I was 14 or 15, I agreed to walk the aisle and let the preacher dunk me. But it was just to make her happy. I read all the words you were supposed to say, but they meant nothing to me. I found Baptists to be a humorless people, without emotion."
Among some editors, Bloom's nickname when he worked at Texas Monthly became John the Baptist, after he'd written a particularly intense and lyrical feature about an eccentric Baptist preacher. Right around this time, Bloom met Anthony, who had taken a vow of poverty and was living in the tiny Trinity Foundation office down from Bloom's. They began to have extensive late-night conversations about "the issues of life" at the now-defunct Lucas B & B coffee shop.
"John will kill me for saying this, but a lot of his shy nature is shame-based," says Anthony. "He had polio as a child, and it deformed his right leg. That can really destroy your self-esteem. But there has always been an explosive side to this very inward guy. Joe Bob Briggs was a device to let that out."
Bloom's interest in Anthony and the Trinity Foundation remained detached and cerebral until 1984, when Anthony says "John opened his eyes and saw God." Bloom confirms he later underwent a ceremony that included a "laying-on of hands." He became one of five or so Trinity Foundation teachers, ordained to educate others in Anthony's principles of service to the poor and the unfortunate, as well as its non-bureaucratic approach to Christian devotion.
"When you first become a believer, the most common mistake is you shoot your mouth off too soon," says Bloom. "I ran a Bible study out of my apartment, but it was something I was not cut out for. I was trying to find my place at Trinity. A group of us met a couple of times a week for about a year and a half. The meetings were too intellectual. A friend brought a friend, and there were people there without high school educations. Those kinds of things always bring people who're hurting in some way. I was talking about the Q document [the name scholars give to the hypothetical source upon which the Bible books Matthew and Luke are presumed to be based] and somebody was there because they got kicked out of the house."
Anthony claims that John's ill-fated stint as a pastor was based upon "trying to become me." Now he insists that he and John are equals in the Trinity Foundation. Anthony says an associate jokingly called his early tutelage of John Bloom "the destruction of a great American mind" because of an important Trinity Foundation principle that Bloom took to heart: the need to expose "the folly of human effort and the vanity of man."
"I teach and believe that everything is finished, but that we are constructed to push all barriers," says Anthony. "We push our intellect to the end, go through all kinds of philosophies, and discover that all is chaos. [This associate] said John and I facilitated that with our billions of discussions. John finally understood that all is chaos. The Joe Bob character and his persona was a logical extension of what he saw as the mystery of God."
Bloom will neither confirm nor deny that the desire to expose the folly of human effort and the vanity of man underlies the Joe Bob Briggs mission of shooting up every room he enters. But he drops plenty of hints in conversations about the all-purpose venom Briggs spits, such as: "Some well-meaning people have defended Joe Bob, saying that I created something by tearing something down. I always said, satire is destructive. Joe Bob doesn't build up, he always destroys. The only way it was defensible is that Joe Bob makes fun of everyone."
Anthony turns surprisingly secular when he talks about the healing role Joe Bob Briggs has always played in the life of John Bloom. "It was a choice between therapy and Joe Bob," he says, "and Joe Bob won."
When you ask Bloom point-blank if Joe Bob Briggs is now just John Bloom sitting in a fake trailer-park set every Saturday night on TNT, his answer is factual and, as always, not quite revealing: "Joe Bob has always been John Bloom. I've tried never to say anything as Joe Bob Briggs that I don't believe as John Bloom. I just exaggerate it."
As it turns out, there are some fairly circumstantial reasons why the MonsterVision Joe Bob looks, talks, and acts differently than did the Joe Bob of The Movie Channel and past syndicated columns. On the issue of the relaxed accent, Jim Atkinson reminds people, "Even before he invented Joe Bob and did that outsized rube voice, John had a decent Texas-Arkansas accent. It wasn't all that great a leap for him to talk like a hillbilly."
Atkinson scores a direct hit on this one: Today, John Bloom sitting in a hotel lounge chatting sounds almost exactly like Joe Bob Briggs on MonsterVision, just a little more hushed.
Tanja Lindstrom is the associate producer for MonsterVision, and she's been an assistant to John Bloom for the past eight years on all things Joe Bob.
"When you go back to his first season on the Movie Channel, especially, you'll notice that Joe Bob was rougher, scragglier, much more of a redneck type," Lindstrom explains. "But moving from The Movie Channel to TNT is a move from a subscription channel to basic cable. John has to tone it down; he can't say the word, 'retard,' for instance, or any obscenities. If you'll notice, a running gag on MonsterVision now is all the things TNT won't let Joe Bob do."
As for shedding the cowboy hat, she continues, "That was a purely technical consideration. John didn't care one way or the other. We'd heard it was a lighting nightmare at The Movie Channel, so we decided to drop it."
And the reason "Godstuff" on Comedy Central's The Daily Show depicts John Bloom at that pulpit surrounded by stained glass rather than Joe Bob Briggs is equally happenstance. On the final shoot of his "Joe Bob's Drive-In Theater" for The Movie Channel, Bloom deliberately scheduled some extra time in the studio and, with the help of his brethren at the Trinity Foundation, compiled a short video called "Joe Bob's Godstuff," with the Grapevine movie critic himself lobbing stones at national televangelists at their most absurd, acquisitive, and hypocritical. They shopped it around to many broadcast venues, although there was resistance from independent and network affiliate stations because they rely heavily on religious groups filling odd-hour programming slots. Madelyn Smith, the Comedy Central producer who was then creating "The Daily Show," called up Bloom and said she loved it. Bloom says Smith said hell no to the Joe Bob persona, declaring pseudonyms by correspondents verboten.
Bloom says: "When the fans write me and say, 'Why are you this other guy on Comedy Central called John Bloom?' I say, let me put it this way: Ted Turner made me sign a contract saying I wouldn't work for any other cable company, and there's a guy on Comedy Central who looks like me, and that's all I'm gonna say. But it's good for visibility. People can watch one channel and see Joe Bob, then switch to another and see John Bloom."
With the Trinity Foundation producing "Godstuff" (they write a preliminary script with Bloom, collect the televangelist clips, record them on the editor-friendly Beta format, and send them off to Comedy Central) and Joe Bob Briggs serving as "associate high sheriff" and contributing writer for Trinity's satirical magazine The Door, it's tempting for anyone armed with even a smidgen of knowledge about Bloom's religious conversion and Ole Anthony's teachings to see the current TV versions of Bloom and Briggs as a two-headed hydra hissing at two different targets: one head lunging for secular culture, both intellectual and mainstream, while the other snaps at organized religion.
John Bloom's favorite description of Joe Bob may be as a machine gun firing rounds with a 360-degree range at sacred cows, but there exists a visionary agenda behind his kamikaze satire as surely as there is behind the work of feminists and gay rights and civil rights activists. These "sacred cows" are, to John Bloom--the Trinity Foundation teacher--Trojan constructions inside which cower the fallible, solipsistic minds of humankind. With the help of his machine gun, Joe Bob becomes one more weapon to expose the vanity of man, his hypocritical thinking, and his intellectual conceits, a vehicle to unmask the chaos that will leave him with no choice but to turn to God. Or so says the Trinity Foundation.
Chances are, you will never hear this spelled out by Joe Bob sitting outside his trailer home with a beer can introducing Maximum Overdrive or gawking at the TNT Mailgirl. Nor, for that matter, will the religious satire John Bloom spins on "Godstuff" ever quite elucidate what it promotes, sticking as satire does to the business of destruction. Bloom as Joe Bob "The Exegete" Briggs, writing for The Door, does indulge in a little Biblical expounding with essays like "The Homo Verses," in which he compares homosexual and heterosexual perversity through some research into the Greek origins of key words in Romans 1:26-28.
When asked if there is a preacher component to Joe Bob Briggs, John Bloom, replies, "Oh, yeah, absolutely that's part of it. But I think that's true of every comic, once they get that platform. I would even use the word 'pulpit.' One of the things you do from a pulpit is destroy everyone's complacency, and that's what Joe Bob does. I'll be preaching like crazy if I do a new live one-man show as Joe Bob that I want to."
In addition to a script for a Joe Bob movie that Bloom has been working on for three years (plans to film it last fall fell through), the two other projects dearest to Bloom's heart right now are a national tour as Joe Bob ("I'd like to model it after Bill Cosby, who is fearless; none of the fart jokes or garbanzo crap, just 10- or 15-minute stories without traditional punch lines") to which TNT might lend a producing hand, and a one-man show as the legendarily venomous late-19th-century satirist Ambrose Bierce. That would be John Bloom billed as Bierce, not Joe Bob; Bloom is researching how Bierce, an East Coast patrician transplanted to San Francisco, might have sounded. These efforts will presumably stretch the abilities of supporting actor Bloom, who was no doubt tantalized into honing his acting skills by his work in various cameo and supporting roles in feature films, especially his square-off with Robert DeNiro in Casino, released in 1995. Bloom claims his busy schedule left him with no choice but to kill the syndicated Joe Bob columns, which he last penned in 1997.
So, 13 years after being angrily denounced in Dallas and feeling betrayed by colleagues he thinks didn't sufficiently defend him, John Bloom is starting to peek out from behind the cardboard cutout juggernaut that is Joe Bob Briggs. Many people have wondered whether Bloom is trapped behind the drive-in movie critic from Grapevine, unwilling to give up a lifestyle that is considerably more comfortable than that of a prestigious writer of nonfiction and uncertain whether the name John Bloom at this juncture in his life will arouse the interest of magazine and publishing editors. Or, to phrase it as Skip Hollandsworth does, "He has spent so many years fulfilling the character of Joe Bob, which is fine. But people have wondered why at the same time he didn't fulfill the John Bloom part of him. He could easily be Frank Rich right now."
"Over the years," says Ole Anthony, "John has talked to me about dropping Joe Bob Briggs, and I tell him in my opinion, he's crazy. Joe Bob has given John a lifestyle most people only dream about. He's climbed on this horse, and now it's taking him on a journey to some destination, except that I think John started off on a donkey and now he's up to a quarter horse."
At this point, would John Bloom be able to chuck fame and big money for the more austere world of nonfiction and commentary?
"I don't think it would be incredibly difficult," Bloom says. "And I want to write another book as John Bloom, because the proudest thing I've ever done is Evidence of Love. Most of the stuff I've done I don't look at again, but that's the only thing I can look back on and say, 'I couldn't have done a better job.' I have two books left on my contract and a very good relationship with my publisher, Grove Atlantic. I think any reasonable book I came to him with he would approve. Of course, he would rather have Joe Bob."
John Bloom understands that the sensitively explored investigation of love, lust, and axe-wielding hate that is Evidence of Love belongs in the nonfiction novel genre pioneered by Capote and Mailer. Can he be satisfied churning out 7,000 pages a year of MonsterVision vignettes?
It's easy to think that this career transformation is a freakishly disappointing case of a "butterfly turning into a worm." Yet there truly is more to the new Joe Bob than breast jokes and body counts. His champions are right to point out that the most recent Joe Bob Briggs repertoire can combine blue-collar machismo and art-film appreciation in cleverly anarchic ways. For instance, when Joe Bob discusses Dolores Claiborne for an upcoming segment, he recounts a curious phenomenon in the career of that film's co-star Jennifer Jason Leigh: the fact that her characters have performed oral sex on male characters in movie after movie after movie. Yet those oft-ribbed TNT censors will allow him to describe this sexual act only as "something guys like," a pretty vague implication. The punch line to the laundry list of filmic fellatio, Joe Bob recounts, was his critical revelation: This on-screen habit explains the "lockjaw" way she spoke as Dorothy Parker in Alan Rudolph's Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, a mannered delivery that mystified some critics.
John Bloom, the film critic who used to haunt the Inwood regularly when he worked at the Times Herald and write essays on the emergence of novelle vague in European films, would of course know this stuff. The crew members on the set of MonsterVision that Saturday afternoon, many of whom have been with Joe Bob Briggs for a while and are avowed fans, would've dug the fellatio references if TNT allowed him to come out and make them. But they were, to a man, pretty oblivious of the critical dissent over Mrs. Parker and Jennifer Jason Leigh's career. They just didn't get the joke.
"There's a merging going on," Ole Anthony acknowledges. "Many of his old colleagues don't understand why he's stuck with Joe Bob for so long. They think he's wasting his talent. But he sees it as a spiritual tool. And to keep it from dying, he has no choice but to evolve and begin including those kinds of allusions."
"I channel-surf," John Bloom's old writing partner Jim Atkinson says, "and every once in a while I'll slip by Joe Bob and see what he's up to. I remember a segment--this would've been back toward the end of his Movie Channel days--where he was interviewing a filmmaker, some journeyman who makes B movies. John was sort of doing his Joe Bob voice, although it was slipping in and out. He started out with a smart-ass, dumb-ass Joe Bob, and then the questions grew more and more intelligent and insightful. The guy began to talk about this odd craft, the art of B-movies. You could see the journalist warm to that. What emerged after a while was this really interesting interview by John Bloom with a filmmaker. It was less a hybrid of John and Joe Bob. As it progressed, it began increasingly to be John Bloom.