Saturday, April 28, 2007

the gospel of the farting preacher

Robert Tilton is the once and future king of the post Jim & Tammy Implosion era of slick TV evangelists, hounded and humiliated huckster of holy water, prayer cloths, and inspirational books, and flatulent fraudster star of what may be the original "viral video".

As host of the long-running "Success-N-Life" television program, Tilton preaches a "prosperity" gospel that promises to enrich its flock with God-ordained good fortune with Jesus as sugar daddy/investment counselor/loanshark/bookie. Since the key part of this gospel - 'sowing the seed'- means sending Tilton one thousand dollars, the only person this gospel has ever made wealthy is Robert Tilton himself. His sermons aren't about sin, death, or salvation - they're about making a vow (to send Tilton cash) and keeping your promise (to send Tilton cash), interrupted only by frequent, Tourettes-style bursts of "speaking in tongues". After being investigated by ABC's Prime Time Live, the Texas Attorney General's office, and the FBI, Tilton vanished from the airwaves, but after a few years of laying low he returned- tanned, rested and ready- shooting a new series of inspirational infomercials from a classy new studio in Florida, which you can catch late at night on places like BET.

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Where did this slick-talking holy-oil salesman come from? Texas, of course. A college dropout and real estate salesman, in the early 70s Tilton latched onto both Jesus and the teachings of Tulsa evangelist Billy James Hargis. Hargis was the first to combine the fire of holy-rollering with the technosavvy of mail order marketing, and his mailings went out to three million homes at their peak. Tilton's TV show "Success-N-Life" began in 1984 and at its peak reached more than 200 stations - a one-hour informercial designed to get people to phone in pledges and mail him checks. In return Tilton would bless coins, pray over napkins, place prayer cords into a miracle wall of prayer, and generally use every pagan voodoo trick at his disposal to convince Jesus and God that little old you needs $1500 for a new transmission. Trouble for Tilton came when word got out that prayer requests sent to "Success-N-Life" were winding up in the garbage, when dead people were recieving letters promising Tilton's healing hand in exchange for cold cash, when a Tilton anti-Semitic rant was secretly caught on tape... when the level of disgusting excess and outright fraud became too much for even the strong stomach of the Dallas evangelical community.

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But it's as an ironic touchstone for disaffected youth that Tilton may have his greatest success. The hopped-up, gibbering spectacle of Brother Bob pounding his desk, ranting in "otoyo basoya" tongues, and, quick as a wink, shifting gears to a dewy-eyed patriarch deeply moved by the suffering of humanity - well, if that isn't good television I don't know what is. Hipsters, pop culture junkies, kitsch connossieurs and po-mo pontificators all found "Success-N-Life" a terrific late-night watch, funnier than that OTHER "SNL" by far. Daniel "Art School Confidential" Clowes devoted a whole page of his groundbreaking "Eightball" comic to highlight Tilton. There was even a "Love That Bob" night at Club Dada in Dallas, sponsored by the Robert Tilton Fan Club, and a fanzine entitled "The Beast Of Robert Tilton". But it was through home video that Tilton would reach his greatest non-sucker audience.

The "Farting Tilton" tape, also known as "Joyful Noise", "Farting Evangelist", "Fart Preacher", etc., is mentioned in the press clipping for the "Love That Bob" Club Dada night (Jan 9, 1992), but it had been shown previously, passed from hand to Christian hand among the video trading network that existed in the days before Bittorrnet. My own copy came via my involvement with Phenomicon, a UFO/hacker/conspiracy convention that was held in Atlanta in 1990 and 1991. We ran "Fart Tilton" on the big screen before the Sub-Genius devival.

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Who made the tape? A collection of Tilton's more inspired moments of Jesus fervor and glossalia, highlighted with the addition of fart noises, it's a, lets's face it, juvenile concept that could have been created by anyone with rudimentary video editing equipment. Slightly more professional-quality copies of the original and a color sequel were included on the "Mondo Tilton" compliation videotape released by Russell Media Underground in Dallas in the late 1990s. A staple of "Anime Hell" performances for many years, the clip has since reached an unimaginable audience courtesy filesharing and the Internet.

One wonders what Tilton thinks of his gastrointestinal success. Older and more jowly, his recent programs (retitled "Success In Life") feature a toned down Tilton, soft-pedalling his sucker pitches for an audience that might not respond to the firey schizophrenia of his earlier performances. Or maybe he's just, you know, holding it in.


Unknown said...

I'm gonna have to dig out and repost THE BEAST OF ROBERT TILTON. I wonder if I could find the old Robert Tilton Fan Club? Wonder if they're still around.

Good post. That's more then I ever wanted to know about Brother Bob...


d.merrill said...

I think most of my biographical information came from the pdf of THE BEAST OF ROBERT TILTON you sent me. Tilton got a surprising amount of press in the early 1990s. Well, he had a surprising amount of investigations for somebody whose biggest crime, besides bilking people out of money, was failing to pray over the prayer cloths.

Jeff Tatarek said...

"The Devil makes somethin' outta nothin'...but JESUS makes nothin' outta somethin'! HALLELUJAH!"


Unknown said...

Did I ever send you a copy of the Brother Bob tape. It's a compilation of news clips of Tilton. Everything from his messy divorce to the Texas State Attorney and the aftermath of the trial. You almost feel sorry for the guy.