Ever watch The 700 Club? I’ve had a voyeuristic fascination with Christian televangelism since I was a teenager. John Hagee’s Cornerstone broadcast used to be appointment television, just so I could see what horribly offensive thing he would say that day. I think his zenith – or nadir, I should say – was when he delivered a Christmas sermon to his alarmingly large congregation and used the occasion to vehemently denounce homosexuality. Yeah, I know – Fred Phelps has said far worse things about gay people than John Hagee has, but Fred Phelps isn’t on TV every day. Although, who knows – if ratings for Up On Melody Mountain continue to slide, perhaps there will be an opening on TBN’s schedule soon.
TBN is the Trinity Broadcasting Network. It originates from Santa Ana, California, but has affiliates all over the U.S., is seen on most cable services, and is carried by satellites to pretty much every country in the world. That kind of coverage is expensive, which may be why the production values for TBN’s original programming have hovered right at the local public access level for about thirty years. They air shows produced by outside talent, like Hagee’s Cornerstone, D. James Kennedy’s weekly Coral Ridge Hour, and This Is Your Day, hosted by legendary faith-healer and demon fighter Benny Hinn, but the most fun stuff on TBN is homegrown.
TBN originals are all cast out of the same mold: There’s a host (sometimes two, although Dean and Mary might as well be one person), there’s a soundstage, usually dressed with an obviously phony backdrop, some basic furniture, maybe a couch and a chair and a coffee table. Sometimes there are attempts to class things up by adding fake Greek columns to the set, or, in the case of their nightly Praise the Lord show, gold-plating everything in sight. Usually, though, the set design consists of just placing random shit in random places. “Is this the set for Unfolding Majesty? I’ve got your giant teddy bear out in the truck.” “Good, good, just put it over there next to the table full of ceramic bells. And what’s the hold-up on that Tessla coil?” Often there is singing, except in the case of Dr. Carl Baugh, who offers only a weekly 30 minute meandering, disorganized, undisciplined, incomprehensible, self-congratulatory lecture on why the Earth is really only 6,000 years old, on his program Creation in the 21st Century. Sometimes Dr. Baugh invites guests, colleagues of his from the creation science community who stand a few feet away and politely listen to Dr. Baugh talk.
Another favorite of TBN is Carman. Carman is a contemporary Christian singer, who, like fellow Christian musician John Tesh, can neither sing nor play any musical instruments. Carman is not the best songwriter – most of his lyrics begin with the line, “Webster’s Dictionary defines __________ as . . .” and one song was just the Lord’s Prayer set to a mellow pseudo-calypso beat. To distract his devoted born-again fanbase from this, Carman has starred in myriad music videos. The purpose of most of these videos is to let Carman appear on camera as many times as possible. If he’s not front and center singing (or rapping, or speaking), he’s front and center dancing. He also likes to play multiple roles. The best – or worst, I should say – example is a video where he played no less than four characters, including Satan, Jesus, God, and himself, all of whom looked identical except for their clothes (and Satan had a little soulpatch on his chin, naturally). He used to have his own show on TBN Saturday nights, infuriatingly titled Time 2, a weekly half-hour composed of Carman talking about his videos, Carman showing his videos, and Carman talking more about his videos. He once told a little girl on the show, completely in earnest, “You know, I never wrote a single song before I found the Lord.” Get the fuck outta town.
The real stars of TBN, though, as everyone who’s watched the network for more than a few minutes knows, are the network’s founders, Paul and Jan Crouch, and their two sons, Paul Jr. and Matt. Paul is a mediocre speaker who makes up the difference by wearing shirts made of the loudest, shiniest printed fabrics he can find, and pumping his fist into the air as often as possible. His wife Jan makes Tammy Faye Bakker look reserved and dignified in retrospect. Jan wears a pink wig that approximately quadruples the diameter of her head, and loves to tell the story of how, as a little girl, she and a friend of hers resurrected her dead pet chicken by anointing it with cooking oil and calling on Jesus to bring it back to life. Paul Jr. stays mostly behind the scenes, running the website, filling in for Paul on TV occasionally; he seems like he would almost be normal, if not for the whole “follow Jesus or go to Hell” thing. Matt may be the most annoying personality of all. He’s in charge of TBN Films, the movie-making wing of the network which has inflicted on the public such classics as The Omega Code, Megiddo: The Omega Code 2, and the Carman vehicle The Champion. Matt’s latest cinematic masterpiece is One Night with the King, which is based on an evangelical novel which was in turn based on the biblical book of Esther. They supposedly conducted a worldwide talent search for a young ingénue to play Esther in the film, but surprise surprise, they found the perfect girl right there in southern California! Ain’t God good? Praise him – he’s just good!
Twice a year, in April and November, I think, TBN devotes most of their daytime and evening schedule to Praise-a-Thon. This is where all the big shot TBN personalities, the homegrown guys like Dr. Carl Baugh and Dean and Mary and Vern Jackson, and the televangelist all-stars like John Hagee, Rod Parsley, James Kennedy, and dear Benny Hinn, come together for a week to shamelessly beg their audience of mostly retired old women to give them more money. Most of them ask for donations from their “partners” all the time, but during Praise-a-Thon all pretense of fellowship in the Lord and spiritual growth is dropped in favor of shameless solicitation. The most unabashed of the group is old coot R.W. Shambach, who in 2000 demanded that viewers call in and make pledges of $20,000, even if they didn’t have the money, immediately remit a tithe of $2,000 on the amount and then pay the rest off in installments. PBS does pledge drives all the time, and they are fucking irritating, aren’t they? But PBS says, “Send us $50, we’ll give you this copy of Haley’s Hints on VHS, and your kids will still be able to watch Mr. Rogers.” TBN says, “Send us $20,000, we won’t give you anything except more of what you’ve been watching already, but you probably won’t go to Hell.” No wonder they need all that gold-plating to class the joint up.
Anyway, back to The 700 Club. It’s the granddaddy of all evangelical television, created by Pat Robertson in 1966 and hosted by his crazy ass ever since. It has evolved over the years into a bizarre imitation of a newsmagazine, with interviews and pre-taped segments, and, right at the top of the show, a check of the news with anchorman Lee Webb. They call it CBN News (that’s Christian Broadcasting Network, if you couldn’t figure it out). CBN News is for people who think Fox News Channel isn’t biased enough. Yes, yes, E.D. Hill and Steve Doocy are perfectly obliging in getting over those Republican talking points, but if you want to know what Jesus thinks of stem-cell research, you turn to CBN News. Lee Webb reads a news story, then turns and says, “Pat?” And Pat Robertson smiles and laughs and says something utterly insane, then turns and goes, “Lee?” And it starts over again, until all the news has been read. They even cut to fake commercials that inform us, “If you become a member of the 700 Club, your donation of only $185 a month can help us feed a crude flour/water gruel to starving children in Africa, and we might even dig a well for their village if there’s enough left over after our campaign contributions.”
Following the news, they show a human interest story. This is where we learn the sad tale of some alcoholic/drug addict/single mother whose life was hopeless and totally fucked. Then one day, they just happened to be flipping through the channels and they saw Pat Robertson on TV saying that Jesus could heal them of whatever their problem was. They got down on their knees and prayed and accepted the salvation and healing of Jesus Christ, and now everything is peachy keen. They’re off the booze/heroin/welfare, they’re happily married, their kids love them again, and they have plenty of money left over every month to give to their wonderful friends at The 700 Club! After the human interest story, they’ll run a promo for tomorrow’s human interest story, usually ending with a tagline like “How did Tommy stop sniffing glue and turn his life around? Tune in tomorrow to find out!” It might be a little more compelling if I hadn’t just watched the identical fucking story. Just a suggestion, CBN. Here’s another one: Just repeat the same human interest segment over and over again, on every show. I guarantee no one will know the fucking difference, and you’ll have more money left over to re-elect your old buddies like Rick Santorum. I just hope his campaign isn’t too expensive; there’s people starving in Africa, you know.