By Susan DeGrane
The eerie glow of a television flickers across the faces of two young women, a man with shoulder-length hair, and a clown wearing a bright yellow wig and a big red nose. Except for being a bit bunched up on the couch, the four seem to be enjoying a normal evening in front of the tube. The clown alternates between smoking cigarettes and eating a TV dinner. The others stare intently at the screen, occasionally nibbling on Chee-tos. They call themselves televisionists.
"We worship TV as God," says April Stocky. "It's the second coming of Christ. God used Farnsworth to invent the television."
"You got a little further than most people who watch television or who enjoy television," says Daniel Tilles, a producer who's documenting the group for a program that's broadcast to France, Switzerland, and Belgium.
"I don't think we took it further than anyone else," says Amy Bugbee, Stocky's sister. "We're just willing to admit that television is God. It's the center of everyone's living rooms, their kitchens, their bedrooms, their children's rooms. Most Americans have three televisions in their homes."
The two sisters started their religion, TV Ministry, four months ago in their hometown of Calumet City, which they call "the center of the universe." They already claim 200 members across the nation, all of whom receive a tongue-in-cheek newsletter that recommends campy movies, revels in describing the scenarios and characters of daytime television, and offers personal opinions about movies. "Natural Born Killers is the most brutal, big-star action art movie ever," writes Stocky under the byline of Pope April in the first issue. "Being a woman, I know if I ever met Woody Harrelson I'd fuck him, just because. If he looked like Mickey Knox, I think anyone under 40 would. But if he had just done Cheers and 'geez' can't remember the name of the movie with Demi [Moore] and Robert [Redford], then I don't think I would, oh well."
Bugbee and Stocky have built their following through word of mouth and a column published in the alternative MF Magazine. "We hope to make this official and have a building--something on the order of Bordello of Blood, where they have a TV studio and a church all in the same place," says Stocky into Tilles's camera.
The pews in their church would be La-Z-Boy recliners. The deities would be television stars, "although these would change all the time," says Stocky, "because viewers are very fickle. Pee-wee Herman, Sesame Street characters, Mr. Rogers might be considered television angels because they've done things to help people." Bugbee adds that they intend to perform weddings and funeral services via video.
Though many parents are concerned about letting children watch too much TV, televisionists assert that taking children away from TV can be damaging. "We're not saying people shouldn't do other things," says Stocky, the mother of two girls. "Like you should still take your kids to the zoo or go to the woods to hang out. But if you try to keep children away from TV they'll be outcasts, they won't fit in."
The sisters say they're speaking from experience, having lived without television from 1974 to 1976. Their mother had been watering a plant on top of the TV when the pot overflowed, and the water ran into the back of the set. "There was smoke and the screen turned an odd color," says Bugbee. "Then it went out."
"It was horrible not having TV," Stocky says. "Our mother read us Little House on the Prairie, Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes. We didn't fit in with the kids at school."
Bugbee says many people have learned moral lessons from television and cites her husband, Shane, the long-haired guy on the couch, who publishes graphic novels and comic books. "Everything he learned about being a man he learned from TV."
Oddly enough, neither sister subscribes to cable, though Stocky once did. "We don't really need cable," she says. "There's a lot of good free TV out there."
Still, the sisters admit television isn't a perfect paradise. "Newscasters destroy our sanctuary by telling us all the bad news we don't need to hear," says Stocky. "Newscasters and talk-show hosts are the devil. The problem with them is they're bringing us real life. Who wants that?"
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo by Lloyd DeGrane.