With its mix of comedy and tragedy—not to mention a hip muckraking name on the poster in the form of producer Morgan Spurlock—What Would Jesus Buy? offers a holiday-season reminder that spending doesn't necessarily equal giving. Spiced with shocking factoids (there are so many stores in this country that everyone in North and South America and Europe could fit inside of them at one time, more than 15 million Americans may be clinically addicted to shopping, etc.), WWJB? follows Reverend Billy and his Church Of Stop Shopping on their 2005 Christmastime tour across the country, where they ruffled feathers and attempted to open minds in Times Square, the Mall Of America, Disneyland, and beyond. Billy is actually performance artist Bill Talen, but he admits that since debuting the character in the late '90s, he's more or less become the Reverend—one without a specific religious affiliation, of course. In addition to their "church" services inside New York venues, Billy and the gospel choir still hit the road to share their anti-consumerism message, and lately they've been sharing the good news about the new Rob VanAlkemade-directed film. The A.V. Club spoke with Talen as it was hitting theaters.
The A.V. Club: You used to live in San Francisco. Is that where the Reverend Billy character started?
Bill Talen: I started a theater with some friends in Fort Mason called Life On The Water. Mostly I was producing other artists, but once a year I could stage a play that I wrote, and sometimes I was one of the characters in the play. A local man named Sidney Lanier started coming to my stage shows—he took me out to lunch and started arguing that there was something about my writing and delivery when I was onstage, he thought that I should try to develop "a new kind of American preacher." At first my response was, "Forget it, let Saturday Night Live do that." I had been raised by right-wing Christians in the Midwest, Dutch Calvinists, and I just didn't want to go back, even a parody of the Christian world. But Sidney keep feeding me books and taking me to amazing preachers, and I started getting interested in just the instrument as an instrument, as an invented American vocal form. I was always the guy who was producing Spalding Gray, Danny Glover reciting Langston Hughes, Allen Ginsberg—in our theater, we had great storytellers and monologists, and I worshipped these folks. I became interested in preachers as a sort of monologist, as a kind of artist. And also Sidney said, "Don't be afraid of Jesus, he was never a Christian." [Laughs.] Back to your original question, there were some early sketches of Reverend Billy in San Francisco. There were some attempts at a cable-TV kind of televangelist thing, there was sort of a play with a reverend in it, and I remember one monologue, kind of a 20-minute sermon, but they were early experiments and none of these attempts really worked. I would say the early experimental work came to fruition in Times Square in New York.
AVC: And that was in 1999?
BT: Yeah, it was the late '90s. There were attempts as early as '97—I was already doing some sidewalk preaching, but it was something to learn to do. It was a difficult—preaching outside with crowds of tourists and knowing how to catch their eye, knowing how to put certain shapes of sounds out into the air such that you gather people around you, it took me some time to learn how to do that.
AVC: What felt more important to you initially: the message or the performance?
BT: I was coming from the theater world and I was very let down by it—I didn't feel it was connecting to people's lives. And, of course, the mystery of how do you make a living in that world? When I saw that Rudy Giuliani and the Disney Company were conspiring to arrest people who didn't seem to have money or people of color or small vendors, people who had small, independent shops, [I knew] there was a cultural cleansing going on before my very eyes. I wanted to defend my neighborhood. Reverend Billy hadn't been message-oriented until my own neighborhood was in danger: Here comes Mickey Mouse, here comes The Lion King, and whole blocks are torn down, and anybody that doesn't believably have a credit card is arrested. They are turning Times Square into a supermall, privatizing the sidewalks. People are getting arrested without making any mistake other than that they don't seem to be middle class. That gave me a message. It was at that point that there was a balancing that was necessary between the content and the performance, and they started melding together.
I was preaching in front of the Disney Store and I turned around and went inside the Disney Store, and I discovered the thing that I couldn't find anywhere else. I was asking myself: What happened to theater? Why don't I feel the power in a theater anymore? And that was charged—when I went into the Disney Store and there were hundreds of furry little dolls, little Disney characters waving their arms in the air neurotically, screaming at the customers to buy them, each of them supported by major feature films and theme-park rides, at that point, going in there and demanding dramatic space inside that retail environment, I've been doing it ever since. It's just very powerful.
AVC: So over the years, would you say that the message has become more important than the theatrical, comedy side of things?
BT: We are resisting consumerism. Consumerism is based on labeling, logoing, driving different parts of the world into separating categories. We have found that resisting consumption is something we better communicate to people when they don't exactly know what we are. We suspect that the experience has a chance of being an experience of greater depth when it's not so easy to frame what's going on with a label. And that's why we can't get any money from foundations. [Laughs.] They come into our Fabulous Worship, and if they're a political foundation, they say, "You know what? No, these people are clowns." And then the artistic foundation comes in—they're the people that give good clowns money—and they come in and say, "No, this is political." Then the religious foundations come in and they say, "This isn't spiritual, this is entertainment." So everybody thinks it's something else. The very thing that makes us more powerful, in other parts of our life gives us some real difficulty.
AVC: Which idea came first: the tour or the film?
BT: For several years, we had done smaller tours in Europe and California. I'm not so sure that we would have toured in the wintertime like that. [Laughs.] It just became obvious at some point that a road movie—the journey movie, the search across the landscape for the truth—would be a good vehicle for our film. There are certain parts of the country that carry parts of the story of resisting consumption. When we're in the Chicago area, it's credit cards, and when we're in the Minneapolis area, it's Mall Of America and how supermalls are destroying public space. Before that, in Ohio, we were talking about the hypnosis of children by advertising. We thought we were capable of it because we'd already been touring extensively—but not that extensively. That tour was probably five times the length of any tour we ever attempted.
AVC: Have you done any tours like that since?
BT: I feel like we're on a tour this year, except it's jets and car services. We're working on a new tour—we would like to go down the East Coast to the community groups that are trying to defend the estuaries from being drained, and down to the Immokalee tomato pickers who have done such a great job of opposing or changing McDonald's down in Florida, and then come back west to New Orleans, which is undergoing a severe form of what got my project started: the Disneyfication of Times Square. The devastation of New Orleans has been a chance for mega-corporations to privatize cheaply and move in and dominate the recovering economy. So it's a classic setting for The Church Of Stop Shopping.
AVC: In the film, you guys are on the road for a month. How was everyone able to take that much time off of work?
BT: People bunched together vacation allowances. At least one lady put back a semester at school and took another job and then quit it. So lots of people made adjustments in their lives to take that month off. Did you notice that as the trip west unfolds, that more and more people were joining us? Some people couldn't take the whole month. By the time we got to Disneyland, we had more than 40 voices. We have lots of volunteerism—in that sense, it's like a church. Our legal structure is like a little theater company, nonprofit corporation, but there are surprising resemblances to a traditional church, where people sing in choirs and they rehearse once a week like we do and they don't get paid.
AVC: Is Bill Talen separate from Reverend Billy, or have the lines been blurred?
BT: No, I am Reverend Billy. It's fine, there's no crisis there. Sometimes I say, "I play a character named Reverend Billy," but that's not quite true. That's me.
AVC: So maybe Reverend Billy is just an exaggerated version of you?
BT: Yes, and like anyone, I have exaggerations in other directions as well. But it's a formal appropriation of the costume and gestures of the heart of American religious fundamentalism. So there's a design there, there's a motive in appropriating that character. Back in the San Francisco period when I was experimenting with different approaches, the character was at some distance from me. I thought of myself as a parodist, and now it's become, especially after 9/11, I became more of a pastor. People who were living basically post-religious lives, perhaps had not been in a church or a mosque or a synagogue since they were young, but after 9/11 wanted to have a pastor in the community—I would just listen and make suggestions about coping and just reflect on 9/11, what had happened. At that point, I became Reverend Billy. I became fused with the character. Since then, I've married people, buried people. You're standing there hugging the parents of someone who passed away or something—pastoring is not easy. It's surprisingly powerful.
AVC: Are you ordained?
BT: It's important that Reverend Billy not be ordained. I read these reviews and they say, "Perhaps Reverend Billy is not a Christian, but Christ is speaking through him." It's like, "What?!" I'm not a Christian, but I feel the creative force of life, like we all do. I shy away from committing to a single denomination or a single church; I also shy away from the possibility of fundamentalism. I really don't want to go around acting as if I know the answers to someone's question, "What is life?" I don't know what life is. In the question "What is life?" is my faith—that is my faith. As soon as people say, "My faith is the absolute truth, my faith is the answer to the question 'What is life?'"—that person is a fundamentalist, and that person will eventually hurt someone else. This is a process we really have to look at now, because we live in a Christian nation and we can't seem to stop killing people. That fearfulness is not really looked into in our culture. We don't think enough about that possibility that somehow there's something here that is systemically wrong. So we say we're trying to save Christmas from the "shopocalypse" in this film. As we say in our film, Christmas should shake us up; Christ is supposed to turn everything upside down. I believe that we must be shaken now. I believe that we have to go back to loving that unknown, loving the unanswerable question of life.
AVC: There's a scene in the movie where your wife is clearly losing hope with regard to getting your message across, which presumably happens occasionally. When you start feeling disillusioned, how do you get back on track?
BT: It comes down to gospel music. It comes down to a community of people that love each other and sing well together, and that is a hell of a good idea for an activist. I don't know why more people haven't thought of it, but Savitri and I are lifted along by this singing community. Singing, itself, seems to make them happy. They sing my lyrics, which are not always happy lyrics. [Laughs.] They sing in a happy way, generally—they lift the spirits of the people around them. Certainly they lift mine.
AVC: One of the things discussed in the film is that corporations are killing small-town America, yet it's those residents' decision to shop at Wal-Mart that is putting the mom-and-pop stores out of business. Having traveled across the country, do you really get the sense that there's a possibility for change?
BT: We absolutely feel that there is an international movement against consumerism. People are returning to their towns, people are returning to the main streets in their neighborhoods, they're turning their back on the advertising in great numbers, and we get huge amounts of e-mails indicating this. People are discovering ways to develop local food, local textiles, they're finding a way to make services not involve corporations that are in the distance. The food sector that is growing fastest in the United States is farmers' markets. The reception the film is getting shows to us that we are being carried along in a huge wave, and have a responsibility to people to try to inspire them and go to their communities and help them defend against supermalls. We try to keep information coming through our website, which gets 100,000 hits a day now. It's really warm outside and it's late in the fall—global warming is hitting us really hard; we're still involved in permanent wars around the world; we have murderous police departments, racist police departments. We have all sorts of problems here. You can get hit by hopelessness very easily. But people are affecting change, they feel the possibility of change as we get to the end of the George Bush era—it's in the air. As we say in the church, "Changelujah!"
AVC: At the same time, in the film it looked like a lot of your audience members are young, hip kids. Do you feel as though a lot of the time you're preaching to the converted?
BT: "Preaching to the converted" is a cover-up for such a complicated event. For instance, you might have people that agree with you: "Yeah, this is getting out of hand. Consumerism is a totalizing affair that controls our lives. We're buying things, we're in debt, we're standing in line, we're sitting in traffic jams, we're working two jobs." Yeah, people will agree, so maybe they're converted in that sense, but after encountering the activist showpeople, maybe they will do something about it. So the degrees of conversion are critical. What about converting to activism? Right now, we have to all be activists. We are coming out of a long period of time in which we've been slumbering. As the Reverend says: "America: Are you people or are you sheeple?" [Laughs.] That's a Morgan Spurlock line, he wrote that. [Laughs.] I think we're encountering that in our audiences. People are e-mailing us and saying, "I saw you at the performance in Columbus, Ohio, and I am now shedding myself of my extra things on eBay, dropping them off at thrift stores. I'm going through changes here personally and I'm joining the local transportation-alternative groups." We're getting a lot of that. So raising someone that always agrees with you to the point of being an activist is a critical step.