Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Remembering Jack Van Impe (1931-2020)

The Internet Is In America pays our respects to the greatest counter-cultural televangelist of all-time

By: Jimbo X

Growing up in a weird-ass Christian fundamentalist, apocalyptic eschatological pseudo-survivalist household, I was very familiar with the work of Jack Van Impe as a kid. In fact, in a peculiar way, he ended up becoming an unlikely pop cultural ephemera totem of my elementary school years, filling that awkward void in-between Ren and Stimpy and Smoky Mountain Wrestling on lonesome Saturday nights as only he and his strangely tappable wife/co-anchor Rexella could.

As the lead skipper for the weekly televangelical program Jack Van Impe Presents, the Michigander was pretty much the Arsenio Hall of end time evangelical prophecy. It might sound like hyperbole, but his program was LITERALLY an hour-long diatribe each and every week in which he cited a million-billion bible verses while touching upon random ass news stories to inform the viewing audience that, yes, we were indeed living in the last days of man as foretold in the Book of Revelations, and his accompanying histrionics were positively world class.

It isn’t hard to imagine Jack Van Impe, in another life, being a counter-cultural trash TV talk show a’la Morton Downey, Jr. or Wally George. In fact, his show was already pretty much there, if not thematically, than certainly in terms of structure and attitude. But whereas Morton and Wally’s program inevitably devolved into verbal mud pits where said guests linguistically castrated their ideological rivals to the maddened adore of a screaming studio audience, Van Impe’s approach was a little more subdued. For one, he never had guests on his show, and the goddamn camera rarely, if ever, panned off of him. And while there are plenty of great TV preachers out there who knew how to flap their lips, Jack Van Impe has to be one of the all-time greats of bloviating, if not the veritable Wayne Gretzky of Christian-tinged blustering. 

Literally EVERY episode of Jack Van Impe followed the same formula. Rexella would welcome the audience, she’d introduce news topic one — usually about war in the middle east, or cloning, or the gays and lesbians doing something he didn’t approve of — and then old Jack had free rein to flap his gums a million miles an hour about how said news topic portended the second coming of Jesus, in the process directly citing a bare minimum of five different bible verses every half-minute. And then, they’d move on to another news topic, and he’d do the same thing all over again, up until the final five minutes of the show, when it was time to throw it to announcer Chuck Ohman (who, by the way, has one of the ten greatest voices you’ll ever hear in your life) who then promptly did a pitch for whatever bullshit VHS the Van Impe camp was hawking at the time, which you could own in your own personal video cassette library for the low, low price of $29.99, plus shipping and handling.

And folks, he did this, for over 30 years. Love him or hate him, you’ve got to respect anybody who can milk a hobby horse that long and that fruitfully. I mean, this motherfucker was putting out TV product up until the day before he died — so whatever you will about his political/religious leanings, you HAVE to admire a work ethic like that. Just take a look at his last full TV appearance, about two weeks before he kicked the bucket. Despite looking like a 90-year-old Paul Bearer with a Hitler mustache and thyroid cancer, the dude was STILL giving it everything he had, even though he barely had enough vocal strength to string more than two sentences together any more

This man was a showman for Jesus literally up until the moment he croaked. Most people on their deathbeds would just roll over and die like a bitch, but not Jack Van Impe. Oh, no siree Bob, he may have had just a handful of heartbeats left, but he was determined to use ‘em to shill his $59.99 prophecy bible as hard as he possibly could. Even the most hardcore, kayfabe-worshipping pro wrestlers of all-time like Ric Flair and Terry Funk are probably watching JVI’s last hurrah going “damn, man, it’s OK to play down the carny shit a LITTLE.” This man didn’t just live the gimmick, he DIED the gimmick, too — if such a thing existed, there’s no doubt in my mind that Jack would be a bona fide first ballot selection in the Syndicated Trash TV Hall of Fame.

It was until JVI bought that big tax-deductible timeshare in the sky, I suppose, that I truly realized just how much of an influence he had on my brand philosophy. Like a version of Paul Heyman that really hated the homosexuals and shilled extra hard for the Jewish lobby, JVI prided himself on being the counter-cultural televangelist, the kinda’ guy who was halfway between John Haggee and Alex Jones. And although I never really recognized it until his demise, the free-floating format of his show is pretty much the cut-out-around-the-dotted-lines mold for This Week in the Downfall of Civilization, right down to the self-styled in-brand promotion book-ends. Of course, while his cultural commentary hot takes almost always devolved into some variation of “JESUS IS COMING BACK REAL SOON, FOLKS, AND THE DEVIL IS LITERALLY A DEMOCRAT,” I suppose mine are a little less preachy. 

But then again, I don’t have the same kind of gusto for my own con job as JVI did — indeed, I don’t think anybody outside of an illegal sex cult has over the last four decades. Jack Van Impe is the epitome of a guy who bought his own bullshit, to the point I’m almost certain he really did think he was a late-stage biblical prophet and the fact that old retards sent him $200 a week in money orders was simply divine validation of his own righteous mission.

Alongside tabloid fodder like 20/20 and Sightings, I think Jack Van Impe Presents was my first recognition of what we now call “meta-media” — i.e., the first time I was aware of the awareness that what I was watching was second-hand pop culture ephemera. There was this odd phoniness to the “realness” of the program, and an equally perplexing “realness” to its phoniness, sort of like a more-convincing-than normal pro ‘rasslin match. Of course, even then I knew his shtick was paranoid, money-grabbing claptrap, but once I saw past the illusion and kinda’ got the notion that he was aware of it, too, the show became a million times more enjoyable. I always wondered if my mom making me watch his show in-betwixt SNICK and whatever late night bullshit was on the USA network was supposed to be a punishment or some half-assed method of sociopolitical indoctrination, but I don’t think she ever grasped how much I ironically enjoyed the program. There was just something so oddly comforting watching Jack berate the Clintons and Muslims and Hollywood while bringing up 40,000 different oblique references to the Book of Galatians, and while the show never made an impact on my religious inclinations, it certainly made an impact on how I cognitively processed media. And come on, now, how can you NOT be entertained listening to JVI and pals take the piss out of New Age mysticism as a buncha’ pseudo-demonic gobbeldy gook for nearly an hour and a half? 

I mean, goddamn, this guy left behind weeks worth of fantastic content, ranging from dissertations on why pets DO get to go to heaven to hour-long diatribes about why the European Union will usher in the Antichrist to miscellaneous screeds on why Barack Obama was/is a clandestine communist literally in cahoots with Satan. Without even really trying, Jack Van Impe produced more entertaining media than a good 99.8 percent of people who have had their own television shows, and we should all be envious, if not downright awestruck, by his commitment to content uber alles.

You can go back and watch shows Jack did in 1984 and the format, structure and overall atmosphere is literally the same as it is for his shows produced in 2019. This is a man who didn’t just find a niche and stick with it, he’s a guy that pretty much perfected perhaps the nichiest niche in the pantheon of TV niches. Go ahead, try to name ONE other person who has had a TV run that long, that uninterrupted and that uncompromised by the network powers that be — simply put, in almost 40 years of broadcasting, the dude never had a dry spell. That’s not just incredible, such unparalleled media longevity — dare I say it? — might even be considered miraculous.

Of course, the mainstream obits were hardly kind to the late, great JVI. Hardly any “legitimate” news outlets reported anything about his death, leaving pro-Christianity sites and pro-atheist blogs to shat out the usual half-hearted thoughts, prayers and condemnations. The New York Timeses and CNNs or even the Fox Newses or Breitbarts really didn’t feel like marking his farewell from the earthly coil with any sort of major mention, to the point I’m actually kinda’ surprised Wikipedia even bothered listing him as notable death for Jan. 18, 2020.

But Jack obviously lived a pretty fruitful and meaningful existence. I mean, if you can get Patheos and The Trinity Broadcast Network to shit all over you when you die for totally antithetical reasons, that means you probably did something right, or said at least one or two kernels of truth the mighty masses didn’t want uttered. Jack Van Impe is kinda’ like the Al Davis of televangelists, having made millions upon millions of dollars building his corporate empire while screaming “fuck everybody else, by name” for trying to horn in on his territory. He made a lot of people very, very angry, and he apparently gave o.oo percent fucks that he offended anybody by calling Muslims furtive Satan-worshippers or claiming that hundreds of millions of Asian people were going to die fighting for the godless Russians in World War III (which, by the way, is a biblically-informed prediction he made THIS freakin’ month.) He lived life on his own terms and made money on his own terms, and he didn’t feel nary a shred of pity about either. Needless to say, the world could use more gloriously unabashed folks like JVI, ESPECIALLY in the increasingly effete sphere of modern-day televangelism.

Yes, as an atheist myself, it does feel a little iffy penning such a flowery tribute to a man who would undoubtedly call me an unholy sodomite to my face, but hey, at least somebody’s using their First Amendment rights they way they were designed. And having watched hours and hours of pro-evangelical agitprop over the years — i.e., the kinds of videos and books that blame Final Fantasy for turning kids into Satanic spree killers and He-Man being a slippery slope into homosexual nihilism — I’ve kinda’ made the bizarre realization that, while guys like JVI may have gotten the hard facts wrong, they were nevertheless unintentionally right about the impact of mass media and pop culture and identity politics as a secularizing cudgel. Aye, going back and listening to Jack’s spiels against rock music and My Two Dads from the late 1980s, I can’t help but feel a certain sense of eerie prescience. Even way back then he was trying to warn us that the false idols of consumerism, globalism and internationalism were going to steal our souls, and had we been just a tad more defensive back then, maybe we wouldn’t be living in a cultural milieu where an anti-capitalism, pro-open borders version of Saved By The Bell starring a transgender Zack Morris is an actual thing.

All I know is that, in the future, there will be no more Jack Van Impes. And for that reason alone, we ought to be thankful we got one that wasn’t afraid to be precisely that for damn near nine centuries — and with it, plenty of VHS content to relive and revere as we continue headlong down the dark, dank road to post-post-post-postmodernism.


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