SAN NARCISO, Calif. (Bennington Vale Evening Transcript) -- Sad news in the entertainment world today as the Westboro Baptist Church confirmed the death of brilliant and successful long-form satirist Rev. Fred Phelps, who passed away at the age of 84. Most people knew Phelps as the ferociously anti-gay preacher who drew almost universal scorn for staging protests of military and celebrity funerals as a way of demonstrating God’s wrath for the world’s tolerance of homosexuality. He was remembered fondly by other long-form satirists such as Stephen Colbert, Kanye West, Alan Moore and Andy Kaufman, the pioneer of the genre, for his dedication and commitment to the craft. Speaking from his dressing room in character as Tony Clifton, an insulting lounge singer, Kaufman described Phelps as “the best of us. Nobody, myself included, managed to stay in character so passionately and for so long.”
Phelps Beats Kaufman’s Record for Longest Hoax
Kaufman, who faked his own death 29 years ago, was exposed in November 2013 by his daughter. Friends revealed that Kaufman, a consummate hoaxster, was obsessed with the idea of faking his death. He had a history of disappearing for long periods of time and re-emerging in other personas, such as Clifton. During his wrestling career, Kaufman assumed a bellicose alter ego who became embroiled in bitter public feuds with Jerry “The King” Lawler. This ongoing charade was also eventually revealed as a hoax.
Kaufman’s daughter claimed that her father had not died but had instead orchestrated the longest running hoax to date. On Thursday, Kaufman himself admitted defeat and handed his crown over to Phelps.
“I came up shy of 30 years, and I’m proud of my accomplishments. But Freddie? He’s the real master,” the storied comedian said, a faint smile of admiration on his lips. “That guy pulled off one of the most reviled and despised villains in popular culture for over half a decade. You win, Fred. Well done, sir.”
Fans of satire agree. While other practitioners of the art have cultivated considerable adoration for their work, none have rivaled the theatrics of Phelps.
Stephen Colbert’s immensely popular character, a myopic conservative patterned from the cloth of Bill O’Reilly, is a meticulously crafted parody, but Colbert’s doppelganger maintains a discernible air of transparency. Viewers understand that he is mocking the very personality he portrays. Alan Moore’s psychotic and eerily androgynous wizard, a sort of composite character cobbled together from Hannibal Lecter and Gandalf, tends to be overlooked by fans who forgive him his eccentricities so long as he continues to publish literate and politically savvy comics for grown people. And Kanye is only now coming into his own. The paparazzi-beating and Kardashian-loving Mandela of rap admits that his character remains in various stages of development.
The Westboro Players’ Greatest Hits
“Phelps started as a civil rights lawyer,” Kaufman noted. “He was a Democrat. He was once honored by the NAACP. Then he was disbarred. He must have realized then that society doesn’t cherish equality and civil rights the way it purports to. So he invented a character utterly vile and disgusting to embody all the hypocrisy and hate around him. It’s no wonder he chose the guise of a preacher. The church’s refusal to embrace all people equally has been a hallmark of double standards. So Fred’s reverend character exaggerates that stance, but to heights almost unimaginable.”
In many ways, Phelps achieved his goals. And in some instances, his targets came close to piercing the veil and uncovering the mechanisms of his illusions during the prestige.
In December 2010, Westboro Baptist Church posted on its website that its members would go to Archbishop Ryan and Father Judge High Schools in Philadelphia to provide the “demon-possessed brats” with “no knowledge of the Bible” there an understanding of God. A member of the church told reporters, “Our group is going to show the children at this school some truth for probably the only time in their lives.”
Despite the potential disruption the protest would cause, officials at Archbishop Ryan said they welcomed the demonstrators. “We actually agree with Westboro Baptist. Having these lunatics at the school would certainly show our students some truth. And the truth is, according to Genesis, that ‘the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth.’ We feel that once the children see the true face of the Beast sneering at them from the Westboro congregation, it will be a lot easier to convince them to follow in Christ’s footsteps. We thank Reverend Phelps for this educational opportunity.”
Other times, Westboro insiders explained, Phelps’ screeds were so ridiculous and inane he expressed disappointment that the jokes eluded their audiences.
Of Michelle Obama’s efforts to foster healthier lifestyles and eating habits in the nation’s youth, Phelps fired back:
Prolonging the inevitable through “healthy living” is just giving the Lord the middle finger, right in His holy pooper.
When preparing his protests for Elizabeth Edward’s funeral, Phelps boiled down his “disdain” for the humanitarian with a playful revision of his famous “God Hates Fags” slogan:
The message of Elizabeth Edwards is an affront to God-fearing Christians and an aberration to her maker. This diseased and demonic modern-day Lilith advocates universal health care and women’s rights. This is dangerous rhetoric. First of all, medical science defies the intent of God, just as much as gay, drug-fueled sodomy does. Ask Ted Haggard. And if God strikes you ill with something like cancer, it’s because He wants you off His earth. Why? If you’re Elizabeth Edwards, maybe it’s because you refused to clean the house or satisfy your husband. And then there’s all this women’s liberation claptrap. Had Eve not eaten the apple, had she displayed an ounce of integrity or smarts enough to know her place under man, the human race would not be condemned as it is now. But no, she pestered and prodded poor Adam into sin. I guess my point is that God Hates Nags.
When Elizabeth Taylor passed away in 2011, Phelps held demonstrations at the funeral to attack Hollywood for giving safe harbor to the LGBT community, summarizing his message with “God Hates SAG.”
Perhaps the most bizarre show the Westboro Baptist Players staged took place last April, a month fabled for its countless tricks and hoaxes. The Almighty’s constant gardeners, who root out the sinful weeds of homosexuality wherever they take hold, announced the launch of their most audacious protest yet -- forming a professional basketball team.
“There was a time in my life when I foolishly thought basketball was a lot like Iran -- a devout but belligerent realm devoid of gays,” Rev. Phelps wrote. “And with all the blacks in the sport, probably Islamic too.”
Despite admitting his initial ignorance in this presumption, Phelps confessed that the sport had always unsettled him, referencing the “womanish” nature of a game in which participants “mince about a school gymnasium, scantily clad in tank tops, short shorts and designer footwear, handling one another’s balls.”
“The NBA is a mockery of America’s grandeur and God’s patience,” Phelps stated on his website. “Lest we forget, this is the house of cards Dennis Rodman built and then defecated on with his transvestism and outlandish gender-bending antics. He perverted an American institution by turning it into a David Bowie concert without music. Then Mrs. Rodman went to befriend our enemies in North Korea, defecating on America itself. So apparently, basketball is the sport of scat queens and traitors.”
“I think I must have one of those faces you can’t help believing” -- Norman Bates
In private life, Phelps was described as a soft-spoken man who loved cats and footie pajamas. He was openly bi-sexual among those in his inner circle and harbored a fondness for interracial group sex and a curious little diversion he called the Lemon Squeezer Choke and Release, a possible variant of autoerotic asphyxiation.
If Phelps failed as a satirist, he had only his subtly to blame. Toward the end of his life, he must have regretted that some people continued to look upon him as a champion for their hatreds instead of abandoning their prejudices in the face of such an abominable and loathsome display. But then, with the almost universal outpouring of derision heaped on Westboro Baptist, it’s safe to say that Phelps made his point by calling attention to the bigotry, hostility and open hypocrisy that sometimes festers beneath the rose of piety. Message received, Reverend Phelps.
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