Film

Faith's Freak Show

Bill Gibron
Tammy Faye Bakker interviews Mickey Rooney

Religious programming has produced a lot of laughable content. But none more hilariously horrible than PTL's House Party; a no-talent treat starring the station's indomitable drag drone, Tammy Faye Bakker.

Religion regularly gets it right in the chops, and usually it is its own fist doing the damage. Ever since Sermonette, when preachers simultaneously discovered the power of prayer -- and the public airwaves -- shilling for the Lord became more than just a calling. Broadcast beatitudes were seen as a way to open up the Word to millions of avid viewers, while tapping into an untold amount of uncollected tithes and undetermined donations sitting in suckers' wallets and purses. It didn't take long for the unethical and fraudulent to rise to the top like the clotted cream of the cloth they are, and within a few short years, the stereotypical tent revival thief was replaced by the smooth talking Pastor with a sign-off sales pitch.

Sometime during the '60s, the notion of creating an entire channel committed to the pious (and the payments potentially derived there from) gained a satellite signal sidekick. Soon, cable was a co-conspirator in the mad grab for God's cash. Balanced precariously between evangelism as entertainment and Jesus as a born-again brand name, these programmers of praise used the parameters of the boob tube as a 24-hour cathedral, offering prayer, praise, and possible salvation -- all for just the smallest of charitable contributions. Many of the original TV preachers screwed the pooch before really raking in the righteous. They didn't understand that people only tolerate the promise of an amiable afterlife for so long. After a while, even with the possibility of eternal happiness in paradise wagged in front of their face, they grew restless for something to show now for their outlay of sanctified scratch.

During this initial era, a collection of competing ministries played Biblical Battleship for the corporate confidence of the devotional dollar. On one side was the Christian Broadcasting Network, or CBN, and its legendary 700 Club, Pat Robertson's personal philosophical and political bully pulpit. Begun as a telethon to raise funds in 1964 (the network was founded in 1961), the name was derived from the original operating expenses of the channel. Robertson promised that a "club of 700" people, each giving $10, could keep the station solvent ($7000? Seems a stretch even at mid-'60s exchange rates). Realizing how dependable such a format could be, the now famous show maintained it's dialing for deified dollars for years to come.

And then there was Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. A one-time employee of Robertson, Bakker met his wife while they were in college -- Bible College, naturally. She was a singer and a puppeteer; he had the wonderful word of God on his side. After his stint at CBN, Bakker was determined to start his own televisual dynasty. Unlike the 700 Club, which could be as dry as the Sinai Desert, the newly named Trinity Broadcasting System and its signature show, The PTL Club (an anonym for "Praise the Lord" or "People that Love", take your pick) wanted to mix the Good Book with good times. For Jim and Tammy the medium was not the Messiah, the Messiah was the medium. By turning Christ into a commodity, as well as part of the amusement overview of the network, the Bakkers believed they would win the worship wars.

They didn't at first. Indeed, the combination of psalms and showboating didn't go over well with anyone other than the most deliriously devout. Then, in the late '70s, the Bakkers got an idea. If heathens had their own vacation hot spots, like Disney Land, Disney World, and Plato's Retreat, why shouldn't the Christians have their own land of faith and fantasy? Buying up a couple thousand acres in Fort Mill, South Carolina, and dubbing the property Heritage USA, the Son of Man finally had his own themed amusement park. Consisting of hotels, time-share condominiums, a Main Street like shopping area, and the usual carnival amenities — carousel, go-karts — the property also housed the PTL studios. It was here that the channel's television shows were taped before more and more rapturous crowds. It was also here where one of the network's most classic bits of crassness was created: Tammy's House Party.

For most of its life, the original PTL Club was a combination of preaching, performances, and personal testimonials. Individuals would come on the show, the Bakkers would interview them, darkest hours and deepest torments were touched upon, and then tears would flow freely as Jesus received his mandatory name-check. Tammy's weeping would later become her trademark, as the layers of pancake make-up cum greasepaint she wore would smear and streak down her chipmunk like cheeks. So when the show turned into a daily pitch for more and more "members" — along with a promise that every contributor would get three days, free, in the main Heritage USA accommodations — Jim needed to find an outlet for Tammy's talents. House Party was the answer.

Imagine Rosie O'Donnell as an ultraconservative crackpot who offered no real discernible talent, but had a perky peaches and cream time proving it. That's the Tammy Faye Bakker of the House Party program. As a crying machine for her husband's histrionics, she was perfect. When she wasn't crying, she was the perfect stoic wife, always standing by her good, God-fearing man. But on her own, Tammy was an afternoon talk show atrocity waiting to implode, which usually happened everyday around 4PM. Primarily known for her quavering croon, Bakker would usually begin each episode by favoring the enthusiastic crowd with a rendition of one of her signature tunes. Once she shrieked through "Don't Give Up (You're on the Brink of a Miracle)" or "We're Blessed", she would then introduce her first guest -- usually some sad sack with a sorry story of shame and salvation, the past, pat problems always instantly cured by coming to Christ.

After the gushing and the glorifying, it was time for more 'entertainment'. This would usually consistent of some famed Christian music act, or a real fan favorite: the Audience Talent showcase! Picking out people from the reserved rabble, Tammy would give them their 45 seconds of fame, often just to sing, dance, act, or tell religiously correct jokes. Sometimes, the performances were nothing more than a badly told anecdote. One woman even explained how, shockingly, she nearly dropped her dentures... in public. (Talk about risqué). At other times, extremely untalented locals would act out self-penned monologues about discovering God's grace or making peanut butter and pepperoni pizza. And standing on the sidelines like the Bakker barker of her own frequency freak show, Tammy tried to take it all in. Her beautifully blank stare, a combination of religious rapture and entertainment retardation, was a joy to behold.

One of the reasons why Tammy's House Party was so miserably marvelous was that its host hadn't a clue about putting together a daily variety hour. Her Q&As quite frequently turned into 'Tammy Time', where Bakker would regale everyone with stories about herself, her puppets Suzy Moppet and Ollie Alligator, and how she got started in the Bible business. Other times, her audience would trick and test her. During one memorable moment, a Central American woman named Elvira DeJanay came up for the talent segment, and proceeding to imitate wounded Rhesus monkeys as she allegedly 'sang' a version of "The Lord's Prayer". For several insufferable minutes, Tammy simply stood by, her atonal ears able to recognize, as least this time, that her guest was God... awful. When she finally finished, Ms. Bakker pretended to praise her guest's voice and asked about her origins. "I am from the People of the Panama Canal Zone" Elvira volunteered, to which an intrigued Tammy said, "Oh, are they here today?" Imagine the host's surprise when, while looking out past the spotlights and into the audience, Elvira said "NO! Just me."

House Party had hundreds of these awkward rewards: old men making Christian cow-eyes at the clown-faced host while she bunny-hugged them; embarrassed guests like Hee Haw's Lulu Roman having to explain to Tammy, over and over again, that candy could, indeed, be made out of mashed potatoes; little children breaking eardrums with their vile version of songcraft; the list goes on and on. Whether it was churning ice cream (a greedy glutton, Tammy had to try any treat -- sometimes well before it was ready for human consumption) or belting out a Bible ballad, Bakker's bumbling was good natured and naive. Even as her husband's empire came crashing down around her, Tammy tried to maintain that solid spousal front. During some incredibly dire moments, she would even cart out her uncomfortable, awkward kids to try and show that, while all around her was sin and scandal, she was still a good mother, and a decent, determined woman of God.

Of course, Jessica Hahn and the conniving of Jerry Falwell finally saw that PTL profited no more. The government ganged up on the Bakkers and invalidated their tax-free status. Heritage USA was sold, and then scuttled, remaining vacant until recently, when parts were sold off to developers and other interests. Tammy suffered the slings and arrows of pursued public scorn. She was simultaneously an accomplice in her husband's con and a bystander too dumb to be anything but innocent. Yet like so many of our greatest anomalies of artifice, she endured, becoming a kind of kitsch icon, thanks in no small part to various comedic impersonations, an open view on homosexuality, and a delightful documentary entitled The Eyes of Tammy Faye.

Sadly, lost among the voluminous signals sent out by the one powerful network, was all the PTL programming. Tammy's House Party is, today, nothing more than a fond, friendly memory for those whom the Bakkers touched... in the righteous way, that is. While post-millennial programming like former Growing Pains star Kirk Cameron's The Way of the Master or the buffoonish Bibleman (which was, at one time, Eight is Enough star Willie Ames featured gig) is good for a laughable lark, no one can top Tammy and her hilarious house party. It's just another example of religion taking a beating, again by those supposedly compelled to protect it.

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