The Curious Rise And Fall And Rise Of Prodigalsam
“But a lot of people have been very hurt by the Christian church, and in particular by Southern white Christians, which makes me super-sad.” – Samuel Rhodes aka prodigalsam.
The preacher from South Carolina sits down at his desk and starts writing. It matters little what words come out. Millions of people will see it anyway and, by law of averages, some will rush to his defense and call him a genius. The preacher from South Carolina is no good at writing and he probably knows this, but it does not matter. All that matters is that his audience gives him attention, and attention is his vice.
“If Channing Tatum doesn’t call his kids ‘Tatum tots,’” the preacher writes, referencing an American film star from Alabama, “then I’m not even sure what the point is anymore.” He posts this message on Twitter, a place where one hundred thousand people provide him with attention. Retweets immediately pour down. He hastily navigates to his Interactions tab. Twenty five new interactions. Over and over this happens, until it has happened a few thousand times. The entire process intoxicates him, each new interaction providing a tiny but noticeable hit of dopamine.
The preacher is Samuel Rhodes, and his messages are mostly one-liner jokes, the fastest mechanism for gaining attention on Twitter, and his jokes are mostly stolen. He knows this, though he refuses to properly admit it. Like the alcoholic who will drink a bottle of rubbing alcohol as willingly as a bottle of Glenlivet 25, Samuel Rhodes equally embraces positive and negative attention. To admit his ruse would be to remove himself from the public eye, and he cannot let that happen.
So the stealing continues, growing more egregious and more frequent. And Samuel Rhodes gets away with it for a time. He sporadically corresponds with a popular cast member of The Office and he flies to California. He adopts faux-humility about his rise to unearned prominence. He may be out in California, but he assures his fans that he consumes donuts as greedily as ever. His visibility has skyrocketed. He is the archetypical crooked Baptist preacher – speeding down the highway in a Cadillac. He is Jimmy Swaggart at a Travel Inn. His vice is unsustainable now.
Professional comedians quickly catch onto his racket and tell everyone, correctly, that Samuel Rhodes is a thief and a liar. It is irrelevant to them that Rhodes is not a comedian but a preacher with a bad habit. It is irrelevant that he reduces their jokes to useless Family Circus generalities, where the tooth of a well-placed “fuck this” is filed down into “dang it!” and all humor is lost. All that matters is that he is a fraud, and must be burned alive in the town square.
Rhodes enjoys the fire swirling around him. He is sick only for attention, so he sits back and takes perverse joy in the scandal. His name has been printed in Salon! He has even been attacked by Patton Oswalt. Rhodes takes so much joy in the Oswalt incident that he demands it be referenced somehow on his tombstone. “Call me wicked, Patton Oswalt,” he seems to cry. “Call me a sinner, Patton Oswalt. Call me a fucker, Patton Oswalt. Drag the river for my dignity, Patton Oswalt. Let me hear you say it.” He embraces hate as fully as adulation.
Eventually the negative feedback becomes so overwhelming that it bleeds over into Samuel Rhodes’ ministry, and he is forced to apologize, though he has no conviction when he does so. This is because he has no concept of comedy as a trade – he knows so little about it that he attributes a Steve Allen quote to Tig Notaro. He thinks he is like a youth group leader, playing “Don’t Stop Believing” at a campfire to warm up his makeshift congregation before a “My God Is An Awesome God” sing-along. He lies to himself that his jokes are a ministry tool, a righteous reappropriation and not theft. And so Samuel Rhodes goes away for awhile.
It is tempting to hate him because his online presence is so catastrophically terrible. Every day, another “HIPSTERS are a lot like DONUTS, because they’re OBSCURE…okay, I ate all the donuts, you guys” joke, three or four layers of directionless rephrasing removed from a Rob Delaney gag. It is tempting to hate the cold calculation, the lack of honesty and authenticity. Why not call him a hack, yell at him on Twitter until he blocks you, as he has thousands of others, and call it a day? A robot could write “what if, you guys, a cat was called Pablo Pi-Cat-So, you guys” and the robot would not be hated. And of course all people are liars on some level. Why not sigh and shrug and get on with our lives? Why not look away?
The answer lies with the closest peer Samuel Rhodes has: Jimmy Swaggart. They are both preachers with pathologies. They tell people how to live, and claim moral high ground, but when eyes turn away, they stagger into darkness, and it is impossible to look away from such wanton self-destruction. Swaggart’s darkness was highway-side motels and prostitutes. He got away with it for years, but he was found out, and he confessed. And then he waited awhile, and he found himself in the California desert, and he found another prostitute. And he confessed again, and he was back again.
And just as Jimmy Swaggart had his prostitutes, Samuel Rhodes has his joke theft. As I write this, he is back on Twitter after a long hiatus. He appears apologetic, but it is clear from his apology that the preacher from South Carolina has learned nothing. And he is engaging in his old vices. He is a slow-motion trainwreck, unable to abstain from self-destruction, and it is nearly impossible to look away. Fairly soon, it stands to reason, Samuel Rhodes will be caught again, and he’ll confess again, and he’ll be back again.