American Odyssey, or Ding-Dong, It’s The Word

American Odyssey, or Ding-Dong, It’s The Word

Published April 2nd, 2024 by Carl Atiya Swanson

Sam Robertson’s quixotic illustrated Old Testament finds new life, weirdness, resonance, and community in the narrative podcast "Birth of a Salesman"


Sam Robertson would like to sell you a bible. At your door, if that’s where he finds you, but via bus bench advertisements, ads at the DMV, or his very real website, which may or may not have been made after a sleepover at his friend Dennis’s house.

The bible in question is the version of the Old Testament illustrated by Roberston over a seven year period of painting, and released by 11:11 Press in 2021. When Robertson spoke to MPLSART a few years ago, he was already planning to try selling door-to-door, and recording his efforts as part of the project. The result of another two years of work is now being released as the narrative podcast Birth of a Salesman, with the first two episodes out on April 2, and the final three once a week after that.

The bubbling weirdness, darkness, and optimism of America that marked the Old Testament paintings also threads its way through the Birth of a Salesman series. Brought to life in collaboration with musician, producer, and narrator Dan Dukich and an impressive assembled cast of actors, the five episode arc includes field recordings of Robertson at doors trying to explain his project and sell a $130 bible to understandably skeptical strangers, spliced with narrative development, running gags, and engaging characters. The scripted characters tend to be avatars for aspects of the American Dream, like the marketing guru Cody Maloney, or the individualist fisherman Doug Knuckles; or aspirational visions of collective support like the aforementioned part-time pizza shop employee turned web designer Dennis, or the altruistic bike mechanic Tanya.


Top: This bible could be yours for the low, low price of $130. Bottom: Sam Robertson (left) and podcast co-creater Dan Dukich. Photo courtesy of the artist.


If those characters sound broad, even silly, that’s part of the point. In tone, Birth of a Salesman lives somewhere between the dorky earnestness of Napoleon Dynamite, the midwestern ASMR of Old Time Hawkey, and the satirical American Odyssey of O Brother, Where Art Thou? Robertson, playing himself, is buffeted between inspiration and rejection, looking for hope and something to hold onto while trying to make sense of how a creative act fits into this world. As Dukich’s voiceover puts it towards the end of the first episode, “Sam's out here, in the harsh world, vulnerable and exposed, naked except for the fancy brown suit from the '70s or '80s, which adorns his entire body. And in this infantile state, any interactions with strangers, even the ones that aren't noteworthy at all, seem to act as rudders, steering him in unforeseen directions on the sloppy seas. Can you remember any time that a small interaction with a stranger has completely changed the course of your life?”

“Sloppy seas” and the Odyssey feel like an appropriate touchpoint, given that Odysseus’s ten year sojourn mirrors the time commitment that Robertson has put into this project. In conversation with MPLSART, Robertson shared about those interactions that have shaped the artistic process that are reflected in the podcast's narrative arc. “There's benefits to working by yourself. But that took me seven years to work by myself. And there was more loneliness in that,” Robertson says. “And then this is a collaboration with actors, friends, but then also the world by going door to door. And even if they're confused or unhappy about the experience, it's still food for thought. I don't think anyone was that unhappy, but there's the potential for that with this project, you know? But I think it feels like a net positive to me, just collaborating with the world.”


Top: Behind the scenes, Robertson recording audio with one of the podcast's voice actors. Middle: Robertson going door to door to spread his Good Word. Bottom: The salesman keeps up his energy while waiting for the bus across from A Baker's Wife. Photos courtesy of the artist.


Out in the world, Birth of a Salesman is a literal reference to Robertson’s creative journey over the podcast series, but also positions the work between Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman and D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation. Those are both darker references than the tone of the podcast, with their takes on the failings of the American Dream, and a Christian nationalist vision of the country. Although the podcast doesn’t tackle this heart of darkness head on, Robertson is not unaware of the implication. “[The Old Testament's] words have been traded on for taking land and murdering whole populations of people, and that led us to this place of hyper-consumerism and heavily commodified landscape, and this book that's one of the roots of all of it, like the end game for it and this kind of society of consuming each other,” Robertson notes. “And then this kind of bumbling, naive salesman in the show, me, is just going around 50 years after the day of bible sales just trying to get his piece of the pie.”

Not to be outdone by the absurdity of the podcast, the real world has found ways to be stranger and more vicious than art, since last week former president and noted unrepentant sinner Donald Trump endorsed the God Bless the USA bible, and is hawking it for $59.99. Trump’s bible does not include whimsical and satirical paintings, but rather the King James Version text as well as the Declaration of Independence, the Pledge of Allegiance, Constitution, and other formative American documents, hammering home the Sinclair Lewis quote about fascism in America arriving “wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross." Coming later in the series, cutthroat bible salesmen and corrupted power do come into play as part of nefarious foes and tribulations faced by Robertson, calling back to John Goodman’s gluttonous, bible-selling Big John Teague/Cyclops from O Brother.

This cynical reality shades the experience of listening to Birth of a Salesman but also makes it feel more endearing and hopeful. Through his journey and conversations, Robertson lands on the goals of selling 250,000 copies of his illustrated tome, and getting the Vatican to buy all 257 paintings for one million dollars, but more importantly, the goal of making human connections and understanding the meaning behind why we choose to make creative work. As the character Sam puts it in a fit of rapturous inspiration during the second episode, “I mean, if I pull this off, I think I just might be able to drag America out of its place of rapid, tragic decline before it completely devours itself and takes the whole world down with it.” Odysseus always hoped to return to Ithaca, and the naïveté, goofy humor, and aspirational open-heartedness of Robertson make you hope he gets home safe, too. ◼︎ 


"Birth of a Salesman" — available wherever you download podcasts.

To learn more about Sam Robertson, his illustrated Old Testament, and this podcast, visit, or follow him on Instagram @samrobertsonart.

Banner image courtesy of the artist's website.

This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund. 

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