Jack Rebney didn’t need YouTube to become famous. Long before the act of sharing a hilarious video was just a copied-and-pasted link away, Rebney had a viral video that caught fire, passed around on VHS dubs over and over until the image was almost degraded beyond recognition.
And when YouTube did come along, the unwittingly gut-busting Rebney had an even wider audience to scream at. Who is this man? You might know him better as “The Angriest Man in the World” or perhaps, just “Winnebago Man.”
If that doesn’t ring a bell, you’re already behind in the game and should probably travel over to YouTube for a remedial course.
The rest of us know Rebney as the livid, foul-mouthed personality just unfortunate enough to have to star in an ’80s industrial video for Winnebago Industries. With every gaffe comes a string of expletives, non-sequiturs and another step in one of the funniest meltdowns ever recorded on camera. When the shoot’s crew realized what a live wire Rebney was, they just kept the camera rolling between takes and later assembled the collection of outtakes that’s racked up millions of views.
Austin-based filmmaker Ben Steinbauer’s documentary Winnebago Man fills in the gaps that a five-minute video fails to explain. At first, Steinbauer is completely unable to locate Rebney, with scant traces of information on the Internet not leading him anywhere. The film flounders a little in this first act, unsure of whether to focus on the phenomenon of (often unwanted) web popularity or the pseudo-detective work that Steinbauer does to find Rebney.
But once the filmmaker locates him, living on a mountaintop in northern California, the documentary hits its stride, lit up by the personality of Rebney that certainly jibes with his Web persona — caustic, crass and absolutely hilarious. After an initial period where Rebney pretends to be just a docile old man, the truth comes out — he’s not all that thrilled by the video, which he feels makes him look like a fool.
What follows is a redemption story of sorts. Steinbauer pushes past Rebney’s reluctance to reveal much about himself to discover a former journalist for CBS News, who quit when he felt the network sold out to corporate interests. He doesn’t understand why so many people would care about a decades-old video in which he simply curses a lot.
But Steinbauer, with the help of one of Rebney’s old friends, helps him see why, with the film culminating in a visit to a Found Footage screening in San Francisco, where the Winnebago Man video will be on the docket.
Afterward, Rebney answers questions from the audience in a moment that represents a paradigm shift for both Rebney and the crowd. For the audience, they discover a man who’s not just a cartoonish ball of rage, but an intelligent and sharp man. For Rebney, he finds that the video brings joy into people’s lives. It’s a wonderful moment, as Rebney lets down his guard to speak to and take photos with many of the audience members.
Winnebago Man is incredibly funny — and one expects it to be — but it’s also quite moving in a way that one might not see coming. It’s a potent reminder that the figures who achieve fame — whether lasting or just 15 minutes worth — aren’t just personalities trapped inside our TV or computer screen. They’re living, breathing human beings, and the film gives us quite a portrait of the living, breathing Jack Rebney.
The DVD includes footage from the film’s theatrical premiere in New York City, where Michael Moore and Jeff Garlin introduce the film and Rebney answers more questions afterward. The completed 25-minute Winnebago sales video is also included, for those who want to see what all the blood, sweat, tears and cursing ultimately accomplished.