I have to admit that as much time as I spend on the Internet, I’d never before run across Winnebago Man, the dubious star of a viral YouTube video. The video, seen by millions features a middle-aged guy with a TV broadcaster voice doing (or rather trying to do) a marketing piece for Winnebago back in 1989. His name is Jack Rebney.
Taping the marketing video in blistering Iowa heat mid summer, our Winnebago man got easily frustrated with everything from forgetting his lines to the inevitable Iowa flies to the film crew— even the vehicle itself. His frustration emerged in colorful streams of seemingly non-stop swearing:
His film crew caught and kept these rant-ridden outtakes, which eventually—after years pre-YouTube sharing—went viral on the Internet. More than four million have visited, laughed at—and with—him through the years. Quotations from Rebney’s colorful language have made it into films, commercials, and television characters’ mouths. And maybe that’s because the “outtakes” from an ordinary, but frustrating, shoot ring so true to people inside the business of making the media we all watch.
Filmmaker Ben Steinbauer became intrigued with the video and wanted to know more about the man with the colorful tongue, bad temper and irritation with just about everything. Perhaps intrigued is a less accurate word than “obsessed.”
I confess that when I first heard the title Winnebago Man, I imagined a comedy with Danny DeVito or maybe Chevy Chase about a summertime trip across the country in, you know, a Winnebago recreational vehicle. I would have passed it up entirely, since such fare is not my usual cup of tea, but we read a little further and decided to give it a try.
Steinbauer’s pursuit of Rebney leads him to the mountains of Northern California, where the 76-year old viral star lives alone in a cabin. And what transpires over the course of two years and several visits between the young filmmaker and the older man makes for a fascinating documentary.
What Steinbauer does is break down the fourth wall of viral video, reach inside, and find the human being in front of the camera. We’ve all seen them (and laughed at them). Some are self-inflicted victims, recording themselves on webcam in acts that may have seemed funny (or brilliant) at the time, but that have only proven to render them ridiculous when viewed on screen. Some, like Rebney, are the unfortunate victims of another’s stealth taping activities.
But Rebney is in a special class. He’s a cult figure and Internet legend—something he, himself, could not have imagined. And Steinbauer’s efforts to draw him out, make him aware—and even use the medium as a vehicle for his own message lead us through an interesting tale—and one that I won’t spoil.
Winnebago Man is not a long film—not quite an hour and a half. But it’s time well spent, and a documentary that will stay with you the next time you visit YouTube.