For two weeks in August of 1988, a Winnebago salesman by the name of Jack Rebney gathered in the Iowa outdoors with a small crew to star in a clip promoting the Itasca Sunflyer RV. Facing extreme heat throughout and besieged by flies, Rebney repeatedly erupted in a series of profanity-laced tirades that would appear on the underground VHS tape trading circuit as a brief compilation known as “Winnebago Man.” With the advent of YouTube the clip’s popularity skyrocketed, receiving more than 20 million hits worldwide and making a cult celebrity of Rebney, who would come to be known as “The Angriest RV Salesman in the world.”
Austin, Texas-based filmmaker Ben Steinbauer, curious to find out what kind of impact this accidental celebrity was having on Rebney, set out to find the seemingly reclusive “star”―of which there seemed to be next to no trace in cyberspace. Steinbauer’s search for Rebney (and what he found) became the subject of a documentary entitled, naturally enough, Winnebago Man (view the trailer here). In advance of the DVD release (pre-order it here), the film screens tonight and tomorrow night at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago in addition to appearing at several other venues across North America, see the film’s site for cities and dates.
The film’s pursuit of Rebney takes it far beyond the laughs to be found in the original clip (which is liberally sampled throughout the movie). Not only does it investigate the effect that such accidental ― and most often unwanted ― celebrity has upon those that it happens to, the film also explores the very nature of communication in the modern world. When Steinbauer (SPOILER ALERT) finds Rebney and ultimately brings him face to face with the audiences that have made the clip such a sensation, Jack undergoes a transformation from being uncomprehending and bitter towards his fame to finding kinship with his fans and embracing his celebrity as an opportunity to promote his passionately held political views (his treatise, “Jousting with the Myth,” will be published electronically in the coming months).
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Steinbauer about the film, the issues it raises, and of course, about Jack Rebney.
FACETS: I’m struck by how much the film is a product of our times. Not only was the inspiration behind it engendered by today’s communication and information technologies, but in making and promoting the film you’ve used those same technologies as well.
BEN STEINBAUER: It’s been one of those things that’s a little bit larger than the sum of its parts in that way. A lot of people say, “You were so smart to make something that’s got 20 million built-in viewers,” but I really came at it just as an interested fan looking to investigate this idea of unintended celebrity or unwanted notoriety through this really interesting lens that happened to be the star of my favorite viral video. I wish I could say I was smart enough to think along those lines, but really I was a fan and personally connected and interested in the material.
FACETS: While the film is intrinsically linked with all these modern technologies, it’s interesting that it’s been able to get a healthy kind of “old school” theatrical interest.
BEN: It’s been a challenge to get people to go the theater, because I think they perceive that because it’s about something on YouTube that they can see it on YouTube, or that it’s not necessarily something that needs to be seen in the theater. But it’s also been really gratifying when we do get people out to the theater because it’s very much a communal experience, it’s really heightened by seeing it in a group. It’s so funny and it’s really poignant and I think that all the emotions that it hopefully brings up in the viewer are magnified or amplified if you see it with a group. It’s kind of a cliché that all filmmakers think all their films need to be released theatrically, and especially first-time feature filmmakers. I was not one of those, I didn’t necessarily think this had to be in theaters, but once we premiered at SXSW and we had the experience of watching it with over 800 people at a screening, the producers and I thought it would be a real shame if people don’t get to see this in a group. So I’m glad that we chose to go that route, and it’s been really great.
FACETS: Are screenings going to continue past the DVD release?
BEN: Yes, we’re doing a bunch of college screenings and art museums, and repertory theaters – I think I’m going to go a lot of these and do Q&As.
FACETS: I think that the film is kind of a Trojan horse in a sense because I’m sure that the overwhelming majority of people who see it come for the comic angle, and then once they are there they get all of these other things as well – for example the ethics of spreading these types of clips – and they end up taking away a lot more.
BEN: I definitely was very aware in making this film that I didn’t want to pass judgment on whether or not these clips were good or bad or we should or shouldn’t watch them. I mean, I love the “Winnebago Man” clip, I’ve seen it thousands of times, and I love the Larry Williams clip and the Star Wars Kid and I think those are the things that warrant repeat viewing and passing around and showing to people. I think that most of the time the stuff that gets through, [and] lasts past kind of its initial run, resonates on some universal level. And this technology – this type of “entertainment,” I guess, for lack of a better word – it’s brand new. YouTube has been around 5 years, which is startling to realize and before that there certainly there were these tapes like “Winnebago Man” that were traded hand-to-hand, things like the Steve Vai tape and the Star Wars Christmas special and stuff that was like hard-to-find, strange YouTube-style clips.
FACETS: Though it was an audio tape, the Casey Kasem outtakes were always a favorite of mine.
BEN: Yeah, exactly, a perfect example. There was a lot less of that stuff and now that there’s so much more of it, I think it’s good for people to realize that the desire to watch that type of material has been around before the technology. Today they investigate where that desire comes from and how it affects the people that star in it. I think it’s a very contemporary question and one that I don’t think has an answer because again the technology is so new and it’s only accelerating. That type of material is just being generated more and more and more, to the point where people are getting their own television shows like that Kid Fred, or Chris Crocker, or obviously Justin Bieber. So we’re also finding new celebrities this way, which is a totally unusual thing.
FACETS: Going back to the ethical question, in the film you talk about when dissemination of these clips becomes “cyberbullying.” I‘m sure you must have taken note of the recent suicide of the Rutgers student.
BEN: Oh absolutely.
FACETS: So while no one in the movie was affected to that extent, that’s obviously the most extreme example of what can happen.
BEN: That kind of stuff is tragic. The Star Wars Kid went to that psychiatric hospital when he was 15 because of this type of notoriety. I don’t know what to say about that, I think that’s definitely an unintended outcome of this new type of technology. I was really interested in investigating all sides of that as much as possible. With Jack’s stuff in particular, I realized in the preproduction research that I had done that this type of notoriety is very harmful for people. When I found the boat posting online that hinted at the fact that Jack was trying to live off the mainland and away from society, I thought it was because he was scarred. It sounds very naïve in hindsight to recount, but I really just wanted him to understand that this clip – for everyone I knew that who was a fan of it – was like a comedy record. It was like this great comedy bit, a standup routine that people just adored. And it wasn’t because we thought he was a jerk or we were laughing at him or anything, it was that we really got a lot of joy out of his performance. I thought that were he to see that, he would be able to find some satisfaction and not be embarrassed by it.
FACETS: It does seem that one of the main things that’s led him to have an acceptance or appreciation of this new platform that he has was meeting his fans and feeling like they were on the same wavelength.
BEN: Absolutely, I think that shot towards the end of the film, the close-up on Jack’s face when he’s in the theater listening to the audience laugh at the original clip, I think that moment for me is almost the point of the movie. He’s understanding that these people really appreciate him and it’s much more complicated than just laughing at or laughing with, there’s a genuine appreciation and enjoyment and a kind of relating to him as a person. They’ve all been there, we’ve all been frustrated, and everybody appreciates how well he’s expressing his frustration. I do absolutely think that meeting his audience and his fans has changed his outlook on things.
FACETS: A lot of people in the film do speak of the clip’s cathartic effect.
BEN: Right, absolutely. It brightens people’s days and allows them to sort of vent and say things that they aren’t able to say in tense situations, it’s kind of like a pressure release valve or something. But it’s also again like a great standup record, it’s like one of those things you can return to and find new inspiration in, like the way they phrase the thing and he talks about his own mind. It’s really letting people into the difficulties he’s having that day in a way that is just gorgeous and very unique. It’s like he’s existentially commenting on his failure to perform and that’s very, very rare.
FACETS: That original clip makes me think of something a friend said to me a long time ago, that we all want to come across like Bugs Bunny – all calm, cool, and collected and always having the right answer for everything – but more often than not we just come off acting like Daffy Duck.
BEN: That’s interesting, I like that! Yeah, and in this at case I guess Jack comes off like the Tasmanian Devil and ends up looking like Mickey Mouse or something, I don’t know. Although I guess I shouldn’t mix my cartoon brands there, should I?
I don’t think Jack ever realized how many people were fans of the “Winnebago Man” outtakes clip, and didn’t think that anybody would necessarily watch the documentary based on that. And then the success of the documentary has kind of reawakened the popularity of the clip, or re-energized it, so more people are seeing the clip more than ever. And it also strangely worked to offer Jack this platform to address an audience that nobody intended. I didn’t think that would be the outcome of the movie, nor was I planning on that. And it’s been really great in that way that it’s organically happened, because I think if we had set out for me to be a character in it and for me to have this relationship with Jack and to introduce him to the audience of people so he can then release his book…If all that stuff would have been in our minds when we were making it, I think we would have come across as contrived or possibly corny, but it’s been really satisfying to have it happen organically and naturally.
FACETS: So do you think that he’s gotten over his hatred of that kind of technology now that it’s providing him with a platform for his viewpoints?
BEN: His funny thing that he says about Twitter is that it’s forcing all of our children to learn how to communicate in bips and bleeps and he’s worried for the English language. But I think in another way it’s partly tongue-in-cheek because that exact technology is the same thing that allowed me to basically meet him and make the film about him and us to generate an audience that wants to meet him and speak with him, so I think he understands his place within it but he’s still very skeptical of it.
He is amazing in that he’s a guy who almost presupposed the internet, which is a weird thing to say and let me explain. In the film, Keith [Jack’s longtime friend Keith Gordon, not to be confused with the actor] says Jack is this kind of a walking contradiction because he wants to be isolated and not have to deal with the outside world, but at the same time he wants to be able to address an audience and affect change. And at the time that Keith is referencing when Jack was expressing that desire, it’s the late 80s on to the 90s and it wasn’t possible to do that. But now it is technologically possible to, through your laptop or iPhone or whatever, be able to literally not see people all day long but still be able to address a group. I don’t know that there’s a direct connection there, but isn’t that interesting that a guy who has in some way always wanted that has become one of the cult figures of that type of technology?