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About two decades ago, Jack Rebney filmed a Winnebago commercial that would change the world of viral video forever. In the punishing heat of an Iowa summer, Rebney’s two-week Winnebago shoot made Rebney extremely irritable, which consequently made the entire video crew miserable. In fact, the crew got so incensed with Rebney’s oppressive treatment that they made a blooper reel of the shoot, which was then unleashed upon the world. The video shows middle-aged Rebney screaming profanities and other nonsensical statements. It is, in a word, remarkable. In the years before internet video, this reel was passed around from person to person using VHS tapes, but since the advent of Youtube, the clip has been seen by over 1 million people online. I could continue describing how funny it is, but instead, here it is for your viewing pleasure [Warning: THIS VIDEO IS EXTREMELY NSFW]:

Director Ben Steinbauer’s hilarious and powerful new documentary, Winnebago Man, asks the universal question that many of us have probably wondered about: What happens to people like Aleksey Vayner and Ghyslain Raza after they became viral video sensations? Steinbauer was fascinated with Rebney’s video and became determined to track him down to find out how the video had changed his life, if at all. Along the way, he interviews people involved with the actual Winnebago shoot depicted in the video to find out exactly what happened that fateful summer that resulted in the creation of the blooper reel (the dissemination of the reel resulted in Rebney being fired). He also talks with people who have enjoyed Rebney’s video; if you’ve seen the video yourself, you know that there’s something cathartic, even therapeutic, about watching an old man completely lose his shit. In watching the film, I got the sense that there’s also something a little bit profound about sharing that experience with millions of other anonymous viewers out there in the world.

Winnebago Man contains a brief, smart analysis on the appeal of viral videos. Why are we able to laugh at a video of a woman falling off a table and injuring herself? One large reason is that these videos are context-less: We don’t know who the people involved and we don’t know what happened before or after the clip was filmed. This mystique allows us to revel in seeing others humiliated and injured. But while internet videos can be, in some ways, dehumanizing, they also allow us to entertain others through our foibles, our flubs, our almost-fatal injuries.

Steinbauer eventually locates Rebney and meets with him a few times to chat with him about the extent of his internet fame. It’s hard to explain exactly what makes Steinbauer’s film entertaining and moving without giving away spoiler-y details about these meetings, but suffice it to say, Rebney, as a personality, does not disappoint. What emerges from the film is a nuanced, funny, touching profile of a cantankerous old man, who just happens to have entertained millions with some random swearing a couple decades ago.

Steinbauer has put together an insightful documentary that does what any great documentary does: While illuminating the life and circumstances of another person, it also makes us examine ourselves a little bit more closely. In making this film, Steinbauer has gotten to the core of what makes videos like Jack Rebeney’s funny, but he also unexpectedly speaks to that part in each of us that derives fulfillment from knowing that we’ve entertained and touched the lives of others. In the end, it seems, there might be a little bit of Jack Rebney’s spirit in all of us.

I had the opportunity to speak with Ben Steinbauer after his film screened at Independent Film Festival Boston. We talked about why, out of all topics, he decided to make a film about Rebney, and what he had to go through to get it completed. You can download the interview by clicking here or listen to it in your browser below:

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David Chen can be reached at davechensemail(AT)gmail(DOT)com. You can also follow his updates on Twitter or Tumblr.

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