7 words you can say on YouTube: Winnebago Man ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 7, 2010)

Many years ago, when I was working at my first radio job (OK, Gerald Ford was in the White House…happy now?) a fellow announcer pulled me aside one day, took me into the production room and revealed a dirty little secret. In those days, when we did our audio production, we would master onto reel-to-reel. Once you had a satisfying take, or had cut and pasted your session into that perfect 30 second commercial (using an actual razor blade and splicing tape), you would then transfer the audio onto a cart (sort of like an 8-track) that the DJs would then be able to play on the air.

Now, we would all use, and re-use, the same “work tapes” on the reel to reel. What my co-worker had been doing for some time was listening back to the previous jock’s raw production session, and saving some of the more amusing outtakes onto a blooper reel. I picked up on this, and over the years I would compile cassette collections of outtakes for the amusement of my friends.

More often than not, what made an outtake a “keeper” was the creative use of profanity and the degree of verbal self-abuse that perfectionists tend to heap upon themselves. And of course, there’s something intrinsically hilarious about listening to a dulcet-toned broadcast professional launching into a tirade that would make a Tourette’s sufferer blush, in perfectly metronomic pentameter. Over the years, I’ve heard (and said) it all myself-which is why I was somewhat ambivalent when I first saw this on YouTube:

It’s all “been there, done that” to me, but that particular collage of blue-streaked verbal self-flagellation by a Mr. Jack Rebney, (aka the “Winnebago Man”) has for some reason captured the imagination of many YouTube fans over the years and spawned its own devoted cult of personality. I think it’s safe to say that most people would take a look, have a chuckle and leave it at that. However, for filmmaker Ben Steinbauer, that was not enough.

For his documentary, Winnebago Man, he wanted to dig deeper and discover the back story. So why would he bother anyway? Would anyone really care? After all, the YouTube clips were taken from VHS copies that had already been circulating amongst “found footage” festival curators and private enthusiasts for years, long before the term “viral video” had entered the lexicon-and certainly prior to YouTube’s existence.

For all anyone knew, Rebney was long in his grave. It took the assistance of a private investigator and substantial digging, but Steinbauer discovered his quarry was above ground; indeed way above ground-living the hermit life in an isolated mountain cabin.

Any attempt to summarize further risks spoiling the mildly surprising twists and turns that ensue in this slight yet engaging film. In some ways, it’s more about the filmmaker than his subject; especially when it depicts Steinbauer wrestling with his own motivations for making the documentary in the first place. Is he ultimately exploiting Rebney, who alleges having no idea of his cult celebrity prior to the posting of the outtakes on the internet? Or is Rebney playing him like a violin?

I was reminded of Ross McElwee’s 1996 documentary, Six O’clock News. In that film, the director chose several people at random (most of them beset by personal tragedies) who were featured in TV news stories in an earnest attempt to reveal the living breathing human beings behind the sound bites (while attempting to remain sensitive to their feelings and as unobtrusive to their lives as possible). McElwee encountered the same conundrum as Steinbauer; how do you make a statement about an exploitative and self-aggrandizing media (or web culture) without in essence coming off to be as equally exploitative and self-aggrandizing yourself? Discuss…

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