Interview: Winnebago Man

The new documentary, Winnebago Man, tells the story of the so-called angriest man in the world, Jack Rebney. Jack gained worldwide fame when an outtake clip of him yelling and swearing through the taping of a Winnebago motorhomes commercial became an internet phenomenon.

Winnebago Man (reviewed here) is currently in theatres in limited markets, including San Francisco. A complete listing of cities and theatres can be found at http://www.winnebagoman.com

The director of the film, Ben Steinbauer, and the “Winnebago Man” himself, Jack Rebney, sat down with FlickSided for a chat about the movie.

FlickSided: Ben, can you describe your film for any readers who may not be familiar with its premise?

Ben Steinbauer: Winnebago Man is my search for the star of my favorite viral video – before that term even existed. The clip was “Winnebago Man” and it’s a 3 minute outtake reel of Jack Rebney making a industrial sales video for the Winnebago Corporation in 1989. He had effectively dissappeared. Even though this clip had tens of millions of followers, nobody had heard of him since. So I set out to find him and once I do, the film becomes about his relationship to me making a film about him and this unwanted notoriety.

FlickSided: Jack, what was your initial reaction when you learned of Ben, this college professor/filmmaker who wanted to meet with you to discuss these tapes?

Jack Rebney: I thought he was out of his mind. Why? What purpose could this be serving anywhere, in any rational society? I had no idea the clip existed – that is to say the first viral clip. I had never been apprised of it. And when I found out, it was still totally irrelevant to me, but having spoken at some length with Ben, I thought, “well, okay, let’s talk to one another at least.”

FlickSided: Was the idea of a feature-length documentary always on the table between you two, or was it always your initial intent, Ben, and then you eased Jack into the idea? How did that work out?

Ben: As you see in the film, there’s a lot of fighting between he and me as far as where the film is going or where I hope the movie will go versus where he wants it to go. For me, I really wanted it to be a feature, but I didn’t know, ever, that it would even be finished. So, I guess, the idea of the length was never the first thought, I just knew I wanted to follow this thing through because I had this great character in Jack experiencing this interesting, modern problem.

FlickSided: Jack, one of the somewhat major elements of your story – as it’s portrayed in the film, at least – is that you become something of a celebrity as a result of that footage. You were actually looking for a different sort of notoriety; you were working on a book and had a message you were trying to get out to the world – specifically a political message. After doing this project with Ben, making this film, has it given you a platform to deliver that message or has it further distracted you and moved you away from that intent.

Jack: No, it’s actually interesting that you see that, you understand that from what you’ve seen. It is precisely that. That was my motivation. There were two motivating factors and that is one of them. It struck me that here was a vehicle that might give someone – not necessarily me, but obviously it became me – to illuminate ideas. To illuminate history, which I thought was very important, because it was obvious that media, broad media, was not going to do that. Would not do that. Was cautioned against doing that, by Cheney and Bush and that administration. I said to myself, “well, there may be this possibility that I will be able to, surreptitiously if nothing else, work these ideas into Ben’s film.” As it turns out, some of that made it’s way in there, but Ben began putting together his story and I began to– media is my business, or was my business, and so I began to have this sense of where he was going and what he was doing and my job all the way along the line was to give him something more than he could visualize he was going to get. Ben never knew what the hell he was going to get, ever. Ever.

Ben: I still don’t.

Jack: And that was part of my gambit. That was part of what I sensed: here was an opportunity, here was a filmmaker, this guy knows what he’s doing. So I thought, “okay, if I give him this – which is me, make no mistake this is no act. I am only who I am. There you see it. There it is in black and white. If you don’t like it then fuck off. I couldn’t care less.

The point being that I recognized that here’s a guy that could probably take this massive disparate media from the Winnebago clips to what happened to this guy. Well, nothing happened to this guy. This guy has spent fifteen years of his life, after he retired, reading, writing, thinking and the more I read and the more I thought and the more I wrote, it became increasingly more and more evident that my country was dying right before my eyes. It was mind-boggling because I never heard anyone in media ever say those words. If you look back over the last, well ever since Reagan, did anyone say we were dying?

Two weeks before the economy absolutely tanked, George Bush had the unmitigated gall, the audacity, to stand in front of national television and say, and I quote, “the economy is doing just fine.” That lying piece of garbage knew exactly what was happening and, from my perspective of course – not acknowledging that fact that he is an idiot – the fact of the matter is, he said it, and America took it at face value.

Anyway, I saw this opportunity and thought that maybe I’d get the chance to say a few of these choice words. And a little bit of it made it’s way out. And a little is enough.

Ben: [laughs] A little Rebney goes a long way.

Jack: Aren’t you glad you asked that question?

FlickSided: Oh yeah, I think I knew what I was getting myself into.

Back to you, Ben. You had mentioned that Jack’s video was more or less the first “viral video,” before viral videos existed. Before the internet, you came across it when it was still a VHS tape. So, you were able to see this evolution from an object that was passed physically between two friends, to something broadcast on the internet which is far more anonymous. What are your feelings on this cultural shift as it pertains to this video, since you’ve had this long term fascination with it?

Ben: It makes me sound like a derranged stalker or something to say that I just had to meet this guy. Really what was happening, if you understand the timeframe – this was my favorite video from around 2001. At the time I had friends who worked in advertising, and I had been an assistant editor at a dub room, where these kinds of things get passed around all the time. So, I had a collection of underground videos. This was my favorite. It was almost like when you become a fan of this small underground band that no one’s heard of and you want to tell all of your friends about it. So, when my friends would come over to my house, they’d be forced to watch this tape and I’d quote it all the time.

Cut to four years later, when video sharing sites and YouTube in particular, are invented. This idea of accidental notoriety and this derranged loophole emerges where all of the sudden people become known for very embarrassing things. And they’re not necessarily happy about being known this way, and these videos are spreading like wildfire and there are all of these uninteded consequences as a result.

So, I thought, “I wonder what Jack Rebney, the guy in ‘Winnebago Man,’ is thinking about this. I wonder how this is affecting his life.” I watched as he was being quoted in Spongebob or parodied on 30 Rock – you see this in the film – it’s penetrating pop-culture in this way that’s completely insane. It’s absurd the way it spread so quickly.

So that’s how I became interested in finding out who this person was. Then when I couldn’t find him and I had to hire a private investigator to track him down and we found him living as a hermit on top of a mountain. It just all seemed to be too good to be true.

Jack: You have to define the term. Ben uses this all the time; I’m supposed to be a hermit. Well, I would caution you in regards to finding a definition of “hermit” that is going to be applicable to me.

I have had, up until the unfortunate circumstance of my going blind, I had as extraordinarily close friends David Hume, Kant, Heller, Hemmingway, Aristophanes, Homer, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. Is that a hermit? I think not.

Ben: So you’re more J.D. Salinger than the Unibomber?

Jack: Okay, terrific. So that characterization of me as a hermit is questionable. When in fact, what I am is a person who saw the world falling apart and found a place where there was a lacking of all that. So I read about history, and thought about it, and wrote about it. Those were not hermit years. These are definitely not hermit years. So there you are.

Ben: But he does live on top of a mountain and his nearest neighbor is two miles away.

Jack: Yeah. That much. you got right.

FlickSided: [Laughs] Ben, in the film, it’s mentioned by the hosts of a video-clip television show, The Show WIth No Name, that what allows videos like Jack’s to be funny is that you don’t know who he is. Once you start attaching those human attributes to him and the video, it stops being funny. Can you, after making this film – or even for someone who has just watched it – can we then go back and watch these videos and still find them funny?

Ben: For me, yes, I have gone back and watched the clip and I still laugh. To me, it doesn’t, in any way, affect my enjoyment of the initial clip. I was very aware early on that I did not want to pass judgement on whether or not these clips were good or bad. What I wanted to do was ask questions about or investigate this new type of unintended notoriety or celebrity. I think it risks becoming reductive when you say we’re either laughing at or laughing with certain people when we watch this videos.

I think the truth that I found is that the videos that really stay with us and stay relevant and get watched again and again and again, do resonate in a personal way. It goes beyond enjoying the humiliation of a certain person and becomes a more empathetic, understanding or cathartic relationship with this piece of media. Jack’s clip is one hundred percent testament to that. Jack’s clip has a sort of innocence – which may be a funny thing to say – but there’s a sort of lack of self-conscipousness that is very refreshing. We live in this world where everything is so manicured and has to be so perfect, and Jack’s clip allows us to see some cracks in the façade.

Jack: The reality is that the sentiment of the initiating quotation is incorrect. The reason people watch the clips is that they do want to know the man in this video because they see themselves in him. These people look at the film, they look at this guy, yelling and swearing and ranting, and they see themselves.

FlickSided: How have your interactions with one another and your relationship with each other-

Jack: I wish you people would stop using that word, “relationship.” We do not have a relationship. Make this clear – would you write that down, please? In caps. WE DO NOT HAVE A RELATIONSHIP!

[laughs] Yeah, of course we have a relationship. I love him. He’s a wonderful, wonderful young man and he’s brought me to understand that there are some absolutely straightforward and honest people left in this world.

FlickSided: That’s actually what I was getting at: how have your experiences with this film and each other affected you as people?

Ben: Jack is fifty years my senior and when I started this project, I was certainly taken by him because he made me laugh with these clips. Now that I know him, and have worked with him for these last three years, I’ve started to see his influence on me in ways that I could never have predicted. I do think more about the importance of language and some of these things and freedoms we’ve lost in our modern world.

Also, Jack is blind, so when we travel together, one of the things I have to do is describe where we are to him. Traveling with Jack makes me hyperaware of noise and other people and things that I otherwise would pay no attention to.

It’s not necessarily a direct result of having made the film, but I have learned through knowing Jack that it is important to express your opinion and to know your environment and to really exert your will. It’s really important and more people should do that.

(to Jack) What do think of that answer?

Jack: It was pretty good. Kind of monosyllabic. [laughs]

As you can plainly see, we have fun doing this thing between one another because we’re beginning – well, we’re not in the beginning, we’re in the adulthood of our friendship. I enjoy it thoroughly.

Ben becomes this refreshment. He is so genuine and so open and so honest. It’s interesting that we use this platform for different things on the surface but really we are both just expressing the importance of our right to say what we want to say.