When Jack Rebney had his meltdown, during the filming of an in-house video for Winnebago Industries, Ronald Reagan was in the White House, Johnny Carson was still hosting the Tonight Show, and Ben Steinbauer was in grade school.
The year was 1988, and Rebney, a former CBS news producer with a no–nonsense, stentorian voice filled with gravitas, had taken the gig – introducing a new RV line to dealers – just to make a little extra scratch.
The shoot – at a Winnebago lot in Iowa – didn’t go well. Besieged by flies and sweltering in the 100–degree heat, Rebney repeatedly lost his cool. He let loose a string of profanities, followed by another, and another, until it got so uncomfortable that the crew stopped talking to the tall, bald–pated, well–dressed pitchman.
A series of outtakes from the shoot, supplied by the traumatized crew, began to circulate – first among video collectors and people who worked in the TV industry – until Rebney had become an unwitting cult phenomenon.
When YouTube and other video–sharing sites arrived, about five years ago, Rebney quickly earned the title “The Angriest Man in the World.” To date, the clip has been viewed more than 20 million times.
Enter Ben Steinbauer, a Texas–based filmmaker fascinated by the notion of Internet celebrity. He’s the writer, producer, director (and co–star) of Winnebago Man, an award–winning documentary about ... Jack Rebney.
Winnebago Man will be screened Aug. 19 at the Jepson Center for the Arts.
Steinbauer explains that he first saw the Rebney clips at a party in 2001. “It was like sharing your favorite band’s awesome bootleg tape,” he says. “My friend was like ‘You’ve got to check this out.’ He put in this old, ratty VHS tape. These grainy images appeared of this well–dressed salesman just losing his shit. It felt like something we weren’t supposed to be seeing. And it felt scripted, it was so funny.
“The whole room just kind of stopped and watched and laughed. It was electrifying. Everybody started quoting it. And everybody wanted their own copy.
“I proceeded to show my copy to everybody who came over to my house, and then proceeded to make copies for them.”
After the arrival of YouTube, and the case of “Star Wars Kid” (a Canadian teen whose unintentionally hilarious clip led to much bitterness and a harassment lawsuit), Steinbauer started getting curious.
“This video sharing was creating this type of unwanted celebrity, accidental notoriety, that in most cases was not positive,” he says. “I just thought ‘I wonder how the star of my favorite video is dealing with this?’ At the same time, Jack was being quoted in movies and TV shows, there were paintings of him, and remixes online, all this stuff.
“I innocently started poking around on the Internet, and found all these stories that suggested this type of notoriety was really harmful to a lot of people.
“At the same time, I can’t find anything out about Jack Rebney at all, other than the clip. It just re–enforced this notion that I had, that I was looking for this Bigfoot–type character. He’d been spotted in these grainy videos, but had never been seen again.”
And that’s when the story of Winnebago Man really begins. With the aid of a private investigator, Steinbauer discovered that Rebney, now retired, was living the life of a hermit, on top of a mountain in northern California. He went for long walks, rode horses and sailed the Pacific coast. Steinbauer got a P.O. Box number and dashed off a letter.
As it happened, Rebney had only recently been informed of his Internet stardom, by a friend who’d been shown the clip. Rebney had no interest in the Internet – as a matter of fact, he’d never heard of YouTube.
“He’s an old–school newsman,” explains Steinbauer. “So the concept of outtakes was new to him, let alone that these are being watched by millions of people all over the world.”
But Rebney was intrigued by the young filmmaker’s proposal that they meet. “When I sent him that letter, he said he recognized something of himself in me. When he first started out, he was making documentaries. One of his first jobs was to follow Senator Hubert Humphrey around when he came to campaign in Minnesota. So Jack becomes Hubert Humphrey, and I become the young Jack Rebney.”
Winnebago Man is about the unlikely friendship between the ambitious young filmmaker and the now 80–year–old veteran.
“You watch Jack come to terms with this unwanted notoriety, and go from thinking that the audience is mocking him, and that the audience members are foolish, to really embracing the audience members,” says Steinbauer.
“What he’s been doing the last 15 years is reading, and writing, and living this Walden–esque existence sitting on the mountain. He’s very intelligent and he’s very worried about the state of our country.
“I think the process of this film has re–integrated him into society, in a way, and shown him that people that watch YouTube clips – and his clip in particular – are concerned about politics and the economy and the very things he’s worried about.
And they’re not mocking him. They’re not, as he would say, room–temperature IQ’d idiots. In a certain sense, his faith in humanity has been restored.”
Rebney and Steinbauer have made the rounds of film festivals, and even appeared on the Tonight Show (with Jay Leno this time) to discuss their documentary.
As a kid, one of Steinbauer’s favorite movies was Encino Man, the story of what happens to a thawed–out caveman when he’s introduced to the modern world.
There is, of course, an Encino Man aspect to all of this. Is Steinbauer exploiting his somewhat out–of–touch subject?
“I was thinking about that while we were filming,” the filmmaker responds. “But what happens in the movie – and what absolutely happens with Jack today – is that he is not somebody that I need to worry about. He is more than capable of taking care of himself, in whatever landscape he finds himself in.
“He and I talk on the phone every day. He’s a hundred percent in favor of the film. He’s very much his own person, and he is in control of how he’s represented.”
Winnebago Man screens at 6:30 p.m. Aug. 19 at the Jepson Center for the Arts Auditorium. Admission is $6; box office opens at 6 p.m.