In the 20th Century, fame was more simple.
Either you moved to Los Angeles to become a movie star or moved to New York to get a job in broadcasting or practiced your home run swing really hard or killed a bunch of random people because your dog told you to. One way or another, everybody who was famous pretty much asked for it.
The internet – particularly Youtube – has democratized the process of becoming famous. In the 21st Century, you don’t need to be ambitious or hard working to become a star. You just need to be amazingly good at something entertaining.
And Jack Rebney was amazingly good at being angry.
In 1989, veteran broadcaster Jack Rebney landed a lousy gig promoting the new Winnebago RV line. He was sent to rural Iowa in the dead of summer for a grueling, bug-infested two week shoot.
Rebney had a meltdown. He was angry at the heat and the flies. He was angry at his co-workers. He was angry at his middle-aged brain for not being able to remember lines and stay professional. He was angry at what his life had become. And he expressed his anger with one hilariously profane rant after another between takes. If you don’t mind hearing the f-word dozens of times, I recommend going to Youtube and watching the Winnebago Man clip right now.
Millions of people watched and loved Jack Rebney. One obsessed young filmmaker, Ben Steinbauer, decided to track Mr. Rebney down in 2007 and make a documentary about the experience. Steinbauer finally found the old man living alone in a cabin up a dirt road in the mountains of northern California.
Youtube doesn’t lie: elderly Jack Rebney is every bit as interesting as you’d expect.
In some ways, it seems like he has found peace. He is surrounded by books on philosophy, he gets companionship from his loyal dog Buddha, and he handles going blind with calm resolve. Rebney likens losing his sight to the experience of having his wife leave him. That’s darn stoic considering going blind is way worse. I mean, you can’t find new vision at www.eyeharmony.com.
In other ways, though, Rebney is as angry as ever. The old man consistently dodges Steinbauer’s questions about his personal life, and focuses his rage on the dumb young people of today and on how Dick Cheney is destroying America.
“Winnebago Man” begins as a lament to all of the accidental celebrities who have been driven into hiding and despair by their humiliating viral videos. But it ends on a heartening note of redemption.
In the final scene, Jack Rebney shows up to a Found Footage festival in San Francisco. His appearance is met with rapturous laughter and applause. After his speech, we see adoring women come up to Rebney to thank him for being there on the internet for them whenever they are feeling overwhelmed by anger and frustration in their own lives.
It is clear that the event is the most joyful experience that Jack Rebney has had in a long time.
Generally, I view fame as a stressful soul-sucking nightmare that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. But “Winnebago Man” uncovers a different side of notoriety. Fame gave a man’s life meaning. Hurray for the internet.