|Winnebago Man | Directed by Ben Steinbauer | Written by Malcolm Pullinger, Ben Steinbauer, Louisa Hall, Joel Heller, Berndt Mader, and Natasha Rosow | With Jack Rebney and Ben Steinbauer | Kino International | 85 minutes|
Twenty summers ago, in the deep sweat of nowhere Iowa, a hired crew set out to film the lamest sort of low-budget sales video imaginable. But what could have been a mundane if not suicidal assignment spun into accidental comedy, as the star of the infomercial, ex-network news producer turned industrial thespian Jack Rebney, allowed his physical and occupational discomfort to get the best of him. In a blooper reel that first circulated on hand-dubbed VHS tapes before blowing up on YouTube, Rebney barks such vulgar trademark outbursts as "What does the goddamn line say, Tony?", "I don't even know what the fuck I'm saying," and, perhaps most famously, "My mind is just a piece of shit this morning." Chances are you know the clip as "Winnebago Man."
In the most voyeuristic society ever to spy this earth, Rebney, cooking on the inside of a hot tin Itasca Sunflyer, is one of our favorite folks to ogle. The outtakes from his Winnebago debacle have been viewed by tens of millions, many of whom (myself included) return to the peephole sporadically, or even regularly, depending on depression levels. Some people watch Seinfeld reruns to cheer up; some abuse Dust-Off and other household gases. But for a growing legion of YouTube boobs and mouse potatoes, Winnebago Man is all the medication we need to laugh away overdue bills and genital infections. Indeed, Rebney is the meme of memes — the Holy Grail of accidental celebrities, as one interviewee puts it.
Ben Steinbauer, director of Winnebago Man, the documentary about the man and the phenomenon, himself first became enamored of Rebney's profane knack in the early 1990s, when he got his own copy of the outtakes. But whereas most underground tape collectors who worshipped the dub sensation merely guessed as to the origin of "Winnebago Man" (and of the various crotch-shot clips and cable-access abortions that flooded their PO boxes), Steinbauer hired a gumshoe to find the elusive Rebney. In theory, any YouTube star could have been the subject. (Surely it would be interesting to hunt down the cute and willing brunette from "2 Girls 1 Cup.") But as we first expected and ultimately realized, "Winnebago Man" is in a class of its own.
"The video is like this privileged glimpse into the underbelly of commercial productions, but you also really like the character," says Steinbauer from Los Angeles, where Rebney has joined him for an opening-night Q&A. "He's letting you in — he's saying that his brain is not working, and he's venting about his failure to perform. It's not horrible like the Mel Gibson rant — it's more inclusive than exclusive. When I started, I was thinking about doing multiple portraits. One was going to be on the cop who shot himself in the foot — I found him, too. But those people were by and large of the Internet age; to them, even though they were facing a similar predicament, it wasn't as extreme as it was with Jack. This is in part about this cultural phenomenon that's based on this new technology, and Jack was the most interesting person to tell that story."