10 Videos That Went Viral Before The Internet
As hard as it may be for us to imagine, YouTube has not always existed. In fact, it hasn’t even existed for nearly as long as people have been pointing video cameras at ridiculous things and showing the hilarious results to their friends, or re-distributing a particularly wacky or interesting thing they taped off the TV last night.
Yes, before YouTube or even the Internet, there were viral videos—and while they may have been VHS tapes passed around at work or school, or grainy films shown at underground festivals, they are totally recognizable as every bit the same phenomenon we know and love from the online world. Before Star Wars Kid and the Dramatic Prairie Dog, there was . . .
This legendary 1936 “educational” film was ostensibly produced to warn parents about the dangers of the demon weed. It toured around the country for a couple of years under many titles (such as Tell Your Children, its original title, and The Dope Addict), taking advantage of strong anti-marijuana sentiment at the time—the Marihuana Tax Act, the first law to allow for imprisonment for possession, was passed in 1937.
The film was rediscovered in 1971 by none other than Keith Stroup, the founder of NORML, while snooping through the library of Congress archives. Keith bought a print for 300 dollars, and before long it was popping up at college film festivals across the US, where it was hailed as a masterpiece of unintentional hilarity. Since this was before videotape was in wide use, distribution of the prints was handled by a small specialty film distributor called New Line Cinema, which you may have heard of—their hand in distributing Reefer Madness brought enough success for them to start producing their own films by the late ’70s.
Since the film is in the public domain (only the colorized version is copyrighted), it found its way to video as soon as videotape became widespread. It’s easy to find copies on VHS or DVD (or, for that matter, on YouTube) today, but in the pre-Internet era, you had to know somebody who had a tape, live in a town with a really weird video store, or go to a really cool college.
Here’s an item that originated as a Portland, Oregon newscast in November of 1970. In it, there is a beached whale carcass, for which the town has a unique plan of disposal. If you’ve read the title of the entry, you might see where we’re going with this.
The Oregon Highway Division decided that the most prudent way to remove the carcass was to vaporize it with a huge amount of dynamite, and the newscast actually recorded the event. As you can imagine, the plan seemed to have gone very well at first, for the whale carcass vanished as if by magic; however, the thousands of rotting pieces of the carcass—some tiny, some not so much—were still around, way up in the air. And they were now on their way down. Predictable, horrifying and yet hilarious mayhem ensues.
The event became part of Northwest lore, like Bigfoot, except it was real. For a couple decades it survived only as urban legend and a few scattered bootlegs. Somehow, the original videotape of the newscast made its way to humorist Dave Barry in 1990; he immediately wrote a hysterical column about it, and bootlegs of the tape surged. Copies began appearing on Bulletin Board Systems—sort of a primitive early Internet—across the US around 1994, and today the legend of the Exploding Whale lives on.
On May 31, 1986, buddies Jeff Krulik and John Heyn had just bought a Camcorder—an old-time device that shoots cheap-looking video. Anyway, it was pretty cool for the time and being music fans, they decided to take it down to the local arena in Landover, Maryland, where Judas Priest and Dokken were about to lay down some mid-’80s rocking. They didn’t have tickets to the show—they just cruised around the parking lot, talking to tailgating metal fans, and shooting seventeen minutes of video footage that is transcendentally hilarious.
Mullet-headed, tank top wearing lunkheads wax philosophical about how much metal rules, and everything else sucks, including “that punk shit” and, in a timely reference, Madonna (“she’s a dick” opines one guy thoughtfully). Booze is everywhere and one guy responds to “where are you from?” with “I’m on acid”. There’s howling, hooting, devil horns and non-sequiturs aplenty; it is, in short, a perfect time capsule of the mid-’80s US mainstream metal scene.
There being a limited market for short films of this sort, the two friends dubbed dozens of VHS copies, which they handed out to anyone who wanted one. Copies began showing up in funky video stores across the land, and the tape had reached legendary status long before its first appearance online in the mid-2000s. Subsequent attempts by the filmmakers to re-capture lightning in a bottle with titles like Yanni Parking Lot and Pro Wrestling Sidewalk have somehow failed to live up to the original.
Todd Haynes has always been an interesting filmmaker, and he’s received Oscar nominations for Far From Heaven and his bizarre Bob Dylan biopic, I’m Not There. His first project, a forty-three minute film released only to film festivals in 1987, is one of the more singularly bizarre entries on this list.
Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story was a reasonably straight-faced, comprehensive account of the Carpenters’ rise to fame, beginning with their discovery in 1966 and ending with Karen Carpenter’s untimely death in 1982 from anorexia. The film, however, was not shot with actors. It was shot with Barbie dolls. Barbie played Karen, and the doll was literally whittled away with a knife throughout the course of the film to show the anorexic Karen wasting away.
Needless to say, Richard Carpenter was incensed when we he learned of the film for many reasons—not the least of which being that Haynes never got clearances for the music used in it. Carpenter sued and won, and all existing copies on film or videotape were ordered to be collected and destroyed. Of course, we know how that turned out—bootleg copies circulated freely until the advent of the Internet, where it survives to this day.
As head of Rocketship Animation Studios, Marv Newland has assisted in the production of many animated spots for many clients, including promo and network IDs for MTV and Nickelodeon that would probably set off nostalgia alarms for many of you reading this. As would his first—and perhaps most well-known—project, which he drew himself in two days, in a room that he was serendipitously renting from an actress who was the voice of Snow White in Disney’s 1937 classic Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.
The film, Bambi Meets Godzilla, was known to play occasionally to fill time gaps during the early days of cable networks like HBO and Showtime; less than two minutes long, most of the film consists of the opening credits, shown over an animation of Bambi grazing in a meadow. Of course, everything is credited to Marv Newland, except Newland himself (“Marv Newland Produced By Mr. And Mrs. Newland”). Then, Godzilla makes his appearance… or at least, his foot does.
The deadpan short was a running joke for years in the late ’70s and early ’80s, even if nobody could quite remember where and when they had seen it.
Perhaps the most widely disseminated video on this list, Hardware Wars is a thirteen minute Star Wars parody, produced in 1978, in which everything is hardware. Well, almost everything. It’s done in the style of an extended teaser trailer for a full-length film that was sadly never produced.
After launching from a cassette player starship in an escape pod (a cassette, of course) droids 4Q2 and Arty-Deco crash land on the surface of a planet which is clearly a watermelon. After being discovered by Fluke Starbucker (played by future famed music producer Scott Matthews), the trio meet up with Ham Salad and the Wookiee Monster (who looks suspiciously like the Cookie Monster painted brown); meanwhile, the evil Darph Nader (a play on famed consumer advocate Ralph Nader) ends his interrogation of the Princess by blowing up her home planet of Basketball (self-explanatory). The film concludes with a squadron of bottle openers leading an assault on a waffle iron, the tagline “May the Farce Be With You”, and the assertion that the film was shot “on location in space”.
Hardware Wars screened at film festivals (winning Most Popular Short at the Chicago Film Festival), as a short feature in some theaters before the feature attraction, and on cable throughout the early ’80s, and was even available for rent at some of the funkier video stores of the day despite its brief running time. When all was said and done it had made around a million bucks, and is still considered the most profitable short film of all time—especially considering it only cost $8,000 to produce.
In 1988, Winnebago salesman Jack Rebney was picked to star in a promotional video showcasing the recreational vehicles, likely because of his previous experience as a broadcast journalist. Nobody knows how much of a success the promo video was, but its outtakes have taken on an incredible life of their own—unknown members of the crew edited them into the compilation known as Winnebago Man, one of the most virulent viral videos of all time.
In the video, Jack loses his patience. A lot. He is unhappy with the script, the crew, the set, and presumably his life and the faces of everyone around him. He makes his unhappiness known through some of the most colorful cursing any of us have ever heard in our lives, and suffice to say his mood does not improve for the duration of the video.
Copies of this circulated on VHS and appeared (in heavily edited versions) on “funniest home video” type TV shows before the advent of the Internet, where it popped up as early as 2002. In 2009, documentary filmmaker Ben Steinbauer hunted Rebney down for a documentary about the video, also entitled Winnebago Man, only to discover that Rebney had no idea he was famous. The documentary won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary at both the Sarasota Film Festival and the Edmonton International Film Festival.
In 1987, an Ontario College of Art and Design student named Todd Graham effectively unleashed the mashup on the world. Apocalypse Pooh is pretty much what it sounds like; mostly video from the award-winning Winnie The Pooh shorts The Honey Tree and The Blustery Day set against edited portions of the soundtrack to Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece Apocalypse Now. Occasionally, the opposite aesthetic is employed, with footage from the film set to pieces of soundtrack from the animated shorts.
The film played almost exclusively at two distinct types of venues—contemporary art houses, and comic book conventions. The ever-popular bootleg VHS copies circulated mostly at the latter, and the film’s legend grew.
The version available online is a restoration by a colleague of Graham’s. This film is notable for being incredibly weird, and for inventing the concept of the mashup far in advance of the familiar Web phenomenon. Also, British journalist and critic Kim Newman described Tigger’s entrance in the short—cut to the dialogue “it’s a f——ing tiger!”—as the greatest moment of Tigger’s screen career.
Robert Tilton was an over-the-top televangelist from the late ’80s and early ’90s, known for his infomercial-style “Success-N-Life” program. In this program, he often had protracted conversations with the Almighty, wherein he would pause for dramatic effect while making faces that seemed to beg for . . . some kind of sound effect. In 1985, a couple of unidentified guys decided to remedy the omission.
It was at that time that VHS copies of compilations of Tilton’s heavenly conversations, with titles like Joyful Noise and Pastor Gas, began circulating. Well-timed sounds of flatulence were inserted into the preacher’s diatribes.
After an LA radio station mentioned the video on the air, the creators began selling the bootlegs, which were (and still are) widely imitated. Many different “episodes” of Tilton’s flatulent ramblings can be found online today.
In 1992, a couple of University of Colorado students screened for their peers a short animated film they’d made entitled The Spirit Of Christmas. In it, four boys build a snowman, and bring him to life with a magical hat (as in the the classic “Frosty The Snowman” special). Except this Frosty is a homicidal monster, and immediately kills one of the boys, prompting his friend to exclaim “Oh my God! Frosty killed Kenny!” which may sound a little familiar.
The CU students responsible for this deranged piece of work were Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and the four boys—with a couple of their names switched—were the very first versions of the four main characters from South Park. For a few years (you guessed it), bootlegs circulated around campus and eventually made their way to executives of the Fox network, who commissioned the duo to make a new version of “Spirit Of Christmas” as a video Christmas card for their friends. Both were animated using only cardboard, construction paper, and an ancient 8mm film camera.
The new version (now called Jesus Vs. Santa to differentiate between it and the original) went viral as well, though this virus was initially confined to network television executives—dozens of them. As a result, the short—which eventually became among the first viral videos on the newfangled Internet—got the attention of Comedy Central, which brought Parker and Stone on to develop South Park. Though all subsequent episodes of the series have been computer animated, the pilot episode—”Cartman Gets An Anal Probe”—was also animated with cardboard and construction paper, just like the originals.