Ben Steinbauer and Jack Rebney

Last Updated: April 28, 2013By Tags: , ,

TV blooper reels are getting to be as routine a commodity as TV news itself. You’ve seen them all over YouTube: clips of well-groomed, airbrushed anchors and other media professionals sluffing lines, missing cues, losing their over-rehearsed cool on air, all while some abused and vengeful crew member keeps the cameras rolling. But somehow, it remains a perverse pleasure to gain access to these golden gaffes—especially when flagrant profanity is involved.

Perhaps no video of this sort is more popular than that of Jack Rebney, a former ad-man whose literal fifteen minutes of fame came from a highly circulated video of his botched Winnebago ad. Taped on a scorching hot, fly-infested day in 1988, the ad’s film crew, partially outraged but mostly humored by Rebney’s resulting fury, compiled an assortment of his best outtakes. They range from the standard impulsive reactions to messed-up lines (“They’ve developed a multi-functional bathroom, privacy inclu—I don’t even know what the fuck I’m reading!”) to primadonna, director’s-syndrome demands (“No more bullshit from anyone!”) to just plain self-loathing (“My mind is just a piece of shit this morning!”)

Screen shot 2011-12-11 at 5.01.12 PMRebney’s “performance” brings to mind Jack Lemmon’s character in “Glengarry Glen Ross”–swearing, stammering, sweating as he tries in vain to make a sale, yet always enunciating words with the elocution of an old-school Hollywood actor, and never less than human. It is that humanity that no doubt struck a nerve in debuting director Ben Steinbauer, a University of Texas-Austin film studies professor who became so obsessed with the video he decided to track Rebney down. Would Rebney prove to be as volatile as he appears in the video? Would he have a sense of humor about it? Or did he not even know about it? Steinbauer, after exhaustive research—he even hires a private detective—eventually finds his subject living a reclusive life in a Northern California cabin, and as expected, hilarity and pathos alike ensue.

Screen Comment recently spoke with both Steinbauer and Rebney about making the film, their warped relationship, and their equal surprise and joy at the film’s success on the festival circuit.

Was this the first outtakes/bloopers tape of this nature that you’d ever seen? Why did the Winnebago commercial have such an impression on you? Ben Steinbauer: No, I believe I had seen the drunken Orson Welles liquor ad. And others. But I still saw the Jack Rebney video years before YouTube, around 2002. I didn’t get the idea to go searching for him until a few months after the YouTube launch, around 2006. I was captivated by the idea that you could be famous for messing up, and the whole concept of cyber-bullying. It seemed inconceivable that Jack may not even know the video existed, but I wanted to find out. I had an idea that this notoriety could be damaging to him, but I also wanted to show Jack how much happiness the clip had brought to people like me.

When you first visit Jack up at the cabin, he seems alarmingly Zen-like and calm upon seeing the footage. Did you have an inkling that something was awry, given the persona on the video? BS: No, not at all. It’s easy to fool people if you’re that good a con man.

Jack Rebney: What you have to realize is, Ben is a nice, Midwestern, Christian young man. He wears his Mary Poppins ring, which to me was completely meshuggeneh. I wanted to know why he was there. I didn’t want [him to direct] some YouTube clip of some psychotic guy with a double barrel shotgun, screaming and swearing. I figured Ben had seen this video and [would be surprised] to see this nice, meditating man. So I was testing him, and saw that his intentions were sincere. He didn’t just want to film me falling down breaking my arm.

And that’s why you called him up later to tell him how, in actuality, you were appalled by the video and wanted to set the story straight? JR: I didn’t want Ben to think that I was a nebbish—if you understand the vernacular. I figured, if he sees something more than he envisioned, great, and if not, fuck off.

Have you acted before? Is that how you were able to fool Ben at first JR: I majored in speech and theatre arts and I initially wanted to be involved in all aspects of legitimate theatre. But I realized that I probably wasn’t the right person for that. Media worked better for me and turned out to be more fun, and you still learn the multiplicity of bits and pieces about being on camera and talking into a microphone.

When Jack told you to “pack up and go home,” did you think the film was over? How did you initially plan to wrap it up? BS: There were many times I thought the film was over. In fact, he didn’t just kick me out once—that’s just the edited version. I think he kicked me out several times on the first day of shooting. But I hoped that part of the fun of this film was taking people on the ride with me. I never knew if Jack would quit or not, but I knew I had a great character, an old-school personality coming to terms with a new media landscape. I knew somehow there’d be a rational ending. JR: Ben suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. I congratulate him greatly—even though he is kind of a schmuck. This could have been a real piece of shit but he balanced it beautifully.

When you make that appearance at the San Francisco event where they are screening the ad footage, you warm up rather quickly to the audience members, whom you feared would be total ignorant idiots. Clearly they are more insightful than you thought, but didn’t a part of you bristle at the idea of the audience delighting at your anguish? JR: Five years ago, when my best friend played me the clip, my initial reaction was: “Why would anyone watch this? They are so far removed from this character yelling at flies. How abysmally, ghastly stupid must they be!” And yet I didn’t recognize [until the San Francisco screening] that these people saw themselves in me—that commiserative factor of someone expressing what they want to express. And I saw that these are thinking, compassionate people.

Is this film “Lawrence of Arabia”? Fuck no! But to see it in a theater with two or three hundred people, I was stunned. I listen to this crazy shit, and I laugh at it, and tear up, because I see these people are laughing together, not just at me. And now we’re getting requests to come to universities to speak on media and ethics. I think the audience really got it.

Ben, are you as pleased with the response as Jack? BS: Yes, definitely. People used to pat me on the head, condescendingly, because I was focusing on a five-minute clip of some guy ranting or whatever. Now it’s been seen at fifty festivals, and people run up to us, and they don’t just say “Jack is so funny.” They say “He reminds me of my grandfather!”

Jack, do you now watch YouTube regularly, or have you at least warmed up to it? JR: Oh no. I have motivations I’m more interested in than Twitter, or…what’s that called, Ben? Buttfuck?

BS: Facebook.

JR: Yes. Facebook.

BS: But you’re already on Facebook!

JR: Oh, great! I’m thrilled. See what he does to me?

Winnebago Man will be available on DVD November 2.