My buddy and meme: Winnebago Man's unlikely star turn

Steinbauer and Rebney. Warning: improbable bromance ahead!
Photo by Caitlin Donohue

An irascible ex-TV news anchor shoots a promo video for Winnebago in Iowa in the summer of 1988. It's hot out, the crew isn't giving him what he needs, and he swears. A lot. Fast forward 20 years, and the video that damn crew complied of his least flattering outtakes has garnered over 20 million hits on YouTube. Filmmaker Ben Steinbauer hired a detective to find out what happened to the star of his favorite viral video, and the ensuing film, Winnebago Man (which starts Fri/30), turns up some surprising conclusions about the notion of, as Steinbauer put it to me in our recent interview at the Mark Hopkins Hotel, “accidental notoriety.” Some people are calling the film an exploitation of the alternately crude and eloquent Jack Rebney, a new media naïf – but my half hour with the pair raised questions in my eyes of who was using who to tell what story.   


San Francisco Bay Guardian: So Jack, tell me about the last time you were in San Francisco. That's the climax of the film.

Jack Rebney: Well of course, just when we were finishing the movie we had the opportunity to be up in the Haight playing [at the 2008 Found Footage Festival at Red Vic Movie House] and that was the first opportunity for Ben and I to do our dog and pony show. We had just an incredible time.

Ben Steinbauer: You'l l never guess who the pony is.

JR: The people were just, it was electric. It was just quite unusual. I was enormously taken with it. You could feel the vibes between the people and Ben and I. 


SFBG: That's Haight-Ashbury for you. Ben, I have a question for you. Did your intent and motivation for this film change throughout filming it?

BS: No question. I started out making the movie because I was a big fan of the clip. I got the VHS tape in 2001, my friends and I would all quote it. Cut to four years later when YouTube was popping up and there was this idea of accidental celebrity, or unwanted notoriety. I thought, I wonder how the star of my favorite clip is dealing with this same thing? It just started from there with me as a fan wanting to meet Jack and understand this new technological and cultural phenomenon.


SFBG: Jack, do you remember the original Winnebago shoot?

JR: Like a boil. It was horrible, it was a violent, violent moment in my life. I was used to operating with camera crews, and audio people, and grips, ecetera who were at the highest levels of media. I never had to do a damn thing. All I had to do was babble, do my patented babble. As it was the middle of the summer in Iowa it was 100 degrees or more. The humidity was 98%. There were billions upon billions of flies. There's a quote that always amuses me, apparently a lot of other people too: God in his infinite wisdom created the fly and they're all in Iowa. But you have to keep in mind that there was never any of what today we categorize as anger. Its been said I'm the angriest man on earth -- that's actually not true at all. The Winnebago corporation had hired me to do the very best possible marketing film I could do, they percieved that I would be able to do a good film for them. So when it didn't work right, I swear. Because I think it's marvelously expressive. If you hit your thumb with a hammer, you don't say golly wompers.

BS: Jack worked in media at a time when the news was shot on 16mm film. The concept that you could leave the cameras rolling to capture outtakes was foreign, let alone the idea that you could rapidly share video like this and 20 plus years later people in Japan could be laughing – it's literally science fiction.


SFBG: Jack, did you know the cameras were rolling?

JR: No! Because I would say “cap it!” which in the vernacular means shut it down, stop rolling. 


SFBG: Do you guys think after going through this process that it's important for people these days to be aware of what's going on with the Internet?

BS: My interest in this was the realization that we all have digital reputations. That's a new concept.

JR: Harry Truman made the comment, if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. It is for me a total absence of interest. I get a lot of film shot at me, I've shot a lot of film at people, stuck a lot of microphones in the face of a lot of people who are actually of some consequence. This was an irrelevancy. But now it's taken on something else, a life unto itself. 


SFBG: When did you become vested in this film, Jack?

JR: After the first time Ben came up to my little cabin. As is explained in the film, I was on my best behavior, Mary Poppin-esque.

BS: He basically fooled me.

JR: There are two things that are terribly important here. One, this kid knows what he's doing: he teaches media at the University of Texas. Could this be an adjunct at the beginning of what is possibly his film career? Could this help him? Could this be something? I have people that when I was a youngster make it possible  for me to get positions that normally I could never have attained. On the other hand, for years and years I've been a socio-political commentator and I've attacked very nearly everything, and I love it because it strikes that the vast majority of people are not thinking, they're not given anything in media. They're given milk and honey. Well there's no more milk and honey! It's over. It's time to either fall into a very deep abyss or we're going to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and I thought wait a minute, I can enunciate this. I thought well, okay, this kid wants to shoot me? He wants to turn the camera on? I'll give him something to think about.


SFBG: Are you having a good time traveling together? You're spending a lot of time together.

BS: Well we just had the best lunch I think I've ever eaten –

JR: Years ago when I had the opportunity to come to SF, I would eat lunch or dinner at Scoma's [random note: this year's Best of the Bay seafood restaurant!]. It is absolutely nonpareil.

BS: We tried to order that on the menu.

JR: Shut up Ben. In any event, it was absolutely magnificent. San Francisco is a city that has – there is nothing lacking here. There's an enormous number of absolute nutcases running around, but that what gives it it's vitality. 


Winnebago Man 

Starts Fri/30 2:25, 4:45, 7:15, and 9:45 p.m.

 With introduction by the Dead Kennedys East Bay Ray and post show Q&A with Jack Rebney and Ben Steinbauer at Fri/30 and Sat/31's 7:15 and 9:45 shows

Landmark Lumiere Theatre

1572 California, SF

(415) 267-4893


also playing at Shattuck Cinemas (2230 Shattuck, Berk. (510) 464-5980,