Before the internet even existed, there was a community of tape traders who collected and shared “found videos” and unusual clips. One of the most popular videos passed hand to hand was “Winnebago Man,” outtakes from a 1988 shoot for a Winnebago commercial featuring a spokesman who appears to be the angriest man in the world. “Winnebago Man,” who we later learn is named Jack Rebney, lets loose colorful and creative streams of expletives at the slightest provocation. Later, with the advent of YouTube, the “Winnebago Man” clips went viral, prompting filmmaker Ben Steinbauer to go in search of the mysterious man who became an internet phenomenon.
I almost stopped watching “Winnebago Man” about 10 minutes in. I didn’t find the outtakes funny. I don’t need any more anger and frustration in my life. This movie was supposed to be a comedy. I didn’t understand it any more than I understood the appeal of “Shut Up Little Man.” But the documentary started to draw me in with Steinbauer’s dogged determination to hunt down a man with no name who had disappeared into the ether 20 years before. His ability to actually find Jack Rebney, and have the man agree to be interviewed on tape is nothing less than astounding. Somewhere in the middle of the film I started laughing and didn’t stop.
Rebney was living a reclusive life as a caretaker on a mountain outside of Redding, California. The relationship that develops between the filmmaker and subject is often confusing, and even a little bit dysfunctional. But Steinbauer’s infinite patience listening to Rebney’s long diatribes eventually pay off. We begin to understand Jack Rebney’s unique perspective. We begin to like him, maybe even admire him. In the end, the film illuminates the real appeal of the videos and the man, and provides a profound insight into the human condition.
Winnebago Man is currently available on Netflix, iTunes and Amazon