Meet Jack Rebney. You might know him already as the overheated RV pitchman whose colorfully profane outbursts during a 1988 ad shoot turned him into one of the Internet’s earliest stars, and lately the subject of Ben Steinbauer’s riotous new documentary, Winnebago Man.
Originally created from a series of outtakes by the RV video’s producers, his now-infamous YouTube debut earned Rebney an exaggerated reputation as “The Angriest Man in the World.” Mopping his sweaty brow, cursing the unseen flies swarming his prized Winnebago, he forgets his lines and loses his cool, unwittingly sharing his meltdown with the world.
In person, Rebney is friendly, courteous and articulate. You wonder if the rage is an elaborate put-on, his way of feeding a legend spread by an ever-expanding army of Web surfers. But once he gets going – a virtual certainty, given his propensity for animated gab – the irascible RV spokesman begins to emerge.
“It was nearly three years ago my friend Keith called, asking if I’d pulled myself up on the Net lately,” says Rebney, 80, who now resides in a Northern California cabin near Mount Lassen, far removed from the urban uproar he once knew as a big-city TV journalist.
“I said, ‘Don’t talk gibberish to me!’ He told me to check my computer – something called YouTube. I was surprised. I asked him to play it for me, and sure enough, there I was. And that was the last I thought of it until Ben came to me with the idea of making this documentary.”
At 65, Rebney had left the workforce and retreated to a life of relative solitude, not to escape the world, but to spend his remaining years reading, writing and discovering the pleasures he’d been missing, in his words, for the previous 50.
Late-life celebrity seems not to have changed him. “Public opinion doesn’t bother me greatly,” he says. “I don’t feel any notoriety. Everybody bandies that word about, but if there is any notoriety attached to me, it would come from my professional exploits, some of which I’m proud of, some of which I’m not. It has nothing to do with that video.”
“The caveat is that Jack lives on top of a mountain and his closest neighbor is two miles away,” says Steinbauer, 32, who was so taken by the video that he resolved to make Rebney the focus of his feature-length debut.
“When we walk through the streets or go to an airport, he turns heads everywhere we go. I’m not saying people know him only from the Winnebago Man clip, but Jack does enjoy some degree of notoriety because he’s a very imposing person and very well-spoken.”
During his quest to locate the hermit-like Rebney, Steinbauer encountered people who warned him to give up. Nobody, they said, wanted him to debunk the media-created myth of the world’s angriest man. Undeterred, the young director hired a private detective.
To his surprise, Rebney contacted him and agreed to meet face to face. Unlike the equally famous 'Star Wars Kid,' who sued the classmates responsible for turning a private video into online fodder, Rebney seemed tickled by his unexpected rise to prominence.
“It takes away from your enjoyment of the Star Wars clip when you find out the kid ended up in the psychiatric ward,” Steinbauer says, referring to Ghyslain Raza, the 15-year-old who became an unwilling Internet superstar in 2002 when footage of his Episode One-inspired lightsaber dance took the Web by storm.
“I never thought of the Winnebago Man clip in the same way because I naively believed, and still believe, that it makes people happy. It gives so many of them reason to laugh, to quote Jack and to rewatch the clip time and time again. So I wanted to meet Jack not just because he’s the star of my favorite viral video, but because I wanted to make him aware of this crazy phenomenon.”
Rebney fails to understand why anyone would discourage Steinbauer from making his movie – “a monstrous, narrow-minded minority,” Rebney calls them – though he scoffs at the notion that he’s done anything to justify his accidental brush with fame. Asked to consider the obvious irony – that millions of wannabe Internet stars and reality-show contestants would kill for a taste of the “notoriety” he achieved without even trying – he’s at a loss for words. Only momentarily, of course.
“I cannot fathom why anyone would want that,” he says. “Good God! Are they of such a small position in the world that they need to see their face on a screen? If a girl with big tits wants to go to Hooters and wet her t-shirt, I get that on some level. But to want to advertise yourself to an international audience – why? For what? Who cares?
“I suppose it allows people to express themselves, but who needs to advertise their lives for all the world to see? Fuck the world, that’s what I say. Maybe a Hollywood star needs that – Claudette Colbert, perhaps. But I doubt even she gives a shit. [She probably doesn’t – the It Happened One Night star died in 1996.]
“People who enjoy the Winnebago video see, if not themselves, some sort of reflection. They recognize that guy, blowing his lines and incensed by the heat – they could be that person. Maybe they admire that I say what I say when I want to say it. It’s cathartic. But has it changed my life? Beyond the very warm experience of working with Ben and his crew, no. That I’ve enjoyed, and there are goddamn few people I enjoy.”
Winnebago Man is now playing at the Lumiere Theatre in San Francisco and the Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley. For tickets, click here.