Jack Rebney’s performance on an outtake reel edited from a 1988 Winnebago promotional video made him an underground cult figure. Twenty-million Youtube hits later, director Ben Steinbauer decided to make a film about new media through the story of tracking him down.
There’s more to Rebney than the reclusive impulse-control-challenged persona he inherited from the viral dissemination of a blurry VHS tape.
While Rebney may have mixed emotions about the “Angriest Man in the World” brand, his fans do not — to their detriment.
Jack Rebney began his broadcasting career at CBS in 1953 as a producer in both the the news and entertainment divisions.
News and entertainment programming are often indistinguishable today, but in the 50s, they were seperated by an impenetrable wall. The entertainment division made money, while news departments performed a public service, less concerned with the crass demands of commercialism.
Another side of the Winnebago Man
During his broadcast career, Jack Rebney interviewed everyone from Malcolm X and Eleanor Roosevelt to Marylyn Monroe and Jimmy Stewart.
He was one of three directors CBS deployed to the 1956 Democratic Convention in Chicago, interviewing then-Senator and vice-presidential contender John F. Kennedy.
Jack Rebney returned to San Francisco Friday accompanied by director Ben Steinbauer. Culture and Events spoke to the unlikely pair at Jack’s suite in the Mark Hopkins Hotel.
How long have you two been on the press tour?
Rebney: I don’t imagine anyone has some Irish whiskey or anything like that…
Steinbauer: Well let’s see, we…
Rebney: Let me just interrupt again, please. Besides being all the ugly things that you can see before you, and all the infirmities, I also can’t hear worth a $#*! That said, lay it on me.
Steinbauer: As I was saying, we’ve been on tour, playing the film all over the world, gosh, about 13, 14 months, everywhere from Western Europe to Australia, Amsterdam, New Zealand, Canada. Jack would not go to these. He came to the Austin premiere in 2009. What we would do is, I would call him on speakerphone, so he would have to get up at 4:00 in the morning and address the audiences.
We even got to give a presentation at the US Embassy in New Zealand, of all places. Our trip for the film festival was co-sponsored by the Embassy on the condition that we give a presentation to the Committee for Privacy and the Committee for Aging. They hadn’t seen the film and I had to give a presentation on viral videos and a little bit about the movie. I called Jack, and he gave this rousing address…
Rebney: What did I say?
Steinbauer: Well you said — and I’m laughing because this is a luncheon — dignitaries sipping white wine and having calamari…
Rebney: And I’m using my vernacular…
Steinbauer: …and Jack gets on the phone; it was actually quite remarkable, he starts challenging them, by way of saying, “Thank you” first, but “Thank you” because you have an enormous job because you are helping restore the image of the American people around the world.
Rebney: Oh my God, that’s right, I got on a real soapbox; Jesus Christ, I was really nutty that day!
Steinbauer: No, but it was rousing; people were really into it, and, this is embarrassing to admit, I started crying because I realized this was such an unusual outcome to this film that we made. Here we were halfway across the world and Jack Rebney has been given this vehicle to address ambassadors to our country.
We were on the US Embassy website, it was amazing: Obama’s energy policy; something about Halliburton – and then there’s a picture of Jack! — and you could read his lips: “(rhymes with ‘other-plucker‘).”
What was it like being on the Tonight Show Thursday with Jay Leno?
Rebney: This is a really charming individual — genuine, warm — and I admitted to him, “I have never seen you on television.” I was going to do this shtick. Ben and I were gonna walk out, the way guests do — and the microphones would be hot — and of course, what was I going to say?
Well, I’ll lay it on you what I was going to say: “Ben, this is amazing! I’ve always wanted to meet Jack Paar!”
A lot of people wouldn’t have gotten it…
Rebney: Nobody would’ve gotten it, but Leno would’ve been hysterical.
How was it prepping for the show?
Steinbauer: We were lucky. Chris Chelko, the assistant producer, was a huge fan of the Winnebago outtakes, and apparently still quotes lines from the clip and inundated the rest of the Tonight Show crew, so when we walked in the door…
Rebney: It was like old home week, everybody wanted to be a part of it.
Steinbauer: And I wasn’t prepared for the last question…
Rebney: Leno said something like, “Jack, you’ve gotta cuss me out!” What are you going to say to Jay Leno on national television?
“Listen, (rhymes with ‘other plucker’)!” Obviously, you can’t say that! My brain is going (imitates sound of AM radio static), I tried desperately to come up with some smart-ass thing, and as I remember it, I said, “Jay, your tire is flat,” and then I paused: “And I don’t understand what the (rhymes with ‘muck’) is wrong with your head.”
Steinbauer: That was the perfect thing to say to Jay Leno; he really broke up everybody in the audience. I couldn’t believe how funny it was. The great thing about Jack — that seemed scripted, like we’d worked on it for a week. Neither of us knew what had happened and we get in the car — I had to rush him to the airport to catch his flight — and I turned to him and I went, “Oh my god, that was amazing, I can’t believe you said that!”
I’m sort of saying this jokingly, but the more I’ve been around Jack and have come to understand him — this is an absolute truism, which is that he is like the Ornette Colman or Charlie Parker of swear words. His dexterity with language is phenomenal. I never know what he’s going to say, but I know it’s going to be entertaining and interesting, and I’ve come to understand it’s because he doesn’t know what he’s going to say.
Jack, how do you view commercial media today?
Rebney: I’ve always been greatly taken with what I see to be the media’s despicable inability to be able to bring the people of this country the reality of whatever administration may be in power at that time — actually what they’re doing, actually how it’s happening — the commonality of thought simply never gets that.
And we don’t get it today, notwithstanding this change in administration, we still don’t get it. We are captured by this militaristic, imperialist bureaucracy that we’ve created and which is going to kill us.
And sometimes, I get a little hot about that.
During this period of your renewed notoriety, has anyone advised you to avoid talking about politics?
Rebney: That’s the story of my life! I was constantly, endlessly told, “Why don’t you attend to tits-and-ass? That’s what the business is about.”
From my perspective, CBS lost everything when Bill Paley sold his stock, dismembered the news department. That was the end of Edward R. Murrow; that was the end of Eric Sevareid; the end of Bill Shadel. One of the great men of that era just died a few days ago — Daniel Schorr.
Those people were legitimate journalists.
It was one of the reasons I packed-up and left; I talked with Eric Sevareid; he and I had similar backgrounds and similar interests and what have you. I said, “What’s gonna happen?” and he laughed and said, “I know what you want to do, you want to be where there are mountains and oceans. And I said, “Yes,” and he said, “Well then get the hell out of here!”
* * * * * * * * * * *
The end of consent and the non-expectation of privacy
Director Ben Steinbauer teaches filmmaking at the University of Texas in Austin. He tells his students that we now live in a world where enforcing laws that protect consent may no longer be possible. Anything and everything you do is DVR and cell-phone recordable. Uploaded Youtube videos spread like bacteria, only faster.
Winnebago Man (2009) is in limited release throughout the summer. See times and locations here.
If you somehow missed the source material, click on the Youtube below to see all 7 minutes and 28 seconds of a man having a very bad day at the office, seemingly in the throes of a severe episode of Tourette’s syndrome. Steinbauer’s film includes the actual finished Winnebago commercial. Rarely seen since 1988, it’s completely professional and ready for prime-time. What follows is not.
Marshall Curry talks about terrorism, climate change and Occupy Wall Street
A tale of tobacco: ‘Addiction Incorporated’ suggests regulation not all bad
Robert Duvall talks about pizza, the making of Get Low, and what’s next (slideshow)
Sixties criminal attorney William Kunstler through daughters’ eyes in new DVD
Add ‘Chicago 119’ to ‘Carlin 7’ list of forbidden words (video)