Lost viral hits of the pre-YouTube era

Last updated 05:00 25/12/2013

Batkid won the Internet. The honey badger won the Internet. Charlie Sheen was #winning the Internet for a while. In 2010, a JetBlue flight attendant lost patience with a passenger for the last time, grabbed a beer from the beverage cart, opened the evacuation chute, slid out onto the tarmac, and walked off the job. He got arrested, but he won the Internet.

YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit have built a world in which bizarre, infectious, and outlandish moments from anywhere in the world can pervade mass culture within a matter of hours. The result is that we're bombarded each day with things that are "going viral," some of which are legitimately moving or side-splitting, others of which are just as well left unclicked. But it wasn't always this way. As recently as a decade ago, an outrageous video clip could fall in a forest and not make a sound, because there was no YouTube around to upload it to, no Twitter around to give it a hashtag, no Redditors around to upvote it. Some of these would-be Internet winners found their way into pop-culture infamy nonetheless, especially if they involved a major news figure: Dan Quayle misspelling potato comes to mind. But others have been unjustly consigned by time to near-obscurity, due to the misfortune of having transpired in an age when mass media still had gatekeepers.

To remedy this injustice, we asked our Slate colleagues to dredge up their favorite should-have-been viral hits-weird, wonderful things that happened in the decades prior to the founding of Facebook in 2004 and YouTube in 2005 and that risk being forgotten as a result. Read, watch, enjoy, and then send us your own suggestions in the comments. If we get enough good ones, we'll highlight them in a second roundup.

1. Rep James Traficant's House floor speeches (1985-2002)

During his 17 years in Congress, Rep James Traficant (D-Ohio) made an art form out of the one-minute floor speeches that most members typically use to honour local dignitaries or enter a soundbite into the record. Whether he was telling Nike to "take a hikey" for shipping US jobs overseas or ridiculing the Department of Agriculture for a multiyear study of cow manure, a typical Traficant address was, as the New York Times put it in 1999, a "verbal blunderbuss loaded with inanities to blast what he sees as Washington's absurdities." Punctuated with his trademark non sequitur "Beam me up," these speeches could reach sublime levels of Dadaist absurdity-as on October 5, 2000, when he took to task a recently opened Broadway hit he called Vaginal Monologues for promoting "vaginal titillation" at a time when "men are dropping like flies from prostate cancer."

Two years later, Traficant was expelled from Congress and jailed for seven years on bribery and racketeering charges. This was probably for the best in terms of American democracy, though it deprived the Internet of what would have been a guaranteed YouTube sensation. -Joshua Keating

2. Billy Squier's "Rock Me Tonite" trainwreck (1984)

And you thought "Bound 2" was bad. As that video and Rebecca Black's "Friday" reminded us, some things go viral not for being great, but for being astoundingly, mind-bogglingly-and delightfully-bad.

For I Want My MTV, Rob Tannenbaum and Craig Marks' oral history of the network, they interviewed more than 400 people. None could agree on the best music video of all time. "But when we asked about the worst music video," Tannenbaum wrote, "there was one unanimous answer: Billy Squier's 'Rock Me Tonite.' " It's important to note: Before "Rock Me Tonight," Squier looked like a megastar. His last two albums had gone platinum, and "Rock Me" was set to be his biggest hit yet. But according to rock legend, the horribly miscalculated video ruined his career. After the macho man's performance pacing floppily around his apartment and crawling passionately on his elbows-how could God allow this video to come out before GIFs?-his sales never recovered.

Perhaps the video could still go viral. "I saw it last night on YouTube, and I almost peed," Squier's former manager recalls in the book. "All I could do was call friends and say 'You must go to YouTube right now.' The response was extraordinary. 'You mean, this was on television?' I said, 'It was on television. I promise.'" -Forrest Wickman

3. Crispin Glover on Late Night With David Letterman (1987)

 

In many ways, The David Letterman Show (1980) and the early years of Late Night With David Letterman (1982­-93) were one long proto-viral video waiting to happen, crowded as they were with weirdos, metastunts, stilted interviews, kooky remote segments, and reliably bizarre staples ranging from Larry "Bud" Melman to Stupid Pet Tricks to Letterman's greatest guest, Andy Kaufman, whose infamous fight with pro wrestler Jerry Lawler cemented Late Night's status as a cult phenomenon in the summer of 1982. If we're picking more or less at random from this trove, I'd reserve a spot for Crispin Glover, whose unhinged, to-this-day-never-adequately-explained Letterman appearance-culminating in a high kick that barely missed Letterman's forehead-succeeded in deeply rattling the seen-it-all host in a way that even Kaufman never did. If the Glover catastrophe had hit 25 or so years later, it would have been comprehensively GIF'ed, Songify'ed, and BuzzFeed-listicled by morning. -Jessica Winter

4. Painfully honest New York subway ads (1989)

"Ten years ago, the subway system was the pits," begins an actual ad for New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority from 1989. "But today ...  "-actually, pretty much still the pits, the ads go on to admit. But it's getting better! Seriously! We pinkie-swear!

The MTA commissioned the ads at a time when the city's crime rate was hitting all-time highs and confidence in public transit was at a nadir. (But "only 3 per cent of the crime in the city is committed on the subway," an official assures us.)

Presumably unable to find a single New Yorker who could praise the system with a straight face, the MTA settled for people expressing vague confidence that things might be turning around. The result: Zagat-worthy endorsements like, "They are working on it. They're doing the best they can!" accompanied by B-roll of subway workers harriedly welding and hammering things. My favorite bit of faint praise: "Can you imagine if we didn't have the subways what would happen?" The New York subway, ladies and gentlemen: It's better than nothing! -Will Oremus

(Hat tip: Gothamist)

5. Lee Elia unloads on Chicago Cubs fans (1983)

On April 29, 1983, Chicago Cubs manager Lee Elia lost his mind. Upset that Cubs fans had been booing his terrible team-which, at the time, was 5-14-Elia unloaded on the Wrigley Field faithful in one of the most memorable postgame press conferences of all time. "The motherfuckers don't even work. That's why they're out at the fuckin' game," Elia seethed. (At the time, the Cubs played all their home games during the day.) "They oughta go out and get a fuckin' job and find out what it's like to go out and earn a fuckin' living. Eighty-five percent of the fuckin' world is working. The other 15 percent come out here."

Local sports reporter Les Grobstein had the presence of mind to record Elia's profane rant, which continued for more than three minutes, and an expurgated version was soon being played on local radio stations. But if Elia had exploded today, the uncensored recording would have been around the world in hours or less.
It's not just Elia's unhinged rage that would've made the tape go viral; it's the way the tape captures one of those rare Howard Beale in Network moments when a public figure abandons the standard clichés and says exactly what he thinks, consequences be damned. Sure enough, Elia was fired later that year. But his tirade ought to be in the Hall of Fame. ­-Justin Peters

6. "All Your Base Are Belong to Us" (1998-2001)

A viral video so old that it's actually a .swf Flash animation rather than a proper video, the "All Your Base Are Belong To Us" craze substantially predates YouTube. It was also remarkably slow-burning by the standards of the modern Web. Way back in 1998, an animated GIF depicting the hilariously poor English in the Sega Mega Drive version of the unremarkable game Zero Drive surfaced on the Internet. The phrase "all your base are belong to us" caught early broadband adopters' imagination, and people began creating meme images, altering photos to insert it into various scenes. When a compilation of images was edited together with a soundtrack and the original video game scene in 2001, it went viral (or proved to be "a fairly virulent meme" in the argot of the time), spreading rapidly through email, the original social network. The villain of the saga is even named "cats"-and in a sense, all our attention span are belong to his brand of content ever since.  -Matthew Yglesias

7. The expansion of the universe is accelerating (1998)

Mind-bending, awe-inspiring, mysteries-of-the-universe stories are some of the greatest hits of social media. Many of our most-shared stories at Slate come from Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy blog; readers generously pass along pieces about the Higgs boson, symmetry, and holographic universes. But the most shocking discovery in modern astrophysics came in 1998, before everybody and their great-uncle were reading blogs and Facebook. Astronomers knew the universe has been expanding since the Big Bang. They figured it would expand for some amount of time and then either slow, stop, or reverse course. Then two independent teams, using different approaches, found that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. The cosmos is blowing up faster and faster and faster (and faster!) all the time. Can you imagine the OMFG-storm on Twitter if the news were released today? Fifteen years and a Nobel Prize later, we're still awestruck. -Laura Helmuth

8. The Apatow-Brazill emails (2001)

Mark Brazill, creator of That '70s Show, was angry at Judd Apatow. The two of them exchanged a series of increasingly hostile emails, and the emails somehow wound up in every inbox in Los Angeles. Harper's published them as a "Reading" in 2002, but there's a whole generation of comedy fans who never know that someone once told Judd Apatow, "Get cancer," and that Apatow replied, "I'll wait till you get it and then steal it from you." -Dan Kois

9. The Onion's 9/11 issue (2001)

On Sepember 26, 2001, The Onion published its 9/11 issue, with front-page stories such as, "Not Knowing What Else to Do, Woman Bakes American-Flag Cake," "American Life Turns Into Bad Jerry Bruckheimer Movie," and "Hugging Up 76,000 Percent." Onion writer John Krewson later said that "it was the least funny issue we've ever done." But it was funny enough, and more important, it enabled lots of us to exhale, suggesting a way to confront the horror of 9/11 without being psychically paralyzed by it. By far the funniest story in the issue-the one I emailed to my wife and brother-was "Hijackers Surprised to Find Selves in Hell," a grotesque, vicious account of the tortures suffered by the 9/11 attackers. It begins:

JAHANNEM, OUTER DARKNESS-The hijackers who carried out the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon expressed confusion and surprise Monday to find themselves in the lowest plane of Na'ar, Islam's Hell."I was promised I would spend eternity in Paradise, being fed honeyed cakes by 67 virgins in a tree-lined garden, if only I would fly the airplane into one of the Twin Towers," said Mohammed Atta, one of the hijackers of American Airlines Flight 11, between attempts to vomit up the wasps, hornets, and live coals infesting his stomach. "But instead, I am fed the boiling feces of traitors by malicious, laughing Ifrit. Is this to be my reward for destroying the enemies of my faith?"Good times! This was so previral and presocial that when Onion folks describe the response to the issue, they talk about all the positive comments they received ... by fax. -David Plotz

10. Badger Badger Badger Mushroom (2003)

A seminal work of Internet absurdism, the "Badger" Flash animation showed several badgers dancing to electronic music, with regular interjections by a peaceful mushroom or a threatening snake. Why? Nobody cared. It's hard to say whether "Badgers" (created by Flash animator Jonti Picking, a/k/a Weebl) would have prospered in today's oversaturated market of ludicrous Internet ideas. But if it had, Vines of teenagers imitating it in public places around the country would now pervade the Web. -Chris Kirk

11. The end of ze world (2003)

Like Badger, this Flash animation managed to go viral in a world without YouTube or Facebook by sheer force of infectious ridiculousness. But, while it's no Dr Strangelove, I'm convinced "The End of the World" also resonated because it tapped into post-9/11 paranoia about pre-emptive strikes and the Bush doctrine.

It was shared by email, by instant message, by college kids running over to the adjacent dorm room, grabbing their neighbors by the arm, and saying, "You have to go on the Internet right now and type in 'www.endofworld.net.' Or wait, was it 'endofworld.com?' " It was actually a bunch of different websites-and as with much of the ephemera that rise to the top of Reddit and BuzzFeed today, no one much cared where it had originally come from or why. According to knowyourmeme.com, it was first uploaded to a site called Albino Blacksheep by a user named fluid. I would try to find out more, but I am le tired. -Will Oremu

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