The strange story of 'The World's Angriest RV Salesman'by Euan Kerr, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — A new movie explores the story of Jack Rebney, the man known on the Internet as the "angriest RV salesman in the world," and reveals his Minnesota roots.
For fans of video oddities, Rebney, also known as the Winnebago Man, is a cultural icon.
Outtakes of Rebney losing his cool during the shooting of an industrial film for Winnebago vehicles in the 1980s became an international viral phenomenon.
The story is told in "Winnebago Man," a movie premiering in Minneapolis Friday night. The film not only reveals what happened to Rebney, but also his Minnesota roots.
The Jack Rebney clips will make you howl, flinch or maybe both.
He's shown standing in or beside a brand new RV, smartly dressed in shirt slacks and tie. Things seem to be going well, until Rebney misses a line.
"I don't know what the [expletive] I am reading," Rebney says.
It's clearly hot and Rebney's frustration with the crew and himself grows.
"I wrote this stuff, why can't I remember it?" he screams.
Sometimes he's so angry and frustrated he just waves his arms around.
Then some flies arrive, and settle on the gleaming white exterior of the vehicle, ruining the shot.
"Get out of here you [expletive] jackass," he roars, flailing with his handkerchief.
These are just the parts of the clips we can mention safely. The rest include a torrent of expletives, curses, and manic grimacing. It's truly a thing of the digital age, except it was born before digital.
The story goes that the film crew shooting the movie got tired of Rebney, and gathered the foul mouthed outtakes. They wanted him canned.
It worked, but then the material took on a life of its own. People began copying the tape and passing it to friends, and this went on for years.
"He was an underground cult hero before YouTube, and YouTube elevated him to the level of viral video phenomenon," said filmmaker Ben Steinbauer.
Steinbauer was a fan. He said Rebney is more than just a figure of fun, and that Rebney manifests a sense of frustration we have all felt with ourselves.
"So it gives people a license to laugh at him and with him and also empathize deeply," he said. "We've all failed to live up to our high expectations that we set, and so people can really relate to him in that way."
But Steinbauer wondered what had happened to him. After making the industrial movie all those years ago, Rebney had just disappeared. Steinbauer worried that Rebney had gone underground to escape the attention.
"This idea of unintended notoriety or accidental celebrity was brand new, but was also affecting people in very detrimental ways," he said "And I was very taken and still am by the notion that we have these digital reputations that we are not able to shake."
The story of how Steinbauer found Rebney and what he learned makes up the bulk of "Winnebago Man," and what he discovers was surprising.
When meeting Jack Rebney in the flesh, he launches into a characteristic speech. He describes himself as angry and stubborn.
"I am very old and incalcitrant, mean spirited and vicious; all of the things that any good Minnesota boy would be," he said.
It turns out that Rebney grew up on East River Road in Minneapolis. He had a career in TV news in Chicago before turning to making those industrial films. He lives in the mountains of California now, but he wasn't hiding. He wasn't even aware of his celebrity.
A couple years ago, a friend suggested he search for himself on the internet, he wasn't bothered at what he found.
"And the only thing that ran though my mind was 'That's me. That's me. No question about it," he said.
Jack Rebney said his behavior in the clips is just how people behave on sets sometimes, letting off steam; people swear. But when Steinbauer interrupts and calls him a jazz soloist with swear words, Rebney admits his enjoyment.
"I love them. I love the language," he said.
Yet, Rebney was very suspicious of his newfound celebrity. Ben Steinbauer's worked hard to get him to come to terms with it, or more particularly the people who became obsessed with those old clips of him.
And the Jack Rebney who emerges in "Winnebago Man" is far more complex than his digital reputation would suggest.
Steinbauer will be in Minneapolis Friday night to introduce the film at the Lagoon Theater and Rebney will join in by phone. Also present will be members of the film crew who shot the infamous clips, who are also from Minneapolis.
It will be the first time the crew has reunited in two decades. In "Winnebago Man," one of them admits he feels bad about what happened, and the way the outtakes have led to Rebney's unfortunate international notoriety.
Rebney said he understands he may have been dictatorial during the shoot, but that's just the business.
"Now I don't give it any consideration other than the fact that it may have been that one or more of them have learned a lesson, and if that's the case then it's very worthwhile," Rebney said.
Jack Rebney, the Winnebago Man, still swears like a sailor, and Ben Steinbauer has formed a deep friendship with him. He's talked to Rebney on the phone every day for the last two and a half years, and now kind of considers Rebney his mentor.
- All Things Considered, 09/24/2010, 5:53 p.m.